Virginia still placing dollars over safety

| 10/21/2009

Many truck drivers are still bitter about the state of Virginia’s decision to shutter 18 rest areas and one welcome center to save $9 million annually.

While the Virginia Department of Transportation argues there are many alternative places to pull off and rest, many truck drivers who travel the roads in the state disagree. In some parts of the state, the distance between rest areas is between 120 to 200 miles.

A recent example was when a trucker was involved in a one-vehicle accident on I-81 after he admittedly fell asleep at the wheel.

Following the incident, Virginia State Police Sgt. Bryan Hutcheson told WHSV about the importance of drivers being “awake and alert, especially at night and in the early morning.”

However, truckers traveling through the state can attest that this has become increasingly difficult to do since VDOT closed nearly half of the state’s rest areas in July.

VDOT Chief of Communications Jeff Caldwell said the agency encourages “all drivers to stop as soon as they feel fatigued, at rest areas or private facilities located at interchanges.” 

“It was a difficult decision for Virginia to reduce our number of rest areas,” Caldwell wrote in an e-mail to Land Line on Wednesday, Oct. 21. “Many states have now followed suit as we all struggle with transportation funding shortfalls.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has been warning state officials for months that highway safety would be compromised if the rest areas were closed.

Around the time VDOT announced plans to close many of its rest areas, truckers were also having problems getting their rest because they were being awakened by VSP officers and told to move because of a two-hour time limit that was being enforced at the sites. In late January, VSP Spokeswoman Corinne Geller told Land Line the solution to the problem for truckers was to “get a room.”

In July, VDOT lifted the two-hour time limit restriction after hearing from thousands of truckers about how they weren’t able to take their mandatory 10-hour breaks because of the restriction.

“They (truckers) need to make alternative arrangements like finding a hotel room,” Geller said. “It’s not our responsibility to make sure they are in compliance with the hours of service… so that responsibility sits on the driver to know his or her route and know where there is a place to park.”

In an e-mail to Land Line on Wednesday, Oct. 21, Geller wrote “we do not have any further comments” in response to a VSP comment that drivers should find a “convenience store, get a drink or some fresh air.”

However, OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz said state officials don’t seem to get the importance of having a place to stop when drivers are tired.

“Drowsiness can hit at any time, and lack of adequate rest areas significantly impacts highway safety – especially for irregular route truckers who may never have traveled a particular route and have zero knowledge of available stops with truck parking,” he told Land Line on Wednesday.

Rajkovacz said he just returned from an 11-day trip to California in OOIDA’s “Spirit of the American Trucker” truck. He left trucking more than three years ago to join the Association full-time in 2006. He said it was an eye-opening trip for him because many of the truck stops he used to stop at had closed down, along with many rest areas along the way.

“I just personally dealt with this whole issue these past 11 days,” he said. “I had no idea till looking for a place to land that these places were gone. By Virginia’s reasoning, they are showing bureaucratic indifference to the problems we face.”

OOIDA member Gordon Alkire of Riley, KS, frequently passes through Virginia. He recently wrote a letter to Gov. Tim Kaine, which he shared with Land Line, about why he thinks the state has made a terrible mistake by closing the rest areas.

“Since you have seen fit to close many of your rest areas in the state of Virginia, the rest we were getting in your rest areas is now impossible,” Alkire wrote in his letter to Gov. Kaine. “When you put the dollar ahead of safety you have made a very wrong decision.” 

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer