More than 100 people attended an open safety meeting on Jan. 5 to address problems on Virginia's Interstate 81. U.S. Congressmen Frank R. Wolf (R-VA) and Robert W. Goodlatte, (R-VA) joined officials from the Virginia Department of Transportation to host the meeting in Winchester, VA.
The meeting was sparked by a series of crashes in 1997 on I-81, a treacherous stretch of highway known for fog, sleet, and ice. Among those in attendance were OOIDA director John Taylor of Cross Junction, VA, and other truckers interested in making I-81 safer to drive.
"What I-81 needs is to increase capacity each way," said Taylor, a 32- year veteran owner-operator, who spoke out in opposition to lane restrictions for trucks. "VDOT has plans in place to widen the highway to three lanes in each direction and four to five lanes at some high traffic intersections such as I-64 and I-81 near Staunton."
Attendees brainstormed ways to accommodate both car and truck traffic on the 325-mile stretch of highway where trucks account for 40 percent of the volume on a highway built for 15 percent commercial traffic. Ideas discussed included wider separate lanes for truckers and /or lowering the speed limit. Attendees asked about requiring trucks use the"eyelash" devices that UPS uses to keep spray down, posting yield signs at on-ramps, building more rest stops for truckers, and allowing trucks to pass cars only on designated stretches of I-81.
Local residents urged police to beef up the number of troopers patrolling for speeders. However, State Police Col. Wayne Huggins said, "We're maxed out now with current demands."
State Commissioner David Gehr, who attended as a technical advisor, said many of the ideas presented are already being considered by VDOT.
In a hearing dominated by truckers, the idea given the most spin was the education of car drivers, such as the program in Chesterfield County. The county has a program in place that teams volunteer truckers with driver education programs to teach students about trucks.
In his opening statement, Rep. Wolf quoted statistics from a San Francisco-based group, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), prompting several truckers to invite the congressman to go for a truck ride.
"I thought the meeting went reasonably well. I had the opportunity to challenge Wolf to take a ride in a truck," said Virginia trucker Michael Cooper. OOIDA board member Taylor also offered Wolf a ride on the Washington Beltway. Although Wolf did not accept, he implied he would "definitely go for a ride" some day soon. Wolf's Washington, DC, office said it had no comment on a truck ride at this time.
At Wolf's urging, a task force comprised of trucking industry representatives, motorists, local officials and police will be established to ensure that the issues brought up at the meeting are addressed.
"The committee will meet monthly or bi-monthly until the safety issues are resolved," said Huggins. "Don't expect any quick fixes. The project will take years to complete." LL