Sunday, August 12, 2012

Brush with Death on VA I-77S Mile Marker 26

The date: August 16, 2009 (or possibly August 15).
The location: I-77 South in Virginia, mile marker 26, bridge over the New River.
The event: My family and I almost lost our lives.

I was driving our family truckster, our Chrysler minivan, also known as "The Spaceship."  Going south on I-77, I got into the left lane to pass some slower drivers.  Then suddenly, the sky opened up and all this rain came gushing down.  I was already going under the speed limit, as the cruise control was trying to catch up from going slow.

I was going about 63 when I tapped on the brake to cancel the cruise control, and started slipping.  I made a correction, but the back of the van kept going and wouldn't respond.  It threw us into a full spin.

What happened next is what you usually experience when disaster strikes.  My brain went into super-hyper mode where you see and hear every last detail, and you react very quickly, but the memory is a little fuzzy.  I saw the cars slowing down and giving us room.  The spin was disorientating, but I did what they teach in all the movies: turn the wheel in the direction of the spin.  Well, actually, I don't remember which way I was turning the wheel, but I was turning it frantically.

When we came out of the spin, we were traveling backwards.  I saw that we were headed straight for the side of the bridge past the left lane.  There were two cars parked right there in that left shoulder.  I slammed on the brakes.  One of the cars saw us coming, and pulled up.  There was just enough room.

Our van stopped within an inch or two of the vertical concrete.  We missed both cars and parked in between them, nearly perpendicular to the concrete.  Absolutely nothing collided with us during that whole episode, and we didn't end up in the river below us.

I was shaking like everything, but when I eventually got out of the van to check on everyone, I took a good look at the scene around me.  Several cars were stopped in both shoulders.  The two cars I almost hit had earlier wrecked with each other.  One local person had stopped to help.  He reported that ever since VDOT had finished construction on the New River Bridge, they had seen accidents pick up at that spot.

Then we all said the usual stuff about miracles and God watching over us, and I left the scene--just to get away from the danger of another minivan spinning out of control.  We stopped at Exit 14 to get in a good breather.

So, you may now ask me, "Why are you burdening us with this random journal entry?"  Well, for almost two years, I thought nothing more about the incident.  That is, it was an excuse for me to live up life and get more out of it (as you never know when it'll all end).  But it turns out there's more to the story.

In May 2011, my father-in-law alerted us to this news item.

Here's the text of the article, just in case the link expires.
WYTHE CO., Va. — The weather is sometimes a factor when it comes to car crashes, particularly on one small stretch of Interstate 77.

Just before the New River Bridge in Wythe County, 35 car crashes piled up in the exact same spot, in three years.   More than 70% of those happened in wet conditions.

But rain isn't the only factor leading to these accidents.

V-Dot knows there is a problem in this one stretch of southbound I-77.

Last year, VDOT released a detailed study about what's leading to these accidents and what can be done to correct the problem.   But even with the study, the accidents are still piling up.

“Here's where we are getting to the spot, right here,” Mark Stanely pointed out as he drove along I-77 South.

Mark Stanley makes the drive from his home in Wythe County to his job in Galax, twice a day, five days a week.

“If you follow tractor trailers through here, it's hair raising!” he said. “They all hit the exact same 100 foot of guardrail- every single wreck.”

The danger spot is southbound on I-77, just before you cross the New River Bridge (mile marker 26).

“You see a very dangerous situation,” Stanley said of his daily commute.

The guard rail is still mangled now, from a tractor-trailer accident on Friday. It’s the second, in almost as many weeks.

“You can't replace guardrail forever,” said Stanley of the fix. “It’s a serious safety concern as well as a headache for a traveler.”

V-DOT studied that stretch of Interstate from 2005-2007 and last year implemented some short-term changes for that stretch of road. 

“We’ve added some reflectivity to make the curve more visible, added some chevrons (reflective arrows) and some extra signs in the area,” said VDOT spokeswoman Michelle Earl.

On average, 10 to 20 accidents pile up in this same spot in this one location every year, according to VDOT’s study.

The problem lies, in the slope of the lanes.  The left lane slopes at an angle toward the concrete barrier, which throws the trucks off balance.

“Suddenly you have to take a sharper turn, and the asphalt is actually learning to the outside of the turn, and then you transition into the bridge” explained Stanley as he drove by. “Tractor trailers come through here at 65-70 mph, and their tops are all leaning to the left, and you’re just waiting for one to jackknife in front of you.”

V-Dot says it’s waiting on funding for a long-term major construction fix in the area.

