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I-77 safety an ongoing effort

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On Interstate 77 in Carroll County, high winds can flip over a tractor trailer and dense fog can reduce visibility to zero.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

SALEM — The foggy and windy stretch of Interstate 77 in Carroll County requires vigilance — not only from speeding drivers, but from the state and local officials that oversee its safety.
Virginia Department of Transportation officials have taken a long, hard look at the accident-prone highway and put into place numerous safety improvements over the years, starting with a weather station in the mid-1990s.

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As severe and sometimes fatal pileups continue to occur during poor weather conditions on Interstate 77, VDOT is not standing still.
Increased communications with motorists, variable speed limits and even closing down the interstate have cropped up in the safety discussions over the years, said Tim Martin at the Traffic Management Center in Salem. But each idea presents degrees of technical and logistical challenges to implement.
Safety discussions ramped up again between VDOT, Virginia State Police and Carroll emergency officials after the latest pile-up in fog killed two, injured 16 and caused an untold amount of property damage in the twisted wreckage of about 75 commercial and passenger vehicles.
But safety is not an issue that’s ever really gone away, as VDOT has focused on keeping the interstate maintained and expanding the safety measures in place.
Heidi Underwood, the VDOT spokesperson based in Salem, supplied The Gazette with a long list of improvements the department has applied to Interstate 77, stretching from the North Carolina state line through Carroll and into Wythe County.
From the initial weather station positioned near the 3 mile marker, VDOT upgraded to 13 detection stations by 2001, according to the operational summary. Three electronic message boards went up on Interstate 77 and four on Interstate 81 to post warnings of traffic hazards.
Further improvements came in 2009, when VDOT replaced all its detection stations due to age and difficulties in getting parts and updated the communications software.
Now, the system includes 15 visibility sensors and eight weather stations with in-pavement sensors stretching from the 1 to past the 32 mile markers, as well as 18 cameras that supply images to the Traffic Management Center in Salem every five minutes.
For the road itself, VDOT has added rumble strips to the shoulders, installed 200 reflectors and repaved much of the surface, according to the summary.
VDOT had applied for a $10 million grant for a new fog detection and warning system. Though the department did not get the grant, it plans to seek other funding sources to install additional cameras, fiber optic cables, more message boards and sensors.
The current philosophy towards 77 is to keep it open, Underwood explained. The department’s objective is to keep the road as well-maintained as possible and give motorists as much warning as it can to allow them to make good travel decisions, even faced with the dense fog that clouds visibility and strong winds that can knock tractor-trailers on their sides.
“There isn’t one improvement that we could make that would completely fix the situation, so what we’re trying is to make the road as safe as possible by incremental improvements,” she explained, referring to the operational summary list. “We can make the road as safe as it can be, but bottom line is we can’t control the weather.”
That raises that question: how do you decide to close the interstate when weather conditions are bad? The short answer: with difficulty.
VDOT cooperates with the Virginia State Police to shut down the interstate now, but only when it becomes physically impassible, such as getting blocked by a chain reaction accident or covered with a rockslide, Underwood said.
But to close down the interstate as a response to fog, as a way to prevent these kinds of  pileups, requires a lot of pre-planning, Martin said.
Take, for example, that Carroll County is on the state line — any closure in Virginia will affect traffic in North Carolina and require the cooperation of the department of transportation there, too.
A detour for traffic headed north and west on 77 in North Carolina would have to start at Statesville and send drivers first onto Interstate 40 and then U.S. 220 to I-81, for example.
“That’s a pretty big detour,” Martin said. “That’s the kind of things we’ve got to start considering if we’re going to close down the interstate.”
U.S. 52 is not really an appropriate detour for tractor-trailer traffic headed south, either.
There are other possibilities under consideration, like variable speed limits for lower levels of visibility, while keeping traffic on 77, he said. The speed limit would be lowered to safer levels based on the thickness of the fog.
Making images supplied by the cameras on 77 available to drivers — perhaps over smart phones — might also work to slow drivers down or let them find alternative routes if they want to avoid the fog.
It will take new technology to make that happen, Martin said. “It is something we want to be able to do, but it is one of those incremental steps.”
He studies what other states and other countries do to address traveling concerns presented by fog.
The November pileup occurred one day after a meeting that laid out new pavement marking efforts for the problematic interstate area, Martin noted. “That’s a stretch of road we need to continually look at to make it safe for travelers.”