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Truckers find dangerous route in Grayson

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A petition asks VDOT to improve signs warning truck drivers not to take the sharply curved road.

By Patrick Smith

GPS routing has led many tractor-trailer drivers into tight situations and caused numerous accidents on Grayson County’s winding secondary roads, and that number always rises during the holiday season with a drastic increase in Christmas tree delivery traffic.
Comers Rock Road (Route 658) in particular sees some of the most truck accidents this time of year, and two of its residents have started a petition to raise awareness about the problem.

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Clyde Barber and John Delp said after multiple truck accidents had already occurred on Comers Rock Road this holiday season, they began considering what could be done to improve safety on their road, which is filled with sharp, blind curves and has little space for larger vehicles to turn around.
Barber and Delp said their concern for the safety of children on buses and for other residents of the area sharing the road with tractor-trailers are the main factors in their decision to start the petition, which calls for better warning to be given to truck drivers about the road’s conditions to discourage or even prevent them from attempting to navigate the snake-like path.
Barber and Delp said the best solution to the problem would be to straighten the road’s most dangerous curves, but realized a project of that scale would likely be too expensive for the Virginia Department of Transportation to undertake at this time.
The simplest fix, said Barber, would be to improve the warning signage. He said the advisory signs on U.S. 21 and on Route 658 warning trucks of GPS routing onto the road are not visible enough, and suggested installing lighting to the signs.
“The signs on [Highway] 21 don’t stand out enough, and it’s been a problem for a long time,” explained Barber. “We want something done before someone gets killed or a busload of kids gets hurt in an accident.”
For his part, Delp said he had personally flagged down several long tractor-trailers before they reached the most dangerously curvy parts of the road. “I try to get in front of them and make them have to stop,” he said. “I tell them ‘you cannot make these turns,’ and if they don’t turn around then I tell them I’m going to go ahead and call a wrecker.”
Barber said that when a tractor-trailer gets stuck in the curves, it can block the road for up to four hours until a wrecker arrives and clears the scene. He also pointed out that due to the lack of cell reception in the area, it’s often difficult for truck drivers to call for assistance.
Barber and Delp said they had already contacted Virginia State Police and Elk Creek District Supervisor Brenda Sutherland about the issue. “It’s a citizen’s responsibility to identify a problem, and it’s the authorities’ job to fix it,” Barber said.
Barber and Delp’s concerns came just after VDOT’s annual district meeting, held in Bristol on Nov. 19. Sutherland said she attended and spoke at the meeting both on behalf of the Grayson County Board of Supervisors, and as a concerned citizen. “If you want anything done, you need to make it known,” she said.
To that end, Sutherland said she obtained forms at the meeting on which citizens can make comments to be considered on VDOT’s upcoming six-year road plan. She said she planned to leave the forms at the Grayson County Courthouse for citizens to pick up.
Jeff Russell, VDOT Wytheville Residency Administrator, said he was aware of the many recent incidents involving tractor-trailers in Grayson, and acknowledged that the number of truck-related accidents always increases during the holidays with Christmas tree traffic.
Russell noted that the majority of accidents involving tractor-trailers on secondary routes are single-vehicle involving only the tractor trailers. He said many roads near the Whitetop community, where there have been at least two reported tractor-trailer accidents that have blocked roads just in the last two weeks, also generate concern.
“The majority of the concerns we receive involve routes 658, 601 and 58 across Whitetop,” he said. “We have installed signage along these routes, as well as at their intersections with primary routes warning that the roads are not recommended for heavy truck traffic and advising against using GPS routing. The signage has helped, but not completely eliminated truck traffic on the secondary roads.”
Russell explained that, because secondary roads in Grayson are public roads with some locations not accessible using alternate routes, VDOT cannot prohibit truck traffic from using them, therefore the warning signs are used instead of placing restrictions on longer vehicles.
However, Russell assured that VDOT is working on other solutions to the problem. “Our department has been in contact with GPS manufacturers, as well as other companies that supply map data, in attempts to eliminate trucks from being routed onto the roads not recommended for truck traffic,” he said.
Other than filling out the forms Sutherland brought to the courthouse, Russell said any citizen with additional comments should plan to attend the Grayson County Six-Year Plan meeting, usually held as a public hearing in the spring. The hearing date for 2014 has yet to be announced.

Anyone wanting to sign Barber and Delp’s petition for better signage on Route 658 can contact Delp at (276) 655-4164.