Monday, April 1, 2013

What makes I-77 so scary

I wrote in this blog about two years ago on the dangers of driving on Interstate 77 at Fancy Gap Mountain, on the North Carolina-Virginia border.

That danger was brought to life Sunday afternoon, in a huge crash that enveloped nearly 100 vehicles, killed three people, injured 25, and forced the road to be closed for many hours.

It wasn't a first.  That section of road has been the scene of several huge wrecks, and it's really difficult to see how things will change in the future.

Along that stretch of road, I-77's elevation changes from about 1,500 feet in North Carolina to about 2,800 feet at the top, in Virginia. Much of that altitude change happens in a 6.2-mile stretch. 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, is an adventure. As I wrote in 2011, 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.

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 (Sunday's started near mile marker 6), 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.

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.

Nothing can be done about the fog that forms on the mountain and the strong winds that sometimes blow there.  Apparently, nothing can be done about the motorists who charge down the mountain at 75 and 80 mph, seemingly ignoring the electronic signs that warn of dense fog ahead.

It leaves the rest of us at great risk.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post Steve. I have to go through there all the time when I visit family back up in Cleveland. Actually came through there late at night the week before this pileup and the winds and fog were so bad that I thought it was a blizzard. People in the fast lane were still going 75 while I slowed it down to 55-60 - even less a times. Wish everyone would be more cautious through there - especially on holiday weekends and when weather conditions warrant.

Anonymous said...

I have driven that stretch of highway many times visiting family in Virginia. Thankfully, most of the time the weather has cooperated, but I have been through some BAD fog on occasion, and it always shocks me how people don't seem to care when they can't see. I was always taught to drive in the right lane with your hazard lights on in dense fog, but some people don't even put their headlights on!

I was caught in the "detour" traffic on 52 for nearly three hours yesterday as I was heading back to Charlotte. Keeping in mind the reason for the detour, I still had someone riding up my backend as we navigated down the mountain in rainy weather.

Some people will not slow down for anything!

Anonymous said...

I agree, that stretch can be really scary! Unfortunately, sometimes it can't really be avoided. I drive back & forth to Washington, DC all the time and on Fridays I-66W/I-81/I-77S is really the only way to go unless you want to take I-29 (takes forever) or I-95S to I-85S (which has horrible traffic on Fridays). People just need to SLOW DOWN and pay attention, I guess but it is so sad.

Anonymous said...

I was driving North parallel on Hwy 89 at the same time the wreck was occurring. Through Lowgap good visibility until the ascent up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Ten yard visibility and 15 mph was scary. The three and a half miles on the Parkway were virtually zero visibility at 10 mph. We're on the edge over 1100 feet above Lowgap and it was 2:30 before the burn off. It's interesting watching the clouds start backing up from the Sauratown Range and just plant a huge fog bank over the the Parkway for six or more hours, or a couple of days. Today clear and cloudy but Navy F-18s were skimming the the trees over Lowgap looping through Alleghany County and heading back to Virginia for training missions.