Interstate 81: Crashes increase with speed limit - FOX 21/27 WFXR Roanoke/WWCW Lynchburg News, Weather

Interstate 81: Crashes increase with speed limit

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For more than four decades Daryl Reed has lived in the small town of Springwood in Botetourt County.

For most of that time he's made it a point to stay off of Interstate 81.

"I might have drove on it two or three times in the last four or five years," Reed said. "I mean I really try to avoid it."

Reed has no shortage of reasons to find different routes.

"It's a dangerous interstate in my opinion," he said. "Too much traffic on it (going) too fast."

Those drivers were given a little more leeway in November 2010, when the speed limits rose from 65 to 70 miles per hour.

We decided to dig deeper into the number of serious crashes on I-81, focusing on a 12 mile stretch beginning at mile marker 162 in Buchanan extending to mile marker 174 near the Rockbridge County line.

VDOT only lists crashes that cause more than $1,000 worth of damage, or where someone is injured or killed.

In 2009, the last full year before the speed limit rose, 77 crashes were recorded.

Jump ahead to 2011, the first full year with the speed limit at 70 miles per hour, the number of crashes jumped to 115.

That's a 60 percent increase.

The number of crashes leveled off in 2012, dropping to 73.

Raising the speed limit became popular during the 2009 governor's race.

Then candidate Bob McDonnell promised to raise the speed limit on rural highways if elected.

During his first State of the Commonwealth in January 2010, McDonnell addressed that promise.

"I believe it's time to raise the speed limit in the rural parts of the state to 70 miles per hour on our interstates," McDonnell told the General Assembly.

That proclamation became a reality 10 months later.

We reached out to McDonnell's office for comment on the data, but we were re-directed to VDOT.

A spokesperson for the agency said they supported the governor's plan to raise the speed limit since most of the highways were designed for drivers to go 70 miles per hour.

VDOT has taken steps to fix the dangerous stretch of I-81 we investigated.

At mile marker 168 (where a large portion of the accidents occurred), VDOT repaved the curve bank, replaced guard rails, and added warning signs.

"The damage just seems like it's increasing every year now," said Buchanan Fire Chief John Manspile.

He estimates one-third of his department's calls come from a five mile stretch of I-81.

Manspile doesn't believe there are more crashes in the area, but he said the types of crashes are changing.

"They're actually a little more severe. We're having more tractor trailer accidents," he said. "When you have a tractor trailer involved with cars around, it gets pretty severe quick."

Manspile's suggestion is simple, pay attention and slow down.