I-77 accident

Two people died following this two-vehicle crash that involved a tractor-trailer on Interstate 77 near Mile Marker 21 on October 11. The West Virginia Parkways Authority, the Public Service Commission and the West Virginia State Police announced they will dedicate an additional full-time PSC patrol unit on the West Virginia Turnpike. 

CHARLESTON — An increase in crashes involving large trucks, including eight fatalities in the last 19 months near Camp Creek on I-77, has prompted action from the state to tackle the issue.

The West Virginia Parkways Authority, the Public Service Commission (PSC) and the West Virginia State Police announced last week they will dedicate an additional full-time PSC patrol unit on the West Virginia Turnpike.  

Greg Barr, general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, said the additional officer will patrol the turnpike for speeding as well as inspect commercial vehicles.

“The Parkways Authority appreciates the support of the PSC with the addition of a third PSC officer to patrol the West Virginia Turnpike,” said Barr. “Approximately 20 percent of toll transactions on the turnpike are from tractor trailers and this new patrol unit will enhance enforcement and improve the safety for travelers. These officers will not only enforce speed limits but they will also perform safety inspections to make certain the commercial vehicles are in compliance with the U.S. Department of Transportation safety regulations.”

According the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the number of large trucks on the nation’s highways has increased from 10.6 million in 2013 to 11.5 million on 2016. Crashes involving large trucks have also seen a marked increase, from 327,000 in 2013 to 475,000 in 2016.

During the same time period, the number of truck inspections has dropped from 3.5 million in 2013 to 3.4 million in 2017 and the number of inspectors has fallen from 13,744 (state and federal) in 2013 to 12,613 (state and federal) in 2017.

West Virginia crash numbers similarly show a dramatic increase. In 2013, there were 58 accidents involving commercial vehicles (CMVs) resulting in 34 injuries and one fatality.  In 2017, there were 120 accidents involving CMVs resulting in 71 injuries and nine fatalities.

In one recent large truck crash near the Camp Creek exit, two Parkways Authority workers were killed when a tractor-trailer went out of the control and ran off the road where the employees were working.

Barr said faulty brakes on the double trailer caused the crash.

“The Public Service Commission takes our responsibility of highway safety very seriously,” said Bob Blankenship, director of the Commission’s Transportation Division. “Our primary goal is to reduce the number of accidents, injuries and deaths involving commercial motor vehicles. This new patrol is a great step toward achieving that goal.”

Barr said recently that all options are being considered to improve safety on the turnpike, especially concerning large trucks and that area near Camp Creek.

He said it’s a situation that has everyone concerned.

“Rescue squads, emergency responders … they too are very frustrated that this continues to happen and they want to see something done,” he said. “I know speed was a factor in the crash that took the lives of the family of four … when the guy crested the top of the hill he was going pretty darn fast.”

That driver was charged with negligent homicide in the crash, which occurred in April 2017 when a tractor-trailer crossed the median and hit a mini-van, killing a mother, father and two children on their way from North Carolina to Ohio to visit relatives.

“Changing the speed limit has been suggested and that is something that can be looked at,” he said, adding that flashing lights can be installed as well cautioning drivers about the hills and curves coming up in that area.

Stepping up inspections of trucks has also been on the table, a move that has now taken place.

Driver behavior, especially with speeding, is also a consideration.

Drivers of large trucks and other vehicles involved in truck crashes are 10 times more likely to be the cause of the crash than other factors, such as weather, road conditions, and vehicle performance according to a new study released by the FMCSA.

“This study makes it clear that we need to spend more time addressing driver behavior, as well as making sure trucks and buses are fit for the road,” FMCSA Administrator Annette M. Sandberg said. “The multitude of data now available will allow us to analyze specific areas of behavior and work with our industry and safety partners to develop an agenda on driver safety that will improve commercial motor vehicle driver performance.”

Driver behavior may have been a factor in a crash last week when a tractor-trailer hit a toll booth at the Chelyan toll plaza, injuring the toll booth worker and requiring the booth to be replaced.

“All vehicles, especially large commercial vehicles, should slow down to the posted 5 miles per hour as they enter and exit the toll lanes for the vehicle occupants’ safety as well as for the safety of the Turnpike employees working in the toll booths,” Barr said. “Thankfully our toll collector was not seriously injured.”

The Parkways Authority will be responsible for the salary and cost of the vehicle used by the new patrol unit.  The officer will be certified and trained by the Transportation Division of the Public Service Commission. The State Police oversees law enforcement along the turnpike.

That additional officer is expected to be in place within the next few weeks, in advance of the increased holiday traffic.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com