Driving in Stafford County can whisk you back 50 years, to a time when most of its roads were designed for rural life. They still wind, still switch back in unexpected directions at hilltops, still have no shoulders or guard rails. Trees in this lush landscape are often right at the road's edge.
But Stafford is now the 17th-fastest-growing community in the United States, and one result is more than its share of traffic accidents. The Virginia State Police office that handles traffic for Stafford and neighboring Spotsylvania County says the two counties accounted for 7 percent of Virginia's accidents last year -- the vast majority of them in Stafford -- even though their combined population makes up only about 3 percent of the state's.
But the topic is less statistical than emotional after the deaths of several young people on rural Stafford roads during the school year. They included three students from one high school who were involved in one-car crashes in which the vehicles hit trees and a recent graduate of the same school who was riding in the bed of a pickup truck that flipped. The truck's driver faces a drunken driving charge.
Dozens of people have turned out at recent public meetings to complain about the condition of the roads, the sprawl that has forced more drivers onto them and the quickening pace of lives in which parents spend more time at work and less watching their children. Some residents have criticized the Board of Supervisors for adopting the lower of two proposed tax increases -- money they hoped might go toward road improvement.
"Growing up, my two sons had an opportunity to be raised in a rural area; They drove tractors, they knew how to handle the roads. Young people today, they get a license, their parents put them in a $20-30,000 car, and the roads haven't changed in the last 50 years," said Carlton Beach, 61, a county native and landscaper whose only grandchild, Dwayne Beach Jr., 18, was killed in a one-car crash two years ago. "And now there's an outcry."
Beach serves on a new county task force on youth driving, created by the supervisorsafter three Colonial Forge High School students died earlier this year. The task force, which is to make its recommendations to the supervisors in June, is considering several proposals, including requiring parents to participate in driver's education, adding conditions to driver's licenses for young people and improving the roads -- widening some, adding guardrails in places and lighting in others and taking down trees.
Many residents think the group's broad focus ignores the bottom line: The roads are old, and money needs to be spent to fix them.
"The answer isn't real complex -- it's about the infrastructure. We're growing way too fast without taking care of the infrastructure," said Steve Parsons, 45, whose son was nearly killed in December when his car was hit at a busy rural intersection when he was on his way to school. Parsons was among about 30 people who turned out Thursday night for the first public meeting of the Youth Driver Task Force.
But other residents say the personal impact of the Colonial Forge crashes -- which came in addition to two non-traffic-related student deaths during the school year -- puts too much emphasis on roads when the county has not finished researching other questions, such as whether driver's education should be more comprehensive.
"They are . . . not focused on real causes," task force member Byron Hinton said of victims' relatives and friends. "They were limited in vision as [to] what were probable causes."
The debate over whether municipal services need updating extends to other areas of life in Stafford, where many roads are unpaved and the 450-person fire department is all-volunteer and has no fire chief -- just as in the old days, although the county now has more than 100,000 residents.
"Hello. I'm a dump truck driver and your roads are horrible," said Lorraine Karamanis, 40, who spoke at Thursday's meeting. Karamanis drives trucks for local construction companies and said she is often over the yellow line because there isn't room.
"The trees close to the road should be cut down because they're a hazard and they really scare me," testified Melissa Magnusson, a 16-year-old Colonial Forge junior whose friend Emily Dudenhefer, 17, was killed in January when a friend who was driving her car hit a tree. He has been charged with reckless driving.
Emily's father, Mark, is considering running for supervisor on a road-safety platform. Her mother, Kay, says she can barely get back to her routine since her daughter died.
"I still don't know the details of Emily's crash because it's too painful," she told the task force Thursday, urging them to make a priority of getting landowners -- public or private -- to cut down roadside trees. She acknowledged that many residents might not like being told what to do on their property, she said, "but those people need to come talk to me."