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Our View: Spate of recent truck accidents underscores need for I-81 updates

Our View: Spate of recent truck accidents underscores need for I-81 updates

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A recent apparent spike in the number of serious truck accidents along Interstate 81 in Southwest Virginia has area first responders concerned, but relief might be just a few construction projects away.

That’s if the recent accidents are, indeed, connected to the heavy truck traffic on I-81 that prompted the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam last year to add special funding for widening and other improvements to this busy transportation corridor through the state.

The first of the upgrade projects were to get underway this summer, but the identified $2 billion in work needed to bring the I-81 corridor up to date to handle its huge volume of commercial traffic may take years to complete.

Meanwhile, the truck accidents continue to pile up, and authorities are speculating as to the causes.

“First responders report an increase in truck accidents on local interstates recently,” the Wytheville Enterprise reported last month. “One of the latest accidents occurred … when a tractor-trailer caught on fire after a tire blow-out on Interstate 81 near Rural Retreat.”

Although no one was seriously injured in that accident, there have been others recently that have involved fatalities.

While some of the accidents were relatively minor, all of them jam up the interstate while they’re being cleared, causing traffic backups that run for miles along the super-busy highway, which is mostly still just two lanes in each direction. Those kinds of backups often create even more accidents.

“I don’t what it is, but there have been transfer truck accidents all over 81,” Rural Retreat Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dave Evans told the Wytheville paper. “It’s been bumper-to-bumper all up and down the interstate. I have no idea where these people are going.”

Evans attributed some of the wrecks to more traffic on I-81 than the interstate can handle, and he suggested that people are driving too fast on the crowded highway.

“It’s rare to have so many bad truck accidents this close together,” he said.

The story noted that there were “back-to-back fatalities” resulting from truck accidents on I-81 in July:

“On July 10, the driver of a box truck traveling south on I-81 ran off the interstate, crossed through the median and entered the northbound lanes. The truck hit a car and two tractor-trailers in the northbound lanes,” the newspaper said. “The driver of the box truck died, and several others were injured.

“The next day, a Mississippi man died after his commercial truck caught on fire. According to the [Virginia State Police], the truck was traveling north on I-81 and ran off of the left side of the interstate … The truck struck the guardrail and bridge, then went off the bridge and caught on fire.”

Some of first-responder agencies suggested that traffic has spiked as more people are getting out again after being cooped up for months in response to the COVID-19 restrictions. But nationwide, truck traffic has been up during the pandemic as more goods have had to be shipped in response to panic buying and stockpiling of food and other necessities by consumers.

“There have been a ton of interstate wrecks,” Wytheville Fire Chief Marc Brade told the paper. “I’m just assuming society is getting going and people are out and about and willing to move a little bit more.”

Whatever the causes are for the recent spike in I-81 traffic and the resulting accidents, the problems on the interstate have been clear for years. This vital 300-mile stretch of highway between Bristol and Winchester carries 41% of interstate truck travel in Virginia (not to mention a heavy volume of passenger vehicles).

For that reason, it will receive the biggest share of the revenue from higher truck fees and diesel taxes that have been approved through recent legislation, according to a Roanoke Times story earlier this year.

Just how soon that will translate into relief for Interstate 81 travelers, and into lower accident rates along the corridor, remains to be seen. But we have been assured that help is on the way.

In the meantime, though, can’t we all just slow down a bit and be a lot more careful out there while driving on our vital interstate highway? That’s really not too much to ask in return for safer journeys.

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