As the widening of a 5-mile Roanoke Valley stretch of Interstate 81 slowly proceeds, traffic accident deaths continue to mount. In recent weeks, three more Virginia residents died on this roadway in two separate crashes with tractor-trailers. News reports described the accidents as tractor-trailers striking the victims’ vehicles. In both collisions, the truck operators face charges in the tragic deaths of Kandy Poarch, Gary L. King and Janet W. Ridenhour.
These incidents do not come as a surprise for commuters and travelers who regularly use this road corridor. Rare are the truck operators who drive at the mandated 60-65 mph speed limit and consistently maintain their vehicles in one lane. Car drivers have grown all too familiar with the rearview mirror threat of 35-ton trucks barreling 6 feet or less from their bumpers and then passing at 75-plus miles per hour.
Always in a rush to maintain on-time delivery, public safety is obviously regarded as a meddling concern by the drivers, and seemingly by law enforcement officials also. This painful loss of three community members must never be deemed as collateral damage solely for the sake of expedited delivery.
It is way past time to acknowledge that lethal tractor-trailer accidents will continue to occur without intensified traffic enforcement (i.e., the increased ticketing of speeders and reckless drivers). Almost $300 million taxpayer dollars spent on one additional travel lane in each direction only provides an illusion of increased safety. To truly reduce the rate and frequency of fatal crashes along I-81, deliberate road safety interventions must occur immediately.
As provided in my July 2019 article, “I-81 Demolition Derby,” here is a more recent list of 2020-21 tractor-trailer-related accidents as reported on local media that caused injury and considerable I-81 backups:
Sept. 14, 28
Oct. 20, 23, 24, 29
Nov. 3, 8, 11, 12, 20
Jan. 20, Feb. 7 (fatalities reported in both crashes)
Feb. 9, 12, 13
Following the original Virginia Department of Transportation request for public input on I-81 improvements, over 70% of respondents recommended increased traffic enforcement as a priority. The I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan — developed by three different state agencies, including VDOT — specifically called for the formation of a Speed Enforcement Task Force to “develop strategies for implementation.”
An I-81 Advisory Committee was established to assist the Commonwealth Transportation Board in the implementation of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan. This advisory committee has taken no visible action to promote increased traffic enforcement despite the clear direction in the I-81 Plan to form the Speed Enforcement Task Force. The October 2019 meeting minutes of the advisory board indicate a cursory discussion on safety and enforcement with “consensus that this remains an issue that needs to be addressed.” However, no discernible action on the part of board members has taken place since. Instead of focusing on distributing taxpayer money to roadbuilders, the reckless driving of tractor-trailers must be targeted and curtailed.
From the Roanoke/New River Valley regions, State Senator John Edwards and Delegates Sam Rasoul and Chris Hurst serve on the I-81 Advisory Board. The recurring accidents and deaths on I-81 should prompt their immediate action on behalf of constituents.
Recent transportation measures in the state legislature bode well for further expansion of the Amtrak route into the New River Valley. Such passenger rail access will provide a viable, efficient and safer I-81 alternative for the region. However, the more pressing rail solution of moving I-81-bound tractor-trailers onto rail cars appears to be limping along without any concrete action in sight. Shipping coal by rail has been the predominant use of Southwest Virginia train tracks. Now, the steady decline of coal offers real opportunity to substitute other types of freight and decrease the number of tractor-trailers on the road. Shipping products by rail is four times more efficient and exponentially safer.
The Virginia Inland Rail Port in Front Royal has already attracted distribution centers from companies like Home Depot, Red Bull, Rubbermaid, Family Dollar, Lenox and Mercury Paper. However, with regard to our section of I-81, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation appears stuck in “study mode.” We need the DRPT to take firm steps to collaborate with Norfolk Southern and expand north-south freight service in the I-81 corridor.
We have grown increasingly weary and frustrated at the sight of roadside memorials, crosses and withering bouquets. Real lives and families have been destroyed by this list of crashes on I-81 while thousands of other drivers sit (safely for now) in idle vehicles for hours at a time. VDOT likes to frame its I-81 updates in terms of “milestones.” However, without direct action by our state representatives to decisively decrease I-81 tractor-trailer activity and accidents, only wretched milestones like these three tragic deaths will continue to accrue.
Langrehr lives in Roanoke, works in Radford, and would prefer to not die on I-81.