“We have applied for safety funds for a long term solution,” said Earl.  “We are waiting on those funds to be identified at this time.”

But as Stanley continues to make the commute every day, he’s worried about what will happen while V-DOT waits for the money to come through.

“It’s predictable. There will be another one and it will be in that exact same spot,” said Stanley.

VDOT recommends trucks drive through that stretch at 60 mph and stay in the right lane.

V-DOT is hoping to soon add grooved pavement in the area, which could give the trucks more traction.
After reading this article and seeing how strongly correlated my experience was with the described problem above, I came to realize that negligence could be at play on the part of VDOT.  It's not just a post-event coincidental find (that is, you search the internet and happen to find what you're looking for).  There are too many collaborating events that give strong evidence that the post-bridge-construction state of the road is a dangerous situation that needs to be corrected.

Yesterday, after coming back from a West Virginia trip, some three years after our Incident, I was able to get a good look at the left lane as we drove past in the right lane.  When you pass mile marker 27, that is the exact spot where I had started slipping.  Keep in mind that once you pass 27 going south you're technically in the mile marker 26 zone.

But right as you pass the 27 marker, you can see the road in the left lane slope off steeply toward the left.  Yesterday I saw no evidence of any construction to fix the road--no grooved pavement, nor any attempts to decrease the grade.  Either way I looked at it, I realized that THEY STILL HAVEN'T FIXED THE PROBLEM.

I don't know what they're waiting for.  A lawsuit?  Are they crossing their fingers hoping that no one else will die?  Keep in mind that I never reported my 2009 incident.  There was no reason for us to report it.  The main damage was two lost hubcaps and thinner tires.  So, for each reported accident, I suspect that there are several more unreported incidents that VDOT doesn't know about.

So, my plea: if you've had a similar incident at this spot or know someone else who has, let someone know about it.  (I'm hoping that a few of you will find this post through a Google search.)  Perhaps publicity is the key to getting VDOT to finally getting around to fixing this problem.

And if you happen to be driving down I-77, I strongly suggest driving in the right lane as you pass the 27 marker.  Once you get past the bridge, it'll be safe to get back into the left lane.

And the story doesn't end there.

On September 6, 2011, a few months after the article above was written, a truck suffered a fatal accident.  You can read the news item here, and view pictures here.  (The picture above is from that same accident.)

Another accident occurred on May 14, 2012, just a couple of months ago.  You can read minimal details here.  Note the comment from a local at the bottom.  It says, "One of these days VDOT is going to fix that bridge. It was banked wrong to start with and they have never even tried to correct that. One of these days someone will get killed and maybe a lawsuit will make them fix it."

There isn't enough information in those two articles to state if the vehicles were traveling in the left lane, but the Bayesian (backwards-looking) probability is pretty high that they were, given the location and nature of the accidents.

Now, when is VDOT going to fix this deathtrap?


Milo James Fowler said...

Hydroplaning is never fun, and it sounds like a frustrating situation with that bridge. Seriously, do people have to die before they fix it?

Matthew Mccall said...

The accident on may 14 of this year... he wasn't speaking and was in the right lane... my husband and I have been doing research since may 2009 when he wrecked in his semi....I found multiple articles when searching for his accident and thought something was's taken 4years to get proof and help, and now finally, after too many lives lost, justice has been brought to one driver, Michael Cummings of edinboro pa(lives 20 minutes from me) has been declared not guilty by any means of his accident... we fought for him with the first Sargent in Wythe County.... hope this helps..also they finally plan on properly fixing the roadway.. Last I new they were taking bids for the project....

Melvyn Windham said...

Thanks for the updates, Matthew. It's good to know there are people out there ensuring that others aren't being taken advantage of. It's also good to know that they are closer to fixing the issue.

Matthew Mccall said...

Google: Crashes, study sheds light on I77 section in wythe county

Matthew Mccall said...

Someone did die

Matthew Mccall said...

Sorry to inform you Mel but people are still going sideways from the right lane like I did when I tried to slow down @60mph. Mike Cummings said his trailer started swinging towards his driver door from natural momentum of driving along "in the right lane". Engineers say it has a horizontal curvature which obviously is obviously banked to the left when it's a right hand curve.

Melvyn Windham said...

Thanks for the further updates. I guess it's bad news that you can't avoid the issue by riding in the right lane.

Also, issues on the northbound side (as per the article you mentioned in your "Google" comment)?

I still get nervous anytime I drive on that road, and often I avoid it if I can.