Video by CHRIS ZALUSKI | THE ROANOKE TIMES
All it takes is one "I-81 moment," one incident or close call, and the mountain-scaling highway that snakes through Western Virginia never feels safe again.
Drivers will tell you they grow anxious climbing and descending the narrow lanes.
They especially fear the big rigs that make up the lion's share of trucks, which account for more than 23 percent of the road's traffic. That's a higher percentage than any other major road in the state.
"The perception of danger is there, no question about that," said Ray Pethtel, an analyst at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and a former commissioner of the state's Department of Transportation.
But statistics tell another story: You can't beat Interstate 81 for getting around Western Virginia.
It's among the safest roads in the state, even as tens of thousands of people and more than 100,000 tons of freight move about the region on it each day.
It is accommodating ever-growing traffic and, a recent decade of data confirms, performing in line with a national trend of decreasing highway death rates that began in 1967.
For now, it is an unparalleled public asset. These may be some of its best years.
- Photo gallery: Browse images from the road
But the future looks less promising.
Significant growth in freight and passenger traffic is predicted during the next 25 years -- with the number of trucks expected to double to near 20,000 a day. That means the highway will require big-ticket investments before 2035, or face extreme congestion.
But there's no money -- or even a plan -- for widening all 325 miles in Virginia.
In fact, the state's I-81 improvement office, which was set up in 2003 to oversee a hoped-for widening that never got out of the study phase, was closed last year.
Families, survivors, rescuers endure toll of crashes
Kathy Chesney's family knows all too well about the dangers of driving I-81.
In 2004, a truck driver struck and killed Chesney's son, his wife and their two children in a multivehicle wreck on I-81 in eastern Tennessee, just south of the Virginia border.
Three years later, on a trip to visit her family in Tennessee, Chesney, 54, wrecked her car on an icy I-81 bridge in Pulaski County and died.
All five rest in the same cemetery row in Waynesboro, their hometown.
Chesney's sister, Anita Limbaugh of Strawberry Plains, Tenn., said knowledge of the crashes knots her nerves when she travels I-81 to see relatives in the Shenandoah Valley.
"It's certainly the most dangerous interstate in the world to our family," she said.
Kathy Chesney, of Waynesboro lost it all on Interstate 81. In 2004, a truck driver struck and killed her son, his wife and their two children in a multivehicle wreck on I-81 in eastern Tennessee, just south of the Virginia border. Three years later, Chesney died in a wreck on I-81 in Pulaski County. All five rest in the same Waynesboro cemetery. At the gravesite are Kippy O’Brien (from left), Kathy’s niece, Patricia Uzcategui, Kathy’s sister, and Joy Bracken, Kathy’s niece. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES
Photo gallery: Browse images from the road
Chesney's family marks the interstate embankment near where she died with a white, state-approved sign and daffodils taken from in front of the hair salon Chesney had owned in Waynesboro.
Joy Bracken, Chesney's niece, recently renewed the family's sign permit for two years, "just so that people do realize there are accidents and people do get killed on the interstate."
An average of 25 people are killed and 1,100 are injured each year on I-81.
The likelihood of being in a crash on the road, when accounting for miles traveled, is slightly less than Interstates 77 and 85, and significantly less than Interstates 64 and 95, according to VDOT.
But when a wreck happens on the interstate, "it's going to be a high-energy collision," said Dr. Allan Philp of Carilion Clinic's trauma department.
More than 1 percent of all I-81 crashes involve a death -- either driver, passenger or pedestrian. That's 70 percent higher than the rate for all Virginia interstates, according to a Roanoke Times analysis of 11 years of crash data. By comparison, the likelihood of a wreck killing someone is 0.58 percent on all Virginia roads.
What alarms officials is the high number of I-81 fatalities resulting from wrecks involving a truck. In 2008, 13 people died in such wrecks. From 2004-08, 52 of 120 deaths arose from a truck-involved wreck. Officials are not saying a truck caused the wreck, just that a truck was involved.
On I-95, eight people died in truck-involved wrecks in 2008. In the five years ending in 2008, 56 of 171 deaths arose from such wrecks.
No other interstate had more than four deaths from truck-involved wrecks in 2008 or more than 22 deaths from such wrecks in the five-year span.
Countless members of the Buchanan Volunteer Fire Department, which gets 80 percent of its calls from I-81, have heard the screams and seen the faces of the dying.
Some wrecks have no easily preventable cause -- such as the time a brake drum flew off a moving truck and smashed through a trailing vehicle's windshield. The driver lived, said John Crouch, the department's deputy chief.
But too many crashes result from "just stupidity," said Chief Billy Jo Carter, citing the failure of some motorists to slow down in slick weather or simply pay attention.
There has been no deadlier crash on I-81 since July 4, 1998, when a car hydroplaned in a downpour on I-81 near Buchanan, crossed the median and collided with an oncoming tanker truck, killing all six people in the car and the truck driver.
Police said the driver of the car likely lost control because of hydroplaning, which occurs when the speed becomes so high that the tires ride on the water and not the pavement.
