Who has the best lights in town? Vote now for your favorite in our holiday lights contest.
Officials have known for years of the hazards that exist when fog limits visibility, and they have spent millions on safety. Sunday's pileup was one of the worst ever on the mountain.
Courtesy of Ramesh Sangheni
Hotel owner Ramesh Sangheni was involved in Sunday’s multi-car pileup on Interstate 77 and took this photo of a wrecked tractor-trailer at about 1:30 p.m.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
On the good days, the view from Interstate 77 on Fancy Gap Mountain offers sweeping vistas of the countryside below.
On the bad days — Sunday was one of them — fog reduces visibility from miles to feet, transforming a scenic drive into a potential traffic nightmare.
Highway officials have known for years of the hazards that exist on a stretch of I-77 in Carroll County where the mountains of Virginia give way to the flat land of North Carolina.
The Virginia Department of Transportation has spent about $5 million just in the past two years on higher-visibility signs, better highway markings and other measures intended to improve safety on a 12-mile stretch of interstate known for its chain-reaction pileups.
Yet dangers remain, as became clear on Sunday after three people died and dozens were injured in one of the worst incidents to date.
Some critics say transportation officials should be working faster on more substantive projects, such as a system that would reduce speed limits during times of dense fog.
“Something like that is long overdue, and I’m a little bothered by the fact that VDOT has not moved forward on this,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, whose district includes part of Carroll County. “We can’t control the weather, but we can control the traffic.”
The idea of variable speed limits for I-77 based on weather conditions has been on the books since at least 2002, when it was recommended by an expert panel convened by VDOT to study fog-related crashes on Fancy Gap and Afton mountains, two of the state’s most notorious spots for poor visibility.
The project has moved slowly in part because funding has not been available, VDOT officials said. The agency is also making sure that it properly designs the system, which would include weather monitoring stations that transmit data to digital speed limit signs.
In the meantime, VDOT plans to install fiber-optic lines and other infrastructure for the system.
“We’re taking small bites to try to build these things as we have the funding available,” said Tim Martin, regional traffic operations manager at the agency’s Salem office.
In the past two years, VDOT has made a number of other improvements to I-77 near Fancy Gap. Among them: installing rumble strips to alert motorists when they veer off the road, erecting orange directional signs to better identify curves in the road, marking the interstate shoulders with reflective strips, and placing the dashes in the centerline at closer intervals.
“We’re definitely not going to rule out anything that we think is going to make the road safer,” Martin said.
It’s too early to say when the variable speed limit system might be in place, he said.
“We’re going to do what it takes, but we’re going to do it in incremental and deliberate steps that will lead to a project that will be manageable in the future.”
On Afton Mountain, which has also seen its share of chain-reaction pileups, fog lights embedded in the pavement of Interstate 64 help motorists stay on the road.
The light system was first installed in the 1970s and has been upgraded several times.
No such system exists on Fancy Gap Mountain because there are no nearby power lines to tap into, according to VDOT spokesman Jason Bond.
The state has enlisted the help of researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to find better ways to address the problem on I-77.
“Fog is by far the worst driving condition, because it’s such a pervasive limiter of visibility,” said Ronald Gibbons, director of the institute’s Center for Infrastructure Based Safety Systems.
By simulating foggy conditions on the institute’s so-called Smart Road, researchers have been testing the effectiveness of signs and other equipment to be used on future I-77 improvements. A big part of the challenge, VDOT officials said, is capturing the attention of the many out-of-state drivers who use the interstate with no inkling of the dangers they might be approaching.
Fog on the mountain is part of the local folklore, and most people who live in the area are aware of the dangers, said Del. Anne Crockett-Stark, R-Wytheville, whose district includes Carroll County.
For all the laws that can be passed, she said, the personal responsibility of motorists must also change.
According to VDOT, flashing digital signs were activated at 5:45 a.m. Sunday, alerting drivers on I-77 to foggy conditions ahead. The first wreck in the southbound lanes happened about 1:15 p.m.
“We had people driving 75 and 80 mph down that mountain, when the signs were there,” Crockett-Stark said. “When you don’t pay attention to the road signs, I don’t know how you stop people from being people.”
Weather JournalEnd of the blog as we know it?