Correction to This Article
A photo caption incorrectly said that the highway has nearly double the number of fatal crashes as Interstate 95. In fact, from 2003 to 2007, there were fewer fatal crashes on I-81 than on I-95, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. But the rate of fatal crashes as a percentage of total crashes on I-81 was nearly double that of I-95, according to a Post analysis of state data.

On Accident-Plagued Interstate 81 in Va., Fear Becomes a Traveling Companion

Interstate 81, the site of recent fatalities involving tractor-trailers, has the highest ratio of trucks to cars on any Virginia highway and, one study says, nearly double the number of fatal crashes on Interstate 95. Traffic near Woodstock, above.
Interstate 81, the site of recent fatalities involving tractor-trailers, has the highest ratio of trucks to cars on any Virginia highway and, one study says, nearly double the number of fatal crashes on Interstate 95. Traffic near Woodstock, above. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009

Interstate 81 is a beautiful highway, running along Virginia's western edge in Shenandoah Valley, full of picturesque curves and hills, offering stunning views of the mountains in the distance.

Yet I-81 scares Frank Parsons to death. Yes, the interstate is quicker, but if he has, say, a doctor's appointment down the road, the 81-year-old retiree from Lexington will take two-lane Route 11, thank you very much. No tractor-trailers filling his rearview mirror at 65 mph. No big rigs screaming by, their wheels almost at eye level, making his Volkswagen shudder.

"There's nothing more frightening than to see one of those things barreling up behind me," he said. "It's unnerving."

Trucks own I-81. They account for one of every four vehicles on the highway, and, in some stretches, there is nearly one truck for every passenger car, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. That's the highest ratio on any of Virginia's major highways and well above what I-81 was designed for. And when the trucks -- which can weigh up to 80,000 pounds -- are involved in crashes, the result is often spectacular -- and deadly.

In Virginia, the more heavily used Interstate 95 bears more crashes; between 2003 and 2007, it had more than twice as many wrecks as its country cousin, I-81. But a Washington Post analysis of state data shows that the fatality rate for crashes on I-81 was nearly double that of I-95.

"To be blunt: If you're driving a car and you have a truck in front and a truck behind and a truck passing you, it's not difficult to determine who the jelly in the sandwich is if things go bad," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "It's very frightening."

Last week was particularly bad. On a 15-mile stretch near the intersection with Interstate 66, there were four crashes in less than 10 hours between Thursday evening and Friday morning. The crashes involved nine tractor-trailers and two passenger vehicles and left two people dead and several injured. The first incident came at 7:20 p.m., when a tractor-trailer ran off the road and overturned in the median, spilling its load of watermelons. Police had to divert traffic off the highway, creating a jam that hours later was backed up for miles.

Traffic was barely moving after 10 p.m., when Stone Taylor Weeks, 24, and William Holt Weeks, 20, came along in their 2007 Honda Civic, which weighed 2,600 pounds. The brothers -- sons of National Public Radio correspondent Linton Weeks, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, and Jan Weeks, an artist -- were on their way from Houston to their parents' home in Rockville.

Their Honda was stuck in the traffic when a tractor-trailer rammed it from behind, forcing their car underneath the truck in front of it. A side gas tank on one of the trucks ruptured, and "a fire spread rapidly through the vehicles, burning the passenger vehicle beyond recognition," according to a police news release. Both brothers were killed.

The crash came after a similarly harrowing one in April in which three people died after three tractor-trailers and a passenger vehicle collided, setting off a fire. The highway was closed for about 16 hours.

There are so many crashes, "we don't even try to cover all the interstate wrecks," said Darryl Woodson, editor of the Lexington News-Gazette in Virginia. "For every one we hear about and publish, there's got to be 15 that we don't."

The highway, which stretches from central Tennessee to the Canadian border, has long been popular among truckers as a north-south alternative to I-95 that lets big rigs avoid tolls and skirt massive tie-ups around cities such as Richmond, Washington and Baltimore. But since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, the highway has become even more densely populated with trucks ferrying goods from the border to U.S. marketplaces.

It's not only tractor-trailers that fill the road. The interstate is popular among tourists exploring the Shenandoah Valley. And with Virginia Tech and James Madison University situated along the corridor, I-81 also carries one-third of the state's college students, according to the Transportation Department.

Faced with public outcry about the death toll, the fear many motorists experience driving amid so many trucks and the loss of the highway's once-bucolic character, Virginia transportation officials during the last decade considered building a parallel highway for trucks only. But the idea was shot down after officials determined it would create sufficient space for trucks but wouldn't ease congestion for other vehicles. More recently, officials looked at widening the highway from two lanes in each direction to four. But with the state in a financial crisis and tolls considered politically unfeasible, that is not going to happen anytime soon.

The result has been incremental fixes here and there -- the state is adding truck-climbing lanes at two spots near Blacksburg and Lexington, and it has extended some on-ramps to create more room to merge. But the large-scale improvements that officials say are needed are nowhere in sight.

"The fact is, nothing is going to happen because there is no revenue," said Fred Altizer Jr., I-81 program manager for Virginia's Transportation Department.

Environmental groups and preservationists have lobbied for more investment in rail, arguing that it is a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to move freight and get trucks off the road. But that, too, has stalled because of shortfalls.

Meanwhile, I-81 traffic has tripled in the past 20 years in the Winchester and Roanoke regions, from 20,000 to 60,000 vehicles a day. And trucks still rule the road, which makes people such as Sarah Tschiggfrie very nervous. On the inclines, trucks, often traveling side by side, slow dramatically, sometimes to well below the speed limit. Then, as they crest the hill, they barrel down. With only two lanes, there is simply no way to avoid the trucks and their constantly shifting speeds.

A tractor-trailer once tailgated Tschiggfrie's little two-door Toyota Paseo so badly that she wondered whether the truck driver could even see her from his elevated perch. "I pulled over and called police and gave him his license plate because I thought, 'That guy is going to kill me,' " said Tschiggfrie, who commutes 40 minutes each way from Staunton to her job at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

Not that truckers are solely to blame. Other drivers often don't give trucks enough room and aren't aware that a tractor-trailer moving at 60 mph can require the length of a football field to come to a complete stop.

"They'll cut in front of you all the time," said James Sine, a trucker who stopped at the Flying J Travel Plaza in Winchester on a run between Houston and Philadelphia. "They pay no attention whatsoever. You blink, and there's a car right in front of you."

Bill Oss, who's been driving I-81 since 1970, said he would much rather have his rig surrounded by trucks, whose drivers are professionally trained, than cars, whose drivers buzz around seemingly oblivious to the fact that "we can hit one of these people and not even feel it except for a thump."

"I hate to say it," he said. "These cars, they don't have a chance."

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