Even before Juliana Porter became the latest motorist to die October 4 on Route 20 South, longtime commuter Edward Strickler had gone to an Albemarle County transportation meeting to voice his concerns about the road to Scottsville.
He’s seen a lot of fatal or near-fatal accidents since he moved to Scottsville 20 years ago. Strickler estimates that at least three times a week, he and his partner will see dangerous behavior on the road that causes them to go, “Whoa, look at that,” he says. “When someone is gaming the passing zones or passing on a double-yellow line, you can’t do anything. There’s no shoulder to get over on.”
Six people have died on the Constitution Route since 2011, according to Albemarle County Police, but the changes Strickler would like to see—reduced speed limits, eliminated passing zones and added shoulders—are not likely to happen, says the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Porter, 25, a UVA med student from Norfolk, was driving north on Route 20 when her Honda Civic crashed head-on into a Ford Explorer about a mile north of Keene. She became the county’s 11th fatality this year, say Albemarle police. She was valedictorian of her high school class, graduated magna cum laude from Davidson College in 2012 and was engaged to be married next year, according to her obituary.
Strickler, who works in the UVA School of Medicine, says it was not the first time a young doctor has died. He recalls a colleague who had just finished his training and was preparing to start an independent practice when he crashed on Route 20. His peers at the hospital worked unsuccessfully to save his life, and he died leaving a widow and young children. Strickler remembers well his funeral, and says, “In the midst of so much loving care for the dead and the living there was always the truth that this death, this sorrow, this loss were all avoidable.”
Strickler wants the speed limit from the town of Scottsville to Scottsville Elementary School reduced from 35mph to 25mph. While the lower speed would reduce the severity of an accident, says Joel DeNunzio, VDOT’s resident administrator for Albemarle, “The reality is that people are not going to drive that slow.”
Passing zones are another area of concern for Strickler after seeing people make dangerous maneuvers. VDOT will take a look at those, says DeNunzio.
While traveling in rural Maryland recently, Strickler noted its “marvelously wide paved shoulders” and wonders why Albemarle’s rural roads can’t have the same.
Two problems, responds DeNunzio. Part of it is the topography of rural Maryland compared with here. Roads closer to the mountains have fewer shoulders, he says.
“I love the idea of wide shoulders,” which would greatly improve the safety of Route 20 between Charlottesville and Scottsville, he says. However, adding a 4′ shoulder would cost between $15 million and $20 million. Instead, DeNunzio says he’ll recommend spot improvements, which are more likely to find funding, and adding Route 20 to the long-range transportation plan for rural roads.
“Route 20 is an old road that has become a commuter route,” he says, and it would take major reconstruction to straighten curves and flatten hills.
Earl Smith, candidate for the Scottsville seat on the Board of Supervisors, has been riding on that road since he was 12 years old. “What we have now is like a superhighway compared to before,” he says.
Smith remembers “a horrible wreck” in the late 1970s where “six or seven” kids riding in a pickup truck were killed on the same stretch of road where Porter died.
He says he hears a lot of complaints about speeding, and he thinks a lot of the dangerous passing on double-yellow lines comes from people driving too slowly. “A tremendous amount of people are scared to death to drive 20,” he says. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve ranted about them going 25 or 30mph and won’t pull over.”
Smith agrees that Route 20 South can be perilous, but says he doesn’t think it’s any more dangerous than Black Cat or Old Lynchburg roads.
“It’s always been an issue,” says Rick Randolph, who’s also running to represent the Scottsville District on the Board of Supervisors. “It’s a longstanding concern. People feel it’s best to straighten it out. Given the precarious nature of VDOT funding and the cost that would be involved, the chances are very slim we’ll see that happen.”
Randolph, too, points out that Route 20 isn’t the only inherently dangerous thoroughfare in the county and lists Route 53—“that’s an extremely dangerous road”—and routes 22/231 and 20 North.
Randolph and Smith both suggest signage might be a good idea to urge caution. “People need to remind themselves they need to drive prudently,” says Randolph.
Strickler has another idea for improving safety with more community policing and the presence of officers, “particularly at commuting time.”