Video by JORDAN FIFER | THE ROANOKE TIMES
THE SIGNS ALONG MUCH OF INTERSTATE 81 say the speed limit is 65 mph.
But drivers don't believe it.
Virginia State Police says it enforces the posted speed limit.
But it can't.
In spite of a direct tie between speeding and wrecks, most drivers speed on I-81 — sometimes right past police.
During a recent morning, cars and light trucks traveling 75 mph — 10 notches over the limit applying to much of I-81 — did not rouse Trooper Jason Hypes from his post.
Virginia State Police Trooper Jason Hypes checks vehicle speeds with the laser device in the Dixie Caverns area of Interstate 81. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES
"There's so many going faster than that, I don't stop cars at 75," Hypes said in a blue and gray state police car parked in the median near Dixie Caverns.
"Once you get over 75, you're pushing your luck."
Col. Steve Flaherty, superintendent of state police, "wishes he could put a blue and gray in everybody's rearview mirror," said spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
But the understaffed department is facing higher workloads with minimal staffing increases. Jobs are vacant because of a lack of money. Workloads would justify a 20 percent increase in troopers, a staffing study found.
So absent an effective check on speeding, drivers speed — daily. So many motorists are speeding on I-81, driving patterns have effectively raised the enforced speed limit by 10 mph.
You can argue that the interstate speed limit is too low. Gov. Bob McDonnell thinks so and will allow it to increase to 70 mph where traffic engineers say it can be safely done. That could happen as early as this month.
But the facts remain that fast traffic is the norm on I-81, that the posted speed limit is often not a true limit and speed is dangerous.
Driving over the speed limit and driving too fast for conditions are two of the top five leading causes of wrecks, according to a Roanoke Times analysis of 11 years of wreck data for I-81. Together, they account for nearly 15 percent of wrecks. Distracted driving causes 12 percent of crashes.
Wayne Huggins, former head of state police, pointed out that the number of people who die in highway wrecks in Virginia — about 900 people a year — is three times the number of homicides.
"Compliance and traffic safety has got to be on the forefront of everyone's thought processes," Huggins said.
Criminal justice professor John Reitzel said a wide disparity between speeding drivers and tickets exists in many communities.
"Most people obviously speed and the police are completely outnumbered, even at full staffing," said Reitzel, an assistant professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
"We cannot afford to hire the number of needed officers to significantly close that gap; nor perhaps would we want to hire that number."
More manpower needed to get results
Geller said the agency has asked the General Assembly for more funding to hire more troopers. A lack of troopers "definitely" affects speed-limit enforcement, she said.
The General Assembly has authorized 2,008 sworn state police positions. As of the end of March, 109 of those positions were vacant even though the agency has money for paychecks. An additional 53 posts were vacant because they are unfunded, Geller said.
The agency needs 349 more troopers authorized based on calls for service and crime trends, according to a September staffing analysis called the Manpower Augmentation Study. That is on top of the current vacancies. None of the 349 will be added during the fiscal year that began July 1, although up to 60 of the vacancies could be filled.The 14-county Division VI, based in Salem, has been authorized 156 troopers. Workloads justify adding 40 to that, which would represent an increase of 25.6 percent, the staffing study found.
The estimated statewide, first-year cost of adding 349 troopers would be $49.7 million, which would require a 17 percent increase in the agency's current annual budget, according to figures from Geller.
Virginia State Police Trooper Jason Hypes runs the license and registration of a driver he pulled over and warned for speeding on Interstate 81. Hypes holds one of more than 2,000 authorized trooper positions in Virginia. The agency says it needs hundreds more. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES
"Our goal is to make all the roads in Virginia as safe as possible for all motorists," Geller said.
Part of the burden for creating highway safety "rests on the drivers themselves," she added.
Sgt. Rob Carpentieri with the Salem division glanced at a spreadsheet with Virginia Department of Transportation traffic volume and speed data and offered his reaction.
"It's alarming," he said. "It's an accident waiting to happen. They are the people we really want to target."
Carpentieri said police could write tickets all day to drivers who are slightly exceeding the speed limit, meaning going 5 or 10 mph over.
"What does that accomplish though? Does that accomplish our mission? No," Carpentieri said.
The agency accomplishes its mission by going after high-speed and aggressive drivers.
"We're out here trying to slow people down," Carpentieri said. "You have to make people realize, ‘You can't drive like that.' "
That said, speeding is speeding. All drivers exceeding the posted limits are fair game.
