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When it comes to vehicle accidents in Carroll County, Interstate 77 steals the thunder with its many severe, weather-related crashes.
That’s understandable due to the sheer numbers of people and property that can be involved in the pile-ups during harsh weather conditions that veil in fog the interstate’s transition from the Blue Ridge Plateau to the Piedmont.
But that doesn’t tell the whole roadway safety story in Carroll County.
Take, for example, the fact that a few more wrecks actually occurred on U.S. 58 in Carroll during 2010 than on I-77, according to data from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
U.S. 58 continues to be in a state of flux, albeit a slow one.
The road already is at four lanes from Galax to Hillsville, and later this year Branch Highways will complete a bypass to allow traffic to flow on a five-mile stretch of limited access road beyond the east side of town.
But after that, 58 in Carroll still has miles of curvy and sometimes steep dual lanes to the Floyd County line.
Virginia Department of Transportation and state officials are working to change that, with Gov. Bob McDonnell including a section from Laurel Fork into Floyd County as the next 58 priority.
Transportation officials have started the process to qualify for federal funds for 58 corridor improvements.
Considering the importance of the state highway to the movement of people and economic development as a connector from the coalfields to the coast, even transportation officials believe that 58 is “substandard.”
“This 15.35-mile stretch of road contains many sharp curves and steep hills that do not meet current design standards,” the application for federal funds stated.
Much of the road has only 10- or 11-foot-wide lanes and no shoulders. The application said sight distance from intersections is inadequate and steep hills hinder tractor-trailer traffic.
“The lack of truck climbing lanes or passing lanes through these areas causes travel delays and safety concerns,” it said. “These deficiencies have resulted in posted speed limits ranging from 25 to 50 mph throughout the corridor.”
VDOT describes improving this section of 58 as a key to creating a four-lane corridor from Virginia Beach to Interstate 77. The road also provides an important route for local traffic.
The DMV data, broken down by Virginia State Police First Sgt. Mike Musser, report that 84 accidents occurred on 58 in Carroll in 2010. Compare that to the 81 wrecks on the 24 miles of Interstate 77.
And U.S. 52 wasn’t that far behind, with a total of 61 accidents for the year.
Total incidents in the whole county were 612 for 2010. Nine fatalities and 368 injuries resulted from those wrecks.
The state figures attributed 40 of those, two fatalities and 34 injuries to alcohol-related incidents.
Less Traffic, More Accidents
Even at its busiest place in the Twin Counties — right in the middle of Galax from Meadows Street to Hanes Road — U.S. 58 has about half the traffic of Interstate 77, confirmed Lisa Hughes, Virginia Department of Transportation resident engineer. From 20,000 vehicles per day in the city, that falls by 5,000 at Hillsville, according to 2008 numbers.
Near the Floyd County line, the daily traffic averages at around 2,800 vehicles.
Interstate 77 gets about 36,000 vehicles a day, she said.
Accidents on U.S. 58 are proportionally much higher than on 77.
It holds true that two-lane highways have more incidents than interstates, she said. Interstates are designed for more traffic volume and higher speeds.
Interstates are also more forgiving of driver error with their wide lanes and shoulders.
On two-lane roads, a leading accident cause involves a tire dropping off the pavement.
“Look at our 58 — there are no shoulders,” Hughes said. “On two-lane primary roads there are a lot more conflict points. Driveways. Intersections. Businesses.”
There is hope for a safer 58 when the planned four lanes are completed.
“We come back and reconstruct for higher speeds than it is now,” she said. “We make various improvements to alignment, grade. We improve sight distance at intersections. We make improvements to the shoulder width.”
Accidents happen all through the 58 corridor for various reasons, Musser said.
“We attribute most of that to right of way incidents because Route 58 is not a limited access highway,” he said. “There are a lot of intersections and some of them are in precarious places.”
Troopers respond to the accidents, and that gives them a perspective on places that may be more hazardous than others.
A few intersections stick out in Musser’s mind in terms of frequency of accidents.
He recalls that troopers go out to wreck scenes at the 58’s intersections with Training Center Road, Breezy Ridge Road and Coulson Church Road more often than other places.
Not all the accidents happen at roadways.
“It’s amazing the accidents we have at Shoney’s, and it’s always driver error,” Musser said. “The sight distance is some of the best in the county.”
Troopers believe drivers simply get distracted looking around when they’re trying to make turns there.
Similarly, a number of bump-ups seem to occur near the intersection of Farmers Market Road. Some drivers don’t get stopped at the light there or collide with the rear of another vehicle that’s turning at a business.
Other Carroll Roads
After U.S. 58, there may be a few other roads with concentrations of accidents in Carroll, Musser said. The section of U.S. 52 from the bottom of the mountain to the North Carolina state line has its share, for example.
Secondary roads don’t typically seem as troublesome as the primaries, but Musser could pick out a few back roads that drivers seem to have trouble negotiating.
Coulson Church Road from Woodlawn to U.S. 52 has a higher amount of traffic as people use it as a way to get to Interstate 77’s Exit 19, he said. Anytime a road has a higher traffic count, it leads to more opportunities for accidents.
Near Monorat Road and the area between Senior and Honeycutt Dam roads seem to have higher wreck frequency, Musser said.
Epworth Church and Fries roads have similar configurations and traffic counts as Coulson Church Road — and a similar amounts of wrecks, he estimated.
He attributed many incidents on Farmers Market Road to icy and snowy weather in winter, and said wrecks near Bronco Road are due to a steep incline.
Excessive speed and distracted and inexperienced drivers are at the root of many accidents in Carroll, so people can improve their chances of avoiding problems by slowing down and paying attention, Musser noted.
VDOT declares speed limits for a reason, he said. Going into those computations are factors such as traffic counts, entrances onto the road, and results of speed studies.
Drivers need to have full awareness when behind the wheel of a vehicle. They need to avoid drinking, of course, and avoid texting and other cell phone use.
Look at it this way, Musser said: a car going 60 mph is moving 90 feet in a second.
One second is also the average reaction time of a driver takes before mashing down on their brakes.
“You’re covering 90 feet in the time it takes just to realize something’s wrong.”
Severity of injuries increase for those who don’t use seat belts, the trooper added. Don’t rely just on the airbag to take care of the impact. “They’re designed to work together.”