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Mountain roads cited as among the state’s most dangerous

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Driving a tractor-trailer in Haywood County or a motorcycle in Swain? Use caution. Both counties top the list of AAA Carolinas recently released report on the most dangerous places to drive in North Carolina.

Haywood was named “Best chance of being in a collision,” in the category “Top 5 Dangerous Counties for Tractor-Trailers.” The report credited the winding, narrow Interstate 40 for the unusually high accident rate.

Sgt. Paul J. Campbell with the North Carolina Highway Patrol in Haywood County chalked the statistic up to several factors. First, he said, a large number of tractor-trailers pass through the county, which is the western entrance to the rest of the nation and the eastern gateway to North Carolina. The sheer number of vehicles automatically increases the number of big rig crashes.

Another contributing factor is the curvy nature of I-40 toward the Tennessee line. In most parts of that section of I-40, signs dictate tractor-trailer drivers to drive at a lower speed limit and stay in the right lane. Drivers don’t always heed those warnings, however.

“Sometimes they just don’t heed to the speed limits. They’re restricted to a lower speed and right hand lane, but unfortunately, we have a few drivers who don’t heed the warning,” Campbell said.

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Campbell said that even drivers accustomed to mountain terrain can have trouble with the curvy roads because the gradient is different than it is in other mountainous regions, like the West.

“Here, the steep grades are short and they are quick, and the curves are quick. That’s one of the reasons drivers may not be accustomed to it,” he surmised.

Adding to potentially hazardous conditions are the quirky weather patterns in the Pigeon River Gorge area.

“Haywood and the Gorge are a weather entity unto itself. Some in Haywood who live here may not realize it, but it can be 40 degrees on this side of the tunnels, and on the other side it could be snowing and ice,” said Campbell.

Most of the big rig wrecks involve a single tractor-trailer overturning. Campbell said most of the time, drivers take curves too quickly so their load shifts its weight, causing them to lose control of the entire vehicle.

At one time, the gorge area on I-40 had the highest rate of tractor-trailer accidents in the country. Increasingly, though, one of the high-risk areas involving all vehicles is near the 36-mile marker on I-40 near the Buncombe County line. Again, taking curves too fast is the main reason for crashes near this area.

Campbell said the Highway Patrol’s Motor Carrier Enforcement team is working to keep accident rates down. For example, troopers are stationed in the gorge to keep trucks in line. Additionally, the Highway Patrol is working with the Department of Transportation to make sure roads are properly salted in inclement weather conditions.


Swain, Graham dangerous

Two other Western North Carolina counties were high on the list of accident rates. Graham and Swain, respectively, ranked first and second under the category “Top 5 Dangerous Counties for Motorcycles,” in “Best Chance of Being in a Collision,” and “Best Chance of Being Injured,” in a motorcycle wreck. Overall, Graham ranked first among all NC counties in “Best Chance of Being Injured,” and “Best Chance of Being Killed.”

The AAA report cited the “Tail of the Dragon,” an 11-mile stretch of U.S. 129 with 318 curves in Graham County that is popular with bikers as a major contributing factor to the rankings.

Additionally, the report hypothesized that the crash rate is inevitably increasing because of the growing popularity of motorcycles.

“As more people purchase and ride motorcycles for the first time — especially pre-boomers and boomers — their lack of experience tends to result in more cyclists losing control of their ride,” David E. Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas, said in the report.

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