In the vascular system of transportation throughout the Cumberland Valley, Interstate 81 acts as the main artery.
The major thoroughfare spans from New York to Tennessee, cutting through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
Several thousand vehicles travel through Cumberland County every day on the highway, making their way to local destinations and points beyond.
However, when a crash occurs, that travel and commerce can come to a screeching halt. Crashes along Interstate 81 are frequent and create an inevitable traffic jam in areas like downtown Carlisle as motorists try to work their way around the wreckage.
“Crashes on I-81 are usually high speed, very dramatic, and covered by the news media,” said Greg Penny, spokesman for PennDOT. “They also have a big impact on traffic by closing down the interstate for hours.”
In 2015 alone there were nearly 250 reportable crashes on I-81 in Cumberland County, two of which were fatal, according to PennDOT.
The highway has earned a reputation of being dangerous, even deadly, to travel on, but is this moniker warranted?
Interstate 81 sees an average of 56,000 vehicles a day in Cumberland County, with some points as high 75,000 and others as low as 35,000, according to PennDOT.
Between 2011 and 2015, there were 1,056 crashes on the highway in the county reported to PennDOT. Twenty-two of those crashes resulted in a death.
“Reportable crashes are the more severe crashes in which someone has been killed, injured, or the vehicle was so damaged that it had to be towed away,” Penny said. “We don’t keep a record of the less severe crashes, like fender benders.”
This equates to roughly 4.3 crashes per 1,000 vehicles of daily traffic in the county and about 0.4 fatalities per 1,000 vehicles of daily traffic.
“However, as a point of comparison, you’ll see that 2,251 reportable crashes occurred on Route 11 compared with 1,495 on I-81 through both (Franklin and Cumberland counties),” Penny said. “In other words, there are nearly 51 percent more reportable crashes on Route 11 than on I-81.”
When coupled with much lower average daily traffic — about 10,475 vehicles — motorists are nearly nine times more likely to be involved in a reportable crash along Route 11 than Interstate 81 in Cumberland County.
While there were 10 fewer fatal crashes on Route 11 between 2011 and 2015, given the lower volume of traffic, motorist were nearly four times more likely to be in a fatal crash while traveling on Route 11.
“If you are on Route 11 there are more, what we call, conflict points, people with driveways coming out, intersecting roads and the like,” Penny said. “Those conflict points increase the potential for a collision. There’s less so on a limited-access highway like Interstate 81.”
In 2015, there were 266 crashes on I-81 with resources dispatched by Franklin and Cumberland 911, according 911 response logs.
Those crashes were evenly split between the northbound lanes and southbound.
About 120 crashes occurred below mile-marker 26, near the border of Cumberland and Franklin counties.
Time of day played only a small factor in crashes, according to the data, with roughly 43 percent of crashes occurring before 1 p.m. and 57 percent after.
The highest number of crashes — 56 — occurred during the typical evening commute between 4 and 7 p.m. while the lowest number of crashes — 30 — occurred during the morning commute between 7 and 10 a.m., according to the crash data.
Penny said most crashes along Interstate 81 tend to be a result of driver error.
“There’s no driveways. There’s no intersecting roads. It’s interchanges,” he said. “But, because of the speeds out there, if there is a crash, the consequences can be more severe.”
Widening the highway
With an increase in warehouse facilities along Interstate 81 in Cumberland and Franklin counties comes an increase in large truck traffic.
About 35 percent of all traffic just south of Carlisle features tractor-trailers, according to Penny.
The growing commerce of the transportation of goods has given rise to a renewed push to widen Interstate 81 to three lanes in both directions.
This is something that PennDOT has reviewed, according to Penny, but is unlikely to happen in the near future without an influx of money for infrastructure.
PennDOT conducted a feasibility study in 2005 examining the cost of widening Interstate 81 from the Mason-Dixon Line to exit 59 in Cumberland County and another 19 miles beginning in Dauphin County and ending in Lebanon County.
The project looked at widening the highway by utilizing the grass median between the northbound and southbound lanes.
Penny said at the time the project came in with a price tag of roughly $1.5 billion and did not include redesign of the current interchanges, many of which have not been updated since the 1960s.
“The business and economic development groups foresee a big increase in truck traffic due to increased freight coming to ports on the eastern seaboard as a result of the widening of the Panama Canal,” Penny said. “Congressman Bill Shuster has said that widening I-81 is a priority for him. But, simply put, the funding isn’t there either on the state level or the federal level for undertaking such a major project.”