Virginia Department of Transportation officials plan to use technology to give I-77 drivers on Fancy Gap Mountain real-time road condition information in time to avoid accidents.
At a July 23 public meeting at Carroll County High, Regional Operations Engineer Christopher McDonald said the area covered lies between Mile Markers 1 through 15. He said the area has 1,000 feet of drop in elevation and is prone to heavy fog. McDonald said the Average Annual Daily Traffic (AADT) count for the area is 35,000 motorists.
The area already has 11 weather stations, five electronic message boards and a daytime safety service patrol (which began in May of 2012) covering the roughly 19-mile area. The updated system calls for three new weather stations to fill in gaps in the area monitored, and 24 new traffic cameras, which can be accessed (once the system is up and running) at 511Virginia.org.
The department had previously installed rumble strips, delineator (guidance) signs, widened pavement markings, chevrons and “enhanced” signs (signs using a mixture of printed and electronically-displayed numbers). Studies by the department (from Jan. 2010 to Dec. 2014) attribute 34 percent of the accidents in the area to driver inattention and 22 percent in the category as weather related.
“Our goal is to reduce both the severity and frequency of the crashes during bad visibility conditions,” said McDonald as he presented a PowerPoint program at Carroll County High School on July 23 outlining the project. “This is a bit of a unique use of this technology. We will be reacting to the (weather) conditions and the speed of drivers.”
Officials also hope to learn more about motorist behavior through the use of the system and can tweak it accordingly in the future. The project’s components include variable speed limit signs, electronic message signs, additional traffic cameras and additional weather and visibility detection stations. A total of 17.5 miles of fiber optic cable and 15 miles of power cables had to be installed to power the upgraded system. It is anticipated to be operational by this fall with the installation of 76 new signs already underway.
McDonald said the $7.5 million “Active Traffic & Safety Management System” project will continually monitor conditions and driver speeds with the lowest speed posted being 30 miles per hour. Visibility of 600 feet or less would set the system in motion in what basically amounts to lower speed limits to match lower visibility.
Undoubtedly the severity of a 96-car pileup on I-77 in 2013 remains fresh in the mind of planners. The March incident claimed the lives of three persons. Information supplied by VDOT indicates it involved 17 separate crashes with 15 vehicles in escape ramp areas. Initial clean-up of the scene took 10 hours and 42 minutes with the shortest visibility at the time of the accidents recorded at 167 feet.
McDonald said closing the area is not a viable choice in light of U.S. 52’s inability to handle traffic volume and tractor-trailer traffic. The system is also tied to a weather operations center located in Salem, which is staffed 24-hours and seven days a week by personnel controlling the message boards.
Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. Mike Musser concurred with McDonald, noting secondary crashes also played a role in the March pileup in the area where the majority of traffic is tourists, unfamiliar with the area. Musser said if the system gets motorists to slow down and it saves one life, the cost would be worth it.
“Our technology will improve awareness in real time,” McDonald said. “Drivers still need to use judgment (based on road conditions and weather) though.”
David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.