"You're speeding if you go one mile over the speed limit," Carpentieri said.
Enforcement efforts catch relatively few
Police have employed a number of creative approaches designed to glean maximum results from the money budgeted to them.
For example, in 2006, in response to an increase in fatal crashes during the first five months of that year, state police created Operation Air, Land and Speed — heightened enforcement efforts designed to curb vehicle crashes attributed to traffic violations.
At the time, the agency said it was motivated in part by "citizen complaints of poor driving behavior on Interstates 81 and 95."
Tens of thousands of tickets have been written during Operation Air, Land and Speed surges, and the death rate on Virginia roads has been falling.
"Traffic actually slows down and people drive safer" during such a blitz because of visibility of officers, Geller said.
But speeding is still an issue.
Last month, state police said officers wrote 6,083 tickets statewide during the May 23-24 phase of the continuing campaign — 1,943 of them speeding tickets on I-81.
Media reports suggested that the get-tough campaign netted a large number of offenders.
VDOT data reveals the actual speed and volume of traffic during the same two-day period.
During the 48-hour period of the campaign, VDOT traffic sensors showed that nearly 70 percent of vehicles broke the 65 mph speed limit at spots near Christiansburg, a Roanoke Times analysis of the data showed.
In total, more than 62,000 vehicles along that Montgomery County stretch topped 65 mph during the two days.
State police were at the same time running the enforcement blitz, meaning manpower was at its theoretical peak.
But state police officers assigned to traffic control on I-81 in Montgomery County and, further north, in Roanoke County issued just 158 tickets.
To be fair, it's one thing for VDOT to count speeders with an invisible strip buried in the pavement. It's another thing for a police officer to stop them.
Virginia State Police Trooper Jason Hypes, who has served on the force for six years, is responsible — with one other trooper — for patroling Interstates 81 and 581 in Roanoke County. On an average day, Hypes said he writes six or seven tickets for various offenses. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES
When drivers see police, they slow down and some of them also alert other drivers by flashing headlights or broadcasting a message over a citizen band radio, said Sgt. Tim Wyatt of the Roanoke County Police Department, which helps enforce the traffic laws on I-81.
In addition, there are only a limited number of spots along the hilly, curving interstate from which an officer can work.
"It's a much more difficult environment to run radar than on a back road or some other roadway," Wyatt said.
The data suggest the possibility that more than three-quarters of vehicles on I-81 in the Roanoke and New River valleys routinely exceed the speed limit and a small number blow past most every other vehicle. Some of those exceeding the speed limit are, no doubt, emergency vehicles.
For those citizens who are frustrated with a sense of powerlessness when they see dangerous driving, police recommend they call #77 or 911. That helps a lot, officers said.
New technology helps police target speeders
Hypes, 30, a native of Tazewell County, has been a state trooper for six years. He said he writes six to seven tickets a shift, on average, but it's sometimes as many as 12.
They are commonly for speeding, reckless driving, seatbelt violations and expired tags and inspection stickers. He responds to wrecks, too.
Parked in the median of I-81 near Dixie Caverns, Hypes lifted a laser-guided speed detector and pointed it at northbound traffic.
The Pro Laser III device is good for nailing speeders. Made by Kustom Signals Inc., the device can determine the speed of a vehicle 6,000 feet away within 1 mph.
"See that white truck up there? At a distance of 1,878 feet I got his speed at 72 mph. So that's how far you can get their speed."
He continued to wait.
"It's nothing to sit here and catch, during an eight-hour shift, at least nine or 10 people going over 85 miles an hour. There's a lot of high speeds out here," Hypes said.
"I've stopped probably at least four or five vehicles in this one spot at over 100 miles an hour."
The fastest vehicle he has ever clocked was a motorcycle going 147 mph. Going the other direction, Hypes was unable to catch the cyclist.
The highest speed of a vehicle he managed to stop was 118 mph.
As a general proposition, he said, "I get higher speeds from the people that are out of state."
Hypes lifted his radar gun again.
"The white car's going 81, coming up the left lane," he said, laying down the device and putting on his hat.
In seconds, the engine was cranking and the blue lights were blazing.
It took two blasts of the siren to get the driver's attention.
Michael Crane, 19, of Fall River, Mass., soon had a ticket alleging reckless driving. Highway Safety Corridor rules will double his fine.
"If you gamble, wanting to go the 10 mile an hour buffer you think [exists], well, you speed it up a little bit past that, you've had it," Hypes said.