Fatal crash

This file photo is from the tragic crash that took the lives of a family of four last year, around the stretch of I-77 which has seen 10 fatalities in the last 19 months. Of the five crashes that resulted in fatalities, two, including the deaths of the family of four, involved a tractor-trailer crossing the median into the opposite lanes of traffic.

CAMP CREEK — A concerted effort is under way to increase the safety of an area of I-77 in Mercer County that has seen 10 fatalities in less than 19 months.

The stretch of highway is around Mile Markers 20-26 in the Camp Creek area and eight of the fatalities involved tractor-trailers, with one crash taking the lives of a family of four from North Carolina.

Of the five crashes that resulted in fatalities, two, including the deaths of the family of four, involved  a tractor-trailer crossing the median into the opposite lanes of traffic and two were caused by passenger cars crossing the median.

The other was caused by a tractor-trailer with faulty brakes going out of control and killing state employees working beside the highway.

Several other accidents in that stretch of road, which has steep hills and some curves, resulted in serious injuries.

Greg Barr, general manager of the Parkways Authority, the agency in charge of the West Virginia Turnpike/I-77, said many options are on the table to find ways to prevent the horrific accidents.

“There are so many pros and cons to whatever changes we make we have not finalized any decisions,” he said. “I have talked to our state police, maintenance division, consulting engineers and the department of highways to be looking into this, to find out what’s going on down there and let’s all come together to get the best answer we can come up with.”

Barr said it will probably be a combination of several things, but caution lights, a change in the speed limit, different barriers in the median, a stepped up effort in truck inspections – all are being looked at.

With six fatalities caused by tractor-trailers crossing the median, stopping them from doing that is a tall task, with one option being a system of strong cables that are utilized on many highways and are effective from preventing most vehicles from crossing the median.

“But they won’t stop an 80,000-pound truck,” he said, adding that tall concrete barriers with rebar is possible as well but would require a redesign of the median itself, going from the v-shape it has now to being level and installing a water drainage system.

However, that can present dangers as well because a tractor-trailer can bounce off the wall or new guardrails and back into traffic.

“These options may help,” he said. “But before we do something I would feel better knowing it will solve the problem.”

Barr 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.

“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 the area.

Stepping up inspections of trucks is also on the table.

But the volume of large trucks on the highways as well as the decrease in the number of inspections has exacerbated the problem nationwide.

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.

Barr said another issue is the need for truck drivers and whether they are being properly trained.

“It concerns me that the trucking industry is short on drivers,” he said. “They are desperate for drivers. I’m not sure if the training is sufficient enough for rookie drivers. Some of them are from out of the country and don’t speak English.”

A report by the American Trucking Association earlier this year said the nation has a truck driver shortage of more than 50,000.

“Over the next decade, the trucking industry will need to hire roughly 898,000 new drivers, or an average of nearly 90,000 per year,” the report said. “Replacing retiring truck drivers will be by far the largest factor, accounting for nearly half of new driver hires (49%). The second largest factor will be industry growth, accounting for 28% of new driver hires.”

Barr said many young people do not want to go into the profession because of the long hours and being away from home.

Regardless of the level of training, driver error remains a major issue.

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.

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study was commissioned by FMCSA to review the causes of, and contributing factors to, crashes involving commercial motor vehicles. While previous data focused on specific crashes and/or individual causes of crashes, this study was the first nationwide examination of all pre-crash factors.

“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.”

FMCSA will conduct analysis to further examine driver factors such as use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, speeding, fatigue, inattention, distractions, work environment, and unfamiliarity with the road.

Many factors are involved in creating the dangerous situation at that section of I-77, and Barr said something wlll be done, including making sure truckers know that “we mean business about slowing down in that area.”

“We have to have a multi-pronged approach,” he said, looking at all the options from a variety of perspectives. and areas of expertise.

Barr said a meeting will be held later this month with all the key members of different departments and they will be prepared to discuss in more detail all the options available.

“We are going to come in with some approaches,” he said. “It (the fatalities) is very sad. We hate it … We are going to open a full-court press on resolving this.”

 — Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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