Driver inattention and speeding are the most frequent factors behind traffic wrecks and mishaps. According to VDOT's crash data, the percentage of wrecks that police attributed to inattention has grown from 45 percent in 1998 to 64 percent in 2007.
Nancy Close and her husband, Kenneth, think that's what led to the 2008 incident that heightened their I-81 concerns.
They were headed from their Christiansburg home to Richmond in heavy Fourth of July weekend traffic. As Kenneth pulled from the right lane to the left lane and began to pass a tractor-trailer, the truck swung into the left lane, too.
"I just screamed at my husband, 'He is going to hit us,' " Nancy recalled.
The two northbound vehicles touched near Buchanan, and the big rig, which was going slightly faster, scraped the couple's car.
"I could feel the paint just grating off our doors, but my husband kept the wheel straight," Nancy said. "I was just holding onto the door handle thinking 'Oh boy, this is it. It's over.' "
Kenneth crossed the left shoulder and stopped in the median, looking out the windshield as the trucker motored on. The truck driver apparently never saw them or felt the brush with their car.
It was, regrettably, a routine matter for the officer who met them. The officer "just kind of acted like this kind of stuff happens every day," Nancy said.
The ordeal deeply disturbed Nancy. Trips on I-81 to see family in Richmond are now virtually unbearable.
"I just hang on by my toenails the whole way. By the time I get to Richmond I'm just a wreck," she said. "I still have a lot of fear on that road."
Trucks dominate traffic, hills dominate terrain
Fear of trucks is common among I-81 drivers. They're tough to miss.
Running from Tennessee to Canada, I-81 is ideal for delivery of goods to the northeastern megalopolis -- home to eight of the 10 most densely populated states in the country.
Between Washington, D.C., and Boston is an immense concentration of people consuming goods delivered by truck.
I-81 posted the fourth-densest freight-carrying truck traffic of all the nation's interstates in 2002. Nearly a quarter of the vehicles traveling the road in Virginia are trucks.
A truck passes in the rear view mirror of a car near mile marker 200. Trucks make up more than 23 percent of I-81’s traffic. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES
Photo gallery: Browse images from the road
Crossing the northern end of the Roanoke Valley and midsection of the New River Valley, I-81 offers truckers several advantages. If originating in the South, a trucker finds I-81 a way around routinely congested I-95 in the Washington area. If originating in the Southwest, a trucker uses I-81 to connect to roads leading into New Jersey, New York and New England.
Gary Kingery, who manages the weigh station at Troutville run by the Department of Motor Vehicles, said he notices that northbound heavy truck traffic increases Sundays about 1 p.m., the start of the trucker workweek for those based in the southern Mid-Atlantic region.
Volume peaks about Wednesday and eases a tad on Thursday, which is followed by the two lightest days of the week -- Friday and Saturday, Kingery said. Southbound is a different story, with volume noticeably rising when Northern-based truckers reach Southwest Virginia on late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Claude Armstead had his I-81 moment in Pulaski County in 2008. The big-rig truck driver from Batesville, Miss., was on northbound I-81 when he coughed hard on cigarette smoke and passed out.
His truck veered onto the shoulder, bounced off a vertical embankment, flattened the guardrail and draped itself over the railing of the New River Bridge.
When Armstead awoke, he was inside the crumpled cab of his truck, which was dangling off the bridge.
"Baby, I'm sorry," he told his wife in a phone call from 85 feet above the riverbank. "I'm scared, and, will you forgive me for all my wrongdoings?"
During the next 90 minutes, rescuers secured the truck with a hook and brought Armstead down with a harness. So shaken was the 54-year-old, he quit a 19-year truck driving career.
It was his final run up I-81, his last of a hundred or more.
"I figure just keep my feet on the ground and enjoy my grandkids," said Armstead, who now operates a lawn service.
A 30-second time exposure shows headlights (left) and taillights (right) on Interstate 81 near Ironto. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES
Photo gallery: Browse images from the road
Were the interstate flat, that would be one thing. But I-81 crosses five drainage basins in Virginia, which requires driving uphill and downhill. Christiansburg is 1,160 feet higher than Roanoke. On the way down, a distance of 25 miles, a motorist going 70 mph descends an average of 55 feet, or the height of a five-story building, a minute.
Especially challenging for trucks, which weigh up to 40 tons, are the long climbs. In a study published in 2005, engineers found 10 grades so steep that they cause loaded trucks to slow to as little as 35 mph while smaller vehicles continue at interstate speeds.
Most of the interstate is 40 or more years old and parts fall short of current interstate standards.
In addition to steep grades, bad angles abound. Engineers who conducted the 2005 study found 100 locations where visual obstructions prevent motorists from seeing a sufficient distance ahead.
There was also evidence that shoulders are so narrow in places, there is insufficient space to park safely if a motorist blows a tire or runs out of gas.
In 2008, a concrete object protruding out 6 feet from the truck carrying it struck a car parked on the shoulder of I-81 in Augusta County, killing a 5-year-old boy and his grandfather and injuring a woman who were inside the car. The victims had stopped to help a disabled motorist.
