Another fatality on Va. 24

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Third accident in a month results in a death

By John Barnhart
and Tom Wilmoth


    For the third time in a month, a life has been lost as the result of an accident along Va. 24 between Jordantown Road and Va. 122.
    And some are questioning the road’s safety. Or are at least requesting more safety measures be implemented.
    The most recent crash comes even as the road’s safety had been questioned along that stretch of road after three teenagers lost their lives in two earlier crashes. An online petition was being utilized to spread those concerns, and call for safety measures to take place.
    The Virginia State Police are continuing their investigation into just what caused the most recent accident—a single vehicle crash last Thursday that occurred around 1 p.m. on Va. 24 westbound, five tenths of a mile west of Route 635.
    The preliminary investigation revealed that a 1990 Ford Mustang convertible was traveling eastbound when the driver ran off the right side of the roadway striking several logs and then an embankment before flipping over on its top. The driver Dale Mitchell Ridgeway, 60, of Moneta, was not wearing a safety belt at the time of the crash and was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the Virginia State Police.
    The accident shut down traffic on Va. 24 for several hours.
    It’s been a tragedy-filled month for crashes for that stretch of two-lane road that serves as a feeder for Smith Mountain Lake to the east and Roanoke to the west.

    The community has been hit hard by the series of accidents over the past several weeks.
    Prior to last week’s crash, three Staunton River High School students lost their lives.
    An accident on November 14 claimed the lives of Jacob Henry Baird, 17, of Thaxton and  Katie Thurston, 16, of Vinton, both students at the school. Two other students—Shawn Hall, 19, of Vinton, and Gradon Lewis Graybill, 18, of Blue Ridge—were also injured in the accident that occurred about four miles west of the school on Va. 24. They were on their way to school when the accident occurred.
    In that accident, Jacob Baird pulled out onto Va. 24 from Masons Lane and was struck by a truck traveling westbound on the road. He and Katie Thurston were both pronounced dead at the scene.
    Word spread quickly of the tragedy throughout the community. Students were told during their first period class.
    But even before the wounds of that tragedy could begin healing, more heartbreak hit the school and Moneta community.  Ashley Brooke Barton, 17, of Moneta, also a student at Staunton River, died in another accident on Va. 24 when she tried to avoid hitting a deer Sunday, Nov. 18.
    That occurred just minutes from her home and just two days after students and staff at the school held a vigil at the flagpole for their two classmates they lost in the first accident.
    Since the first two accidents, the petition began being circulated.
    It calls for a number of improvements along Va. 24, including:
    • widening the lanes within five years
    * lowering the speed limit to 45 mph for all of that stretch of road;
    • adding street lights on curves;
    • installing guard rails in areas where they’re needed;
    • putting up more deer caution signs;
    • changing hunting season from two weeks to four weeks to control deer population; and
    • providing schools with simulators for drivers education classes.

VDOT’s process
    According to Jason Bond, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) Salem District, one safety improvement that the petition calls for — guardrails — is already on the way. Bond said that VDOT has identified spots on the highway where guardrails are needed and work on this will start next year. This has already been funded.
    “It’s been working its way through the process,” Bond said.
    That process involves getting on the six-year plan for highway improvements. But that does not mean that the work will be done in six years. According to Bond, the improvement plan is a six-year window of projected revenue. Getting on the plan means that money is available for at least one of an improvement’s three phases in that projected revenue window.
    The phases of a highway improvement consist of preliminary engineering, acquisition of the right of way needed and actually constructing the improvement. Widening a road requires an environmental impact study.
    Funding for highway improvements comes from the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which divvies up available funds to various projects.
    Bond said that, as the Board develops its primary road improvement plan — Va. 24 is a primary road — it holds hearings in each district. The hearings are held at a different location in the district each year, but are most frequently held in Salem in this district. This gives the general public and elected officials a chance to address the Board. Following the public hearings, the Board produces a draft plan, usually in late spring, and takes public comment. The final plan takes effect on July 1 of each year.
    Bond said that maintenance of existing highways are the first priority as transportation funds are allocated.
    “The cost of maintenance continues to go up,” he said.
    The primary source for transportation funds is the gas tax.
    “In Virginia, the gas tax hasn’t risen since 1986,” Bond added.
    The problem: There are more road improvement needs than there are funds to pay for them.

VDOT’s current plans
    A VDOT study of transportation needs in the Smith Mountain Lake area calls for extending the four-lane section of Va. 24 eastward to Chamblissburg. This extension would have 12-foot wide lanes and 6-foot wide shoulders. The estimated cost, in 2009, for this 1.57 mile long project was $8 million. Bond said this was a preliminary estimate.
    Another project on that highway calls for installing dual left turn lanes at Va. 24’s intersection with Jordantown Road and Goodview Road, along with optimizing the traffic signal, due to traffic congestion.
    But no money is available for those projects.

VDOT’s numbers
    VDOT statistics show 310 crashes on the Bedford County portion of Va. 24 from Jan. 1, 2006 through Dec. 31, 2010. These statistics only include major accidents — crashes in which somebody is killed or injured or cases in which there is at least $1,000 in property damage. Those crashes, over that four year span, killed nine people and injured 151.
    Of course those don’t take into account any of the current tragic accidents, or any that occurred the past two years.
    A VDOT map of crashes shows a hot spot along a section of Va. 24, a short distance west of its intersection with Va. 122. Most of these were due to deer strikes or people going off the road and hitting an object.