Monday, March 7, 2011

I-77 at Fancy Gap ... a spectacular nightmare

The Virginia Department of Transportation closed a portion of Interstate 77 near the North Carolina border late Sunday and early Monday because of high winds.

Some motorists probably wouldn't mind that portion of I-77 being closed permanently ... except that the alternatives are worse.

If you've ever driven I-77 into Virginia -- and most of you have, at one time or another -- you know what I'm talking about.

At the North Carolina border, headed northbound, you encounter a 10-mile stretch in which the road climbs about 1,500 to 2,000 feet. It's less scary northbound, because everyone is climbing, and that limits the speed at which most vehicles can drive.

But southbound, from Virginia into North Carolina? Yikes! Tractor-trailers, other types of trucks, campers, SUVs, minivans and regular sedans tend to fly down that mountain, and they often roll into a thick fog bank that forms on the embankment.

It's actually the Blue Ridge Escarpment, and it's where the North Carolina Piedmont rises into the Appalachian Mountains. That change in topography occurs all along the mountain line in North Carolina, but it's particularly vivid on I-77 because of the high traffic volume and the unusual makeup of the ridge in that area.

Dave Wert, of the National Weather Service office in Blacksburg, Va., said the Blue Ridge line typically is southwest-northeast, but it's on more of an east-west line in the Fancy Gap, Va., area at I-77.

When a moist south or southeast wind from the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico piles up against the mountain range, it forms dense fog. And when the wind is strong out of the south -- as was the case late Sunday -- it creates a tunnel effect up I-77. Winds can blow at 40 to 50 mph, causing motorists to lose control of their vehicles.

The fog-induced wrecks can be nightmarish. One minute, you're driving south on I-77 in cloudy weather. The next minute, fog limits visibility to a 100 or 200 feet.

Last Nov. 16, dense fog was blamed for pileups that claimed 75 vehicles and left two people dead. There was a 50-vehicle pileup in May 2001 and a 46-vehicle wreck in October 1998.

The Virginia Department of Transportation did a study on that section of I-77 about a decade ago and found that most of the wrecks happened between mile markers 5 and 7, about halfway down the steep grade. And most happened on the southbound side, where motorists were traveling faster.

So Virginia officials installed devices to measure fog and wind, and to alert motorists in advance with overhead signs. Unfortunately, the warnings sometimes don't slow motorists.

In the headline, I called this section of I-77 a "spectacular nightmare."

That's because when conditions are clear, the visibility can be 25 to 40 miles, and motorists can see far southeastward, into the North Carolina Piedmont. Of course, drivers shouldn't be looking at the scenery. That section of the road is frightening enough in good weather. But if you're a passenger and the weather is clear, the view is great.

I also said at the beginning of this article that the alternatives to I-77 are worse.

Before this section of road was completed in July 1977, motorists headed from North Carolina to Virginia had to use twisting, turning U.S. 52. A trip of 10 miles could take a couple hours, and portions of that roadway were scary, too.

So keep the speed in check, make sure drivers keep their eyes on the road, and follow advice on the road signs. If you do all that, and if the fog and winds aren't bad, it'll be a quick and scenic way of negotiating the Blue Ridge Escarpment.


Anonymous said...

Great story, Steve, but I believe the alternate roadway is US 52, not US 21 --

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love that stretch of 77, both North and Southbound, as long as it's clear. If you're an engaged driver, it's no problem to navigate at the posted speed limit whatsoever.

Steve Lyttle said...

Thanks a lot. I should remember that ... I've driven it before.

Anonymous said...

I love this portion especially south bound. Take my foot off the gas pedal and let that car drive itself. Northbound, I take off the overdrive and off I go past all the slow pokes.

Oh and Steve STOP blaming the weather for the traffic crashes. Blame dumb drivers instead for failing to pay attention and adjust to the weather conditions.

In the meantime, get all the northbound slow pokes out of the left lane so faster traffic can use that lane to pass.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes, just to get off 77, I'll use US 52. Takes longer but there less traffic and it is a nice drive especially southbound in Virginia. I found a street named Old Farts Lane.

Mark :)

Anonymous said...

If you take a quick peek eastward you can see Pilot Mountain too.

Anonymous said...

You can also see the Winston-Salem skyline on a clear day near the top of the Mtn.

Steve Lyttle said...

To Mark at 10:37 a.m. ... OK, I'll admit it. I'm one of those slowpokes. But I always stay in the right lane. That road, southbound, is too much for an old coot like me.

Derek said...

I'll never forget..Dec. 27/90. Coming dow from Canada to meet my fiance's family in Monroe. 7 p.m. so it's pitch black, pouring rain, fog or cloud, visibility about 2 car lengths.

Knowing there are transports all around me, curves you can't see, etc. Worst white knuckle drive of my life. I was relieved for the black ice but CLEAR VISIBILTY conditions I encountered by the time I got to Charlotte.

Roberto said...

I drove that section to see a client on 11/16/10 and it got so foggy I couldn't see to drive, nor could I see to pull off. I kept driving very slowly and made it. An hour after I got through it the wreck Dave talks about occurred and closed the section for the rest of the day. It must have been surreal to be stuck there all day while rescue workers tried to clear it all up!

Anonymous said...

I forgot, I also take off the overdrive going downhill southbound. Helps to keep my speed under control.

Beep, beep here I come.


Anonymous said...

Heavy fog is the only weather condition I hate to drive in. Lights are more or less useless, and along that stretch of I-77, the fog's often so dense, you can't even see the brake lights of the car in front of you.

On another note...all that "end of winter" stuff you wrote about last week? Then temperatures in the low thirties Sunday night, forecast for 31-degrees tonight, and it's just barely over 50 right now? Maybe you want to revise your thinking a bit on that?

Anonymous said...

Fog and snow are worse at night. Both slow me down that I get afraid someone might run into my back end - this is why I use my flashers too.

Take a LOT of concentration too. Driving in snow is like Han Solo taking off into hyperdrive with all the snowflakes flying at my headlights and the windshield, plus trying to keep my car under control driving in the slop on the road surface.


Anonymous said...

I too have driven southbound in the worst fog I have ever seen-I was a nervous wreck for the entire way down. You really can't see anything! Drive carefully all!

Stancil from Statesville said...

I just put the RV on cruise control and go back and make me a sandwich.

Anonymous said...

I travel that road at least once a month to/from gambling trips in WVA. Thank you for bringing this stretch of road to light. It can be treacherous for all. I plan my trips so I don't ever have to deal with that mountain at nite.

Anonymous said...

its illegal to drive down the road with your flashers on, you create a hazard doing this, not helping matters . . the flashing lights lock up people's brains, its proven, thats why its illegal, so dont drive down the damn road with your flashers on !@!@!@!@!

Anonymous said...

I'm a trucker who's driven that stretch many a time and I never looked forward to it in anything other than perfect weather conditions. I agree about the flashers....don't use them while driving. When approaching someone with flashers on in bad weather it becomes confusing as to whether they are on or off the road. Definitely a bad idea that only makes matters worse under already stressful conditions.

Anonymous said...

I have driven that stretch of road numerous times, The elevation change will make your ears pop a time or two but the scenery coming off the ridge is amazing.

Anonymous said...

Love that stretch of road, especially on a clear night. The view is great. So many towns down there. My ex hated it. Afraid of heights :-( .drove it last week, first time in 18 yrs. Still love it.

Anonymous said...

I've been through that stretch of highway many times I almost always go through in daylight hours.