Dangerous stretch

This photo shows I-77 at Mile Marker 21 near Camp Creek. According to officials, guardrails will soon be installed in the median between Exit 18 and Mile Marker 28 in Flattop by October. 

CAMP CREEK — Guardrails will be installed at the edges of both sides of the median on an eight-mile stretch of I-77 near Camp Creek that has been the scene of 12 fatalities during the last two and a half years.

Greg Barr, general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, said placing the guardrails is the final planned step in trying to make the area safer. They should be installed by the end of September or early October.

“Our engineering team announced they had completed their analysis of the median area between mile makers 20 and 28 in the Camp Creek area,” he said, adding that it was a comprehensive analysis and review of safety issues. “They have recommended we install guardrails along the median in both directions, north and southbound. They (vehicles) cross over in both directions, going up and down that hill.”

Crossing the median into the other lanes has resulted in several deaths in that area, including a family of four from North Carolina killed by a tractor-trailer in April 2017.

That tragedy prompted an investigation into safety issues, especially with tractor-trailers, which were involved in nine of 12 fatalities since the fall of 2016 in that area. A steep hill and sharp curve are in that stretch.

Two Parkways Authority employees who were working beside the road were killed last year at milepost 22 after an out-of-control tractor trailers plowed into them.

Engineers analyzed each crash, the terrain, the time of day, witness statements, police reports, the condition of the vehicles, the reasons the crash happened and what could have been in place to prevent it.

Barr said several changes have been made because of that investigation and include lowering the speed limit from 70 to 60 in that area, installing flashing chevrons warning motorists of the curve, installing changeable message boards, increasing State Police enforcement and adding an extra Public Service Commission enforcement officer to deal primarily with truck traffic, including safety inspections.

Faulty brakes have been blamed in at least two of the fatal crashes.

Barr said the new steel guardrails have been tested to absorb crashes, even from many trucks. “You see them on all major roads throughout the country.”

Other barriers were considered, including cables and even concrete.

“The cables have not been tested on trucks,” he said, adding that large concrete barriers may help stop large trucks but they are dangerous for most vehicles because they have no absorption, they don’t “give.”

Barr said nothing is available that can actually stop an 80,000-pound semi going 70 mph or more and out of control. “It’s a rocket.”

One safety measure considered but not adopted was adding a pull-off area or emergency ramp for trucks.

When engineers studied the details of the crashes, they saw the incidents happen in various areas, not just in one place, he said, so no specific place was found that would be effective.

Some people had suggested the speed limit should be lowered to 55 or even to 45 for trucks, but Barr said the speed limit change was recommended by traffic engineers and also involved federal guidelines.

“We are pleased to go down to 60,” he said. “They did not have to do that.”

Barr said when truck speeds are lowered too much it creates a discrepancy between vehicle speeds that poses dangers in and of itself.

Enforcement of the speed limit is the key, he said.

Sgt. T.A. Bowers with the West Virginia State Police Turnpike Detachment agrees and that’s the reason for the increased patrols in the area.

Those patrols are seeing results.

“There have been more speeding citations issued on that mountain,” he said. “We will continue patrolling it pretty heavily.”

Bowers said “it’s just a place where people need to watch their speed.”

Barr said the authority will also continue watching that stretch of I-77 to see how all the safety measures are working. They will also keep up with and examine any developments or advances in safety measures that may be of benefit.

The Parkways Authority Board of Directors will meet next month to consider bids on the installation of the guardrails, he said, adding that there should be a fast turnaround between approving a bid and starting the work, assuming an acceptable bid is submitted.

The project should be complete by early October at the latest.

“We are trying to do everything we can to make it safer,” Barr said.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com