BERRYVILLE — The Clarke County stretch of Va. 7 may not be any more dangerous than similar highways statewide, but it could benefit from safety improvements, a Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) study shows.
Last winter, the Clarke County Board of Supervisors asked VDOT to do a safety audit of the route — also known as Harry Byrd Highway — after hearing complaints from area residents about problems such as speeding, limited sight distances and inadequate turn lanes. A VDOT official presented auditors’ findings to the supervisors on Tuesday.
Speeding is a major problem along the highway’s 13½-mile stretch between the Frederick and Loudoun County lines, a report shows. Although the speed limit is 55 mph, the average speeds of vehicles are between 60 mph and 63 mph, based on measurements by VDOT monitoring equipment temporarily placed at three locations.
“The data suggests that (the) majority of drivers are exceeding the posted speed limit, and many are greatly exceeding that limit on a daily basis,” the report states.
Meadowbrook resident Shane Boswell told the supervisors that his children get on school buses on Va. 7 and “traffic blows past” them.
“The road is dangerous,” he declared.
Ed Carter, resident engineer at VDOT’s regional office in Edinburg, agreed with Boswell.
VDOT officials determined that specific locations along Va. 7 in Clarke see an average of between 23,000 and 28,000 vehicles per day. Monday through Friday, the average is 25,000 to 30,000. Peak times are between 4:30 and 7:30 a.m. for eastbound lanes and 3 to 6 p.m. for westbound lanes.
Many commuters between the Winchester, Berryville, Leesburg and Washington, D.C., areas use the highway.
According to the report, 289 vehicle accidents occurred along the route from 2016 through 2018. Only one resulted in a fatality, but 98 resulted in injuries. The four most common types of accidents were rear-end collisions (39%), collisions in which the driver was looking at something off the road (25%), angle collisions at intersections and median crossovers (15%) and deer collisions (13%).
The Clarke County stretch of Va. 7 is similar to other “principal arterial” highways statewide. Compared to others, the route has a slightly higher overall crash rate, yet its injury rate is roughly average and its fatality rate is much lower, the report states.
Basically, an arterial highway is one transporting a large amount of traffic from lesser-traveled side roads to freeways linking urban areas.
Rear-end collisions often can be attributed to vehicles following ones ahead of them too closely. However, traffic signals not being clearly visible or how often they change from green to yellow to red can be contributing factors, the report indicates.
VDOT determined that signals along Va. 7 may need “back plates” that are more easily visible, and more “watched for stopped vehicles” signs may be needed at certain intersections, the report shows.
In examining the route, VDOT staff discovered limited sight distances at various locations because of hills or curves.
A major concern, county officials have indicated, is the highway’s intersection with Va. 612 (Shepherds Mill Road). That two-lane road, which has a narrow bridge, connects Va. 7 and U.S. 340 (Lord Fairfax Highway), both of which are four-lane highways with medians.
The report states that sight distances at the intersection are limited by the presence of a convenience store, vegetation, an embankment and a sagging vertical curve in pavement. Also, the westbound right turn lane is too narrow for turning vehicles to completely move out of the westbound through lane.
Based on accidents that have occurred at the intersection, VDOT’s recommendations include widening the turn lane, posting signs encouraging drivers traveling to West Virginia to use Va. 7 and U.S. 340 instead of Va. 612, removing some vegetation, installing bars in the road to slow vehicles and refreshing the stop bar on Va. 612.
Among other recommendations for Va. 7 are relocating some traffic signs to improve signal visibility, converting some flashing warning lights near intersections without signals to ones that flash only when cars and trucks approach, widening highway shoulders and modifying some median crossings to help them better accommodate vehicles.
“Many vehicles crossing Route 7 are too large for the intersections,” said Bluemont resident Janel Melgaard.
VDOT can implement some of the simpler recommendations on its own, Carter said. Others will require the county to obtain funding through sources such as VDOT’s Smart Scale program, he said. Smart Scale involves scoring and prioritizing proposed projects to determine which ones eventually are funded by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
Regardless of what is done, area law-enforcement agencies must put more emphasis on trying to catch speeders, the report states.
While the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office probably is doing all it can with limited resources, Carter said, “there has to be a concentrated effort” if speeding is to be reduced.