On Wednesday afternoon, the lives of three drivers were claimed by a crash at mile marker 239.3 when a northbound tractor-trailer crossed the median to the southbound side of Interstate 81.
Those killed were the driver of the tractor-trailer, William Milam, 52, of Jamestown, Tenn., and two drivers of different vehicles in the southbound lanes — Dylan Snell, 33, of Clemmons, N.C., and Robert Fitzgerald Jr., 41, of Crimora, according to the Virginia State Police. At least four others were injured.
They were all wearing seat belts. An investigation by the state police to discover the cause of the wreck is ongoing.
It is incidents like these that keep Jessica Borror, of Harrisonburg, off the interstate.
“I stay clear from 81,” Borror said. She and a dozen other travelers agreed the interstate was dangerous during interviews on Thursday.
Borror said she stopped taking the interstate two years ago after her stepfather witnessed a man end his life by walking in front of a truck on the roadway around Staunton.
“I don’t take it because I’m scared of big trucks,” she said. “They give me anxiety.”
In the past five years, there have been around 11,000 crashes on I-81 in Virginia, with more than 45 of those resulting in clearance times greater than four hours. Wednesday’s shut down both southbound lanes for about seven hours.
“It’s a mess,” said Gary Delawder, a truck driver who lives in Weyers Cave. “Eighty-one is terrible.”
He said I-81 is the worst roadway he has to travel for work.
Nearly 12 million trucks use the interstate to carry over $312 billion in goods every year, according to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
I-81 was originally designed to handle about 15% of its traffic as trucks. Data from recent years show that ratio has increased to an average of 26% and up to 35% in some places.
Delawder said I-95 also has a large volume of traffic, but safety is increased by having lanes where trucks are not allowed.
Talley Heckard, a truck driver from Dallas, disagreed with Delawder about the state of affairs on I-81.
“As for the road, I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve been coming up and down here for 10 years,” Heckard said. “I ain’t ever had a problem unless there’s snow.”
Vince Collier, who lives outside Princeton, N.J., agreed and said he doesn’t consider the interstate that bad compared to highways in New Jersey. He also said he does not drive I-81 very often, but he uses it about once a year to visit his family in Bristol, Va.
Heckard said he believed most crashes are due to driver error, which is why he always stays on the right as a tractor-trailer driver.
“This highway has a lot of accidents for some reason, but I don’t see why, unless people just aren’t paying attention,” Heckard said.
“I see these fools every day,” he said.
Nearly 3,200 people were killed in 2017 in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, roughly 9% of the 37,133 drivers killed that year, according to an April report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“When you drive a truck, you can see vehicles pass you [and] 80% have a phone on their lap or in their hand,” Delawder said.
By 2018, the number of drivers killed by distracted driving had dropped by the highest margin in 10 years to 36,560, according to an October report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“All interstates are dangerous when it comes to tractor-trailers and traffic, especially at rush hour,” said Tony Conner, a truck driver from Chatham.
I-81 is “safer than most of ‘em I’m on, and I’ve been all over the states,” Conner said.
Conner agreed with Delawder that the roadway was fine, but the volume of traffic on the two lanes is the issue.
“One extra lane both ways would make it so much simpler,” Conner said.
In winter 2018, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the I-81 improvement plan and passed it to the General Assembly.
The slated $2 billion of improvements includes $240 million for widening the interstate to three lanes through less than 6 miles of Harrisonburg. The lane widening is the most expensive single project in the Staunton District of the Virginia Department of Transportation.
A combined 6 miles of northbound and southbound truck climbing lanes are also slated in Weyers Cave, several miles south of where Wednesday’s crash took place.
Locations for the improvements were identified through data and from public comment, according to Ken Slack, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Improvements such as these are estimated to reduce annual hours of delay by more than 6 million and decrease the number of crashes by 450, according to the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s report.
Mark Campolong splits his time between Pittsburgh, Pa., and Stuart, Fla., and travels Interstate 81 frequently.
“In Florida, they have three lanes, at least, everywhere on I-95,” he said. “Whenever it gets to South Carolina, it goes to two lanes [and] it’s a mess. Same thing happens here.”
“Anytime it’s two lanes, it’s terrible,” he said of I-81.
Pete Clements, of Fort Valley, who uses I-81 to visit his mother who lives in Harrisonburg, agrees.
“It’s a pain in the ass, I’ll tell ya,” he said.
He supports adding more lanes to the interstate.
“What else can you do besides another lane?” Clements said.
He said the stretch of more than 70 miles between I-66 outside Strasburg and I-64 outside Staunton is especially bad.
Steve Ingram, of Verona, said nine times out of ten he takes U.S. 11 instead of I-81.
Ingram also said he regularly sees people using their phones while driving, adding he and his wife have even seen someone reading a newspaper while driving on I-81.
“People don’t understand what that can cause,” he said. “It only takes but a second.”