JRB accident victims question bridge safety measures

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by Janet Roach, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on July 18, 2013 at 6:34 PM

Updated Thursday, Jul 18 at 6:41 PM

NEWPORT NEWS-- In the eight short seconds it takes to get across the grid deck of the James River Bridge, traveling at 45 mph, a lot can happen- just ask Alyssa Withrow, who lost control of her Jeep Wrangler one rainy night in April. 

Withrow thought she was going to die as she slammed into the guardrail.

"I hit the guardrail and I kind of tipped up and I saw the water and I thought I was going off
the side," Withrow said.

The Smithfield teenager says she quit her job in Hampton, just to avoid driving over the bridge.

Withrow is one of many drivers who feels the bridge became more slippery once the grid deck was replaced six months ago.

Joyce Miller of Suffolk hasn't been able to go to work at the Smithfield Packing Plant since her accident on the JRB on April 29.

Miller was on her way to work in the rain and lost control of her Ford Explorer on the grid while driving 25 mph.

"I noticed my truck started sliding to the side, hitting the rail. I was scared. I panicked," Miller said.  She dislocated her right elbow and is in physical therapy to regain full use of her arm.

According to the Isle of Wight County Sheriff, deputies have already responded to 13 crashes on the JRB grid deck since January, up from two in 2012. 

John Strait used to work for VDOT as a bridge tender when the four-lane bridge first opened in 1982. When Strait heard about the recent rash of accidents on the JRB, he said it was like a problem he'd seen back in the 80's.

"When it got wet, it was like ice, and they came up with a fix of putting studs out there," said Strait.

In 1983, VDOT conducted a safety study after 31 accidents occurred on the bridge during the first ten months the bridge was open. The study determined that driver error contributed to the crashes.

An article in the Daily Press from 1989 reports VDOT paid a contractor more than $175,000  to install 112,000 studs on the grid. The contractor is quoted as saying it was for safety reasons to increase traction in wet weather.

Court records show, before the studs were installed, a lawsuit was filed in Isle Wight County Circuit Court in 1989 by a driver who claimed flawed construction of the draw span contributed to her accident. The suit was dismissed.

VDOT spokeswoman Lauren Hansen says studs aren't necessarily the answer.  The state agency is currently conducting a study of the bridge, prompted by the rash of accidents. 

In a statement emailed to 13News, Hansen says, "Studs do not prevent accidents, but they do help provide additional traction to tires that are very worn. Once our study is completed in the next week and a half, I will have action steps to share moving forward. The new grid deck has a larger surface area than the old grid deck, negating the need for the additional traction as was installed on the old span." 

Studding is being considered, however, as a possible action to improving the bridge. Hansen adds that other area bridges don't have studs.

Withrow isn't waiting for VDOT to come up with a fix. She has been using social media to warn her friends about the bridge. 

A woman Withrow knew, 20-year-old Kayla Williams of Isle of Wight County, died in an accident on the bridge in early July.  

Williams' friends blame the grid deck. State police say other factors contributed to the accident, including speed and worn tires.
 

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