Two U.S. representatives from Virginia held a hearing earlier this week on truck safety on Interstate 81 – a hearing made even more important after a crash involving eight tractor-trailers killed four people last weekend on the heavily traveled highway.
“It is frightening when truckers are going 80 mph and you’re boxed in,” motorist Pat Gochenour said at Tuesday’s hearing, which had been called before Sunday’s crash near Lexington by U.S. Representatives Frank Wolf and Robert Goodlatte. Wolf (pictured), who is chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee, has been trying to get Congress to move oversight of truck safety to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from the Federal Highway Administration, which he believes is too cozy with the trucking industry.
I-81 runs for 325 miles in western Virginia. Traffic on the highway has tripled in the past 25 years. The interstate was designed to handle 15% truck traffic, but estimates place it at 19% to 40%.
Speakers suggested using portable message boards to warn motorists of bad road conditions, accidents or delays. They also proposed adding rest stops and more state troopers to patrol the highway. Col. Wayne Huggins, state police superintendent, said 59 new troopers will report to duty around the state in May, but he doesn’t know how many will be assigned to the I-81 corridor.
Wolf suggested during the hearing that the Virginia Department of Transportation look into separating truck traffic from cars on I-81, much as the New Jersey Turnpike does in the northern section of the state. This is not the first time Wolf has made this suggestion. Last October, he proposed the same plan in a letter to VDOT Commissioner David Gehr. Gehr said in the hearing that would be too costly to do along the entire highway, but it might be possible in certain sections as the highway is upgraded.
Wolf responded that with the state getting an additional $253 million a year for the next six years from the federal transportation bill, “I don’t think money is an excuse that nothing can be done.”
Wolf told people at the meeting that he will work with James Madison University to assemble a task force of truckers, motorists, elected officials and state police to look at safety issues along the interstate.