Driven mad: From dangerous intersections to speed traps, driving in Charlottesville can be hell on wheels

Driven mad: From dangerous intersections to speed traps, driving in Charlottesville can be hell on wheels

Yeah, we know Charlottesville’s traffic woes don’t begin to compare to the nightmare of Northern Virginia, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have our own white hot flashes of irritation when that bumbling numbnut doesn’t press the gas immediately when the light turns green at Rio and 29 or when someone decides it’s O.K. to cruise below the speed limit in the passing lane. From the worst inter-sections to hellacious speed traps (hello 250 Bypass!) to contentious bicycle/car relations on county roads, we’ve found plenty of reasons to be driven crazy. – Courteney Stuart

Plenty of local drivers have seen Charlottesville Police Sergeant Tito Durrette in their rear view mirrors. Photo: Martyn Kyle
Plenty of local drivers have seen Charlottesville Police Sergeant Tito Durrette in their rear view mirrors. Photo: Martyn Kyle

Radar love

Some words of advice from a traffic cop

Within two weeks, three members of Diana Amatucci’s family got speeding tickets on the U.S. 250 Bypass. Her husband was ticketed April 7 for going 50mph in a 35mph zone. She was nailed April 22 for going 52mph in that same stretch, and her son was pulled the next day in the 25mph hot zone near the McIntire Road interchange for going 20 miles over the posted speed limit, according to court records.

Now that construction is mostly done, says Amatucci, “I think 25mph on that road is completely unreasonable. My instinct is, this is a divided four-lane highway. Who’s going 25?” Even 35mph seems “kind of slow” to Amatucci.

The Amatuccis are not alone in getting nabbed on the 250 bypass. Sergeant Tito Durrette with Charlottesville Police says speeders on that road are like “fish in a barrel.”

And that’s not the only place drivers like to go above the speed limit. “People speed everywhere in Charlottesville,” says Durrette. “We can’t get them to understand school zones.” Even with flashing lights. And on Locust Avenue, where the speed limit is 25mph, it’s not uncommon to clock people going 42mph or 45mph, he says.

The maximum posted speed is the maximum speed, intones Durrette. “People get wrapped up in their personal lives,” he says. “They say they didn’t realize they were going that fast. We call it ‘driver inattention.’”

If you’ve just zoomed by a radar-packing cop, “don’t panic,” advises Durrette. Find a safe place to pull over that’s not on private property or blocking a driveway. If you’re in the left lane, move to the right. Don’t get out of the car, and keep your hands where the officer can see them. “Relax,” says Durrette, while noting the hardly relaxing point that “most cops get killed during traffic stops.”

Cops hear a lot of excuses for exceeding the speed limit. The best Durrette heard was diarrhea—but he didn’t buy it because, he says, “I’ve got a sense of smell. One of my officers said he smelled it and let her go.” Other excuses are that the driver is sick to her stomach or pregnant.

What if you’re in labor and rushing to the hospital—is it O.K. to speed then?

No, says Durrette. “We prefer you wait for the ambulance. Don’t speed. If the husband is driving, he’s not in his right mind because he’s thinking about having a baby in the car and he shouldn’t be driving.”

So how fast can you go over the speed limit without getting ticketed? Sergeant Durrette takes a long pause, as if  answering a question that seems to be coming from a slow learner, and repeats, “The maximum speed limit is the maximum speed.” He relents and adds, “It all depends on the officer. You can get stopped for going 26 in a 25 zone.”

And what about those zones where the speed limit seems unnaturally cautious, like the newly widened 25mph Jarman’s Gap Road in Crozet, which was 40mph when it was a narrow rural road (and where a certain unnamed C-VILLE staffer got ticketed)?

VDOT’s Stacy Londrey points to Albemarle’s comprehensive plan, which zoned the road to Old Trail in the “Neighborhood Density Residential” category, and state code, which mandates the speed limit in such categories must be 25mph. After the road work was completed, VDOT did a study. “They look at a variety of factors, but one of the main components is comparing the posted speed limit to the prevailing speed of vehicles using the road,” says Londrey in an e-mail. The study determined that the 25mph speed limit was correct, she says.

Good news for drivers chafing under the construction speed limit on the 250 Bypass: According to the city’s Jeanette Janiczek, the 25mph work zone is going up to 35mph once construction is complete, which should be the beginning of July.—Lisa Provence


Illegal or merely annoying?

C-VILLE asks an expert about our driving pet peeves

If the car in front only pulled up a few more feet, you could squeeze into the left lane and make that left-turn light. But no, oblivious driver up ahead isn’t budging, so that means sitting and fuming through another stoplight cycle.

We checked with Charlottesville Police Sergeant Tito Durrette, who informs us that sadly, it’s not illegal to be such a dunderhead. It’s merely annoying. Here are a few more C-VILLE staff-culled pet peeves. Are they illegal or just annoying?—Lisa Provence

Driving below the speed limit.