Also in 2008, a tractor-trailer struck a state police cruiser parked on the shoulder of I-81 in Botetourt County with a trooper inside writing a traffic ticket. The trooper was injured, but released from the hospital the same day. The truck driver kept going.
Fred Altizer, former VDOT Salem District administrator, refuses to stop on the shoulder of I-81, unless the location is one of the few widened places.
"That's how I feel about it. You just don't know when somebody's going to hit you on the back," he said.
Despite perception, I-81 among the state's safest roads
On a wintry February morning, Vicki Akers commuted 31 miles in a little more than half an hour, taking I-81 from near her Salem home to near Radford.
"Why are people terrified of 81?" asked Akers while en route. "I have only compliments."
Akers and car pool buddies Greg Sharp of Mason Cove and Pat Ryan of Roanoke said they routinely reach work on time because delays are rare.
In fact, on this day, I-81 was open and dry in spite of a 10-inch snow three days earlier that continued to keep schools closed.
Akers' Mazda 626 cruised at an average speed of 55 mph -- under the speed limit but a safe speed given the circumstances and possibility of ice patches -- and the three commuters rolled toward Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Montgomery County, where they work.
An overturned car is attached to a tow truck as state police look on near mile marker 144. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES
Photo gallery: Browse images from the road
I-81 does indeed have a better safety record than other major roads, including I-95 and I-64.
Mike Fontaine, a senior research scientist at the Virginia Transportation Research Council, ran the numbers for the 325 miles of Virginia's stretch of I-81.
There were a quarter fewer crashes that killed or injured on I-81 than on I-64 and nearly one-third fewer such crashes on I-81 than on I-95 in 2007, he said.
Fontaine added that I-81's capacity is not being exceeded in "most sections."
In other words, it isn't overtaxed, yet.
Highway deaths are falling across the nation, at least in part because of improved vehicle safety. Wrecks within Virginia killed 756 people last year, 8 percent fewer than in 2008 and the lowest number of deaths in more than 35 years.
Data from VDOT confirm the relative safety of driving on I-81:
- Crashes: Between 2000 and 2008, I-81 posted a crash rate of 44 crashes per 100 million miles driven, second-lowest of all 16 Virginia interstates, interstate spurs and bypasses.
- Injuries: I-81 ranked second from the bottom on crashes with injury, with a rate of 23 per 100 million miles driven.
- Deaths: I-81 posted a death rate -- of the driver, a passenger or a pedestrian -- of 0.51 per 100 million miles driven, tying for eighth place with I-95, VDOT said.
For reference, the statewide road-death rate, which includes all roads, was about twice as high at one death per 100 million miles driven in 2008. The comparable national road-death rate was 1.25.
Only small improvements planned for future
Many people want more safety and believe preventable deaths continue to inflict needless suffering.
In Virginia, there have been many calls for state leaders to widen I-81 to three lanes in each direction, but the state lacks the money to pay for it.
In lieu of widening the road end to end, VDOT has installed numerous spot improvements, the rest stops have been reopened and spot-widening projects will place truck-climbing lanes in two locations.
A seven-mile, northbound climbing lane is under construction in Rockbridge County. A southbound climbing lane will be built from milepost 125 to milepost 120 near Christiansburg, with construction scheduled to start this year. To pay a portion of the cost of the lanes, Virginia planned to sell bonds this month.
Crews have grooved the shoulder with rumble strips, raised the guardrails, mounted rock fencing, installed signs that break off when struck, hung traffic cameras, put up lighted message boards, established a radio advisory system, lengthened ramps at interchanges, reconstructed the Exit 118 interchange in Christiansburg and widened I-81 at Buffalo Creek in Rockbridge County.
Enforcement has been tried, too.
The 2003 General Assembly called for a safety strategy that generally doubled traffic fines between mile marker 127, near the community of Ironto in Montgomery County, and mile marker 142, near Salem -- designated a Highway Safety Corridor in 2004 to try to reverse an elevated crash rate.
The state marked the corridor with signs, promoted safety awareness in a public campaign and enhanced guardrails with more heft. The corridor designation left the speed limit unchanged, though six miles in Roanoke County are part of a nearly 15-mile stretch dropped to 60 mph in 2000 as a safety measure.
During the four years following the corridor effort, the corridor saw 11.5 percent fewer wrecks than would have been expected to occur without the corridor effort, according to a VDOT study.
However, serious wrecks -- classified as those that kill or injure people -- were unchecked, the study found.
Results of the corridor effort were "encouraging," said Stephen Read, VDOT's highway safety improvement programs manager.
There is more work to do.
"Changing driver behavior remains paramount to reducing unnecessary death and injuries," Read said.
Despite its shortcomings, the interstate's importance cannot be overlooked, experts say.
Without I-81, Roanoke "would be an isolated river valley in the midst of a rapidly growing economy," said David Hartgen, an emeritus professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation, a public policy think tank.
"Can you say, 'West Virginia'? In some ways it would probably be like that, economically speaking."
Staff writer Matt Chittum and news librarian Belinda Harris contributed to this report.