Special Report: Has Interstate 81 become more dangerous?

Published: Dec. 19, 2019 at 5:09 PM EST
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Most everyone in Southwest Virginia uses Interstate 81. Many who travel on the highway are frustrated with the congestion and the number of accidents.

WDBJ7 wanted to find out: Are there more accidents on Interstate 81 these days and what, if anything, is being done about it?

When you talk with drivers who use 81 you hear a common sentiment.

"There are so many trucks. They get in both lanes," said Gail Griffith, who stopped at the Ironto rest area on her way from Florida to Virginia to attend her son's wedding this Fall. "It is a dangerous road I think. I feel 81's been dangerous for a long time."

"I would say just about every day there's some type of accident. You get stuck in traffic," said Donald Childress, who travels the interstate from Roanoke to Montgomery County for work.

While some crashes cause delays and congestion, others change lives forever. It was October 2 when Peter Ozolins was stopped in traffic on Interstate 81, when a tractor trailer slammed into his vehicle. Ozolins, a Roanoke husband and father, did not survive.

"He was an architect, grew up in Minnesota, but he lived all over the world, he spoke five languages," said Marija Ozolins as she fought back tears describing her dad. "He was incredibly humble and just a lovely, warm, really, really goofy person."

Now Marija Ozolins is channeling her grief to push for a safer Interstate.

"I think there are some things that can be done. I mean, this is our road. It's our tax money," Ozolins said. "I think we have a right to have safer roads."

It seems most agree that something must be done.

"It's a very dangerous highway," said Virginia Delegate Terry Austin. "It''s a 1960's era highway. It's had very little improvement, very little improvement."

Dave Covington oversees the Interstate 81 corridor improvement program for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

"This area we're starting to see this perpetual congestion, which is starting to look like 95, which is a little scary," Covington said.

According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, between 2008 and 2018 between Salem and Troutville, the number of accidents has doubled.

One reason: all the trucks.

"Well, the truck traffic has gone up," Covington said.

In fact, 41 percent of all truck traffic in the Commonwealth is on Interstate 81. But it's not just trucks. All traffic has increased.

VDOT reports a whopping 73,000 vehicles travel on the two-mile stretch between Salem and Roanoke everyday.

It's that stretch where next Spring, construction will start to add a third lane both ways. That's just the beginning.

In October, VDOT gave the green light to five more projects in our region that will widen the interstate to three lanes in both directions from 136 to 150 at Troutville.

The work will be done in phases.

Entrance and Exit ramps will also be extended southbound at the Troutville rest area.

"Some of these projects try to spread things out a little bit to give people time to make decisions, make good decision, so we avoid some of these crashes," said David Covington, the VDOT 81 Corridor Director.

The cost for those five projects is $625 million.

New registration fees and taxes on truckers, along with a fuel tax that went into effect in July, will generate money to pay for improvement on I-81.

State lawmakers also approved 63 additional projects that should be in place by year's end, including lighted chevrons, safety cameras and more information signs to alert motorists of accidents.

"It was all based on capacity, incidents, where there had been fatalities, volume and capacity of the road," said Delegate Terry Austin.

Will Dalton, a trucker, has been driving for 40 years.

"You got so many of the trucks that are loaded so heavy they slow traffic down. So a few more lanes could be an advantage point," Dalton said.

People who travel on 81 for work agree.

"I think adding lanes would stop the bottleneck and a lot of the congestion," Donald Childress said.

While at the Ohzulin's home, the family photo is forever changed.

Marija vows to push through the tears to continue working for a safer highway.

"It's too late for my family, but I think for other families, it's not," Ozolins said.

Ozolins is advocating that even more be done. She's pushing for automatic braking on trucks - something she says could've saved her dad's life.

Meanwhile work is ongoing in Richmond to find ways to move some truck traffic off of Interstate 81.

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