The sign says 55mph, but some drivers take that as a suggestion and feel more comfortable driving 45mph, despite the line of cars backing up behind them on a two-lane road. “If it’s raining, I would suggest 45,” says Durrette, who acknowledges that some older drivers prefer going slower.

Verdict: Annoying

Driving in the left lane on the interstate.

You’ve seen them, resolutely driving the speed limit and refusing to abdicate the left lane as if it’s a divine right while traffic backs up for miles. State code says vehicles moving slower than “the normal speed of traffic” shall move to the right. “The violation must be observed by the trooper in order to issue a summons,” says Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller. State Police don’t track this offense, but according to the Supreme Court of Virginia’s database, an eye-popping 8,694 citations allegedly were written in 2014.

Verdict: Illegal

Leaving a couple of car lengths in front at a stoplight.

“Cops do it all the time so they can get out,” says Durrette. And other people do it so they can avoid a chain reaction if they’re hit from the rear, he says. For in-town driving, that seems pretty unlikely to us. And it’s keeping us from getting into the left or right turn lanes.

Verdict: Annoying

The light turns green and no one moves.

People are distracted, says Durrette. “They’re talking on the phone or texting.” We don’t care. Pay attention.

Verdict: Annoying

Laying on the horn when the light turns green and no one moves.

A tap to rouse the lead driver out of his reverie is O.K., says Durrette, but making like you’re in New York can result in a ticket for improper use of a horn.

Verdict: Illegal

Taking up two marked spaces when parking on a city street.

“That’s a city violation,” says Durrette.

Verdict: Illegal

Taking up two unmarked spaces when parking on a city street.

“If it’s not marked, they’re being selfish,” says Durrette. Ahem, regular parkers on Garrett Street.

Verdict: Annoying

Not pulling into the intersection to make a left turn.

Wait until the intersection is clear, advises Durrette. It’s not a requirement to edge into the intersection to get through the light.

Verdict: Annoying

Pulling into the intersection where traffic is backed up and blocking it.

Again Durrette says to wait until the intersection is clear, even if it means missing the green light. “Everyone is in a hustle and bustle,” he says.

Verdict: Annoying

Not signaling.

You can be cited for failing to use a signal, says Durrette.

Verdict: Illegal

Parents should play an active role in their children’s driving instruction, says Green Light Driving School co-owner Sheila Jones. Photo: Martyn Kyle
Parents should play an active role in their children’s driving instruction, says Green Light Driving School co-owner Sheila Jones. Photo: Martyn Kyle

Getting schooled

“Everyone thinks they’re a good driver,” says Sheila Jones, a driving instructor who co-owns Green Light Driving School on Arlington Avenue with her husband Mike, a retired police sergeant. That’s obviously not the case, as the numbers of accidents and tickets issued on local roads (and our own eyeballs) prove. Jones says she’s constantly witnessing examples of poor driving.

“I don’t think enough people understand who has right of way,” says Jones, who notices drivers are often confused about how to proceed at four-way stops. In that situation, she says, “It’s whoever gets there first.”

Another local trouble spot: A sign at the intersection of 29N and Rio Road that says U-Turn Yield to Right Turn. “I don’t think half the adults in town know what that means,” says Jones, who explains that cars who wish to do a U-Turn on 29 at that intersection must yield to vehicles turning right onto 29 from Rio.

Jones also worries that new drivers aren’t getting enough formal driving instruction before receiving their licenses. In addition to 45 hours of driving with a parent or other adult, state law requires new drivers to receive seven 50-minute periods of driving instruction behind the wheel and another seven periods of watching another student drive before a license is issued. Jones says parents whose children are receiving their driving instruction at local high schools should ensure that the full number of sessions are received.

“They’ll tell kids after the third or fourth lesson, you’re good enough. You don’t need more,” she says. “You can’t leave it up to the driving instructor to say your kid’s ready to drive.”—Courteney Stuart

Three things that have changed since you learned to drive:

Hand placement: For years, new drivers were taught to place their hands at 10 and two. The advent of airbags changed that, and the proper way to hold the steering wheel is now with hands at eight and four to prevent your arms being broken or slammed into your face if the airbag deploys.

Turning the wheel: No more “hand over hand” to turn the steering wheel, says Jones. Along with the change in hand placement, new drivers are taught the “push, pull, slide” method, which means hands never leave the steering wheel.

Mirror placement: Chances are, your side-view mirrors are set wrong if you learned to drive years ago. “You shouldn’t see your own car,” says Jones. “You need to see what’s next to you.”  What hasn’t changed, she points out, is the need to always look over your shoulder before changing lanes to make sure there’s no other vehicle in your blind spot.

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