This week, the Virginia Department of Transportation addresses safety concerns on the new steel grid deck of the James River Bridge, but the issues of traction on the bridge are old, by about 30 years.
In May, 1980, shortly after the first segment of the new James River Bridge was constructed, many motorists, according to Daily Press archives, complained about sliding on the lattice-style grid.
"It freaked me out," Denise Kleysteuber told the Daily Press in an article dated May 30, 1980. Kleysteuber served as an ambulance driver at the time.
"The ambulance didn't start swerving until we got in the middle (of the grid), and the back end slid around like we were on ice," she said. "I took my foot off the accelerator and told (the paramedic) in the back 'Well, I guess I'm ready for you. It's my heart.' "
VDOT, as a precaution, installed warning signs on the span saying, "Steel Grid Deck 350 Feet."
Jack S. Hodge, who was Suffolk district engineer said, "I have driven it, and I realize there is a wiggle. But it's not a drastically bad wiggle."
Eventually, after a string of accidents, VDOT decided to install metal studs on the roadway to provide additional traction for motorists.
"If it's as simple as installing the studs, we need to make sure everybody knows that. We don't want to have 30 years go by again when everybody who's involved now is retired or dead," said Kevin McGhee, who works at the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation & Research.
When it was first installed, the old grid deck was particularly unnerving for motorcyclists. Steve Burns, who at the time was 20 years old, said he worried someone would eventually get hurt. He said the first time he rode his Suzuki 500 over the grid deck, he did so at 60 mph.
"The bike started going crazy, and I knew I was going in the water. If I hit the brakes, I'd blow the tires. So I let off the gas and let it take its own course," Burns told the Daily Press in an article dated May 23, 1980. "I know what to do, but somebody that's just got on a bike — they're going to panic," he said.
More than 33 years later Burns, who now lives in Walters, Va. still drives a motorcycle and still regularly travels over the James River Bridge for work. Admittedly, Burns said, some things have changed. "Ain't no dark hair left on me," he said. And he now drives a Harley-Davidson.
But Burns also said the new grid deck that was installed on the James River Bridge last year is a much smoother ride. "I was kind of surprised to hear there was a problem with it. It seems so smooth," he said. "It doesn't grab you no more, it doesn't throw you all over the place. That scared me to pieces," he said.
But for many other motorists, its been a different story in the months since the new grid deck was installed. A spike in the number of accidents on the grid deck raised concerns after VDOT said more than 20 crashes took place on the new grid deck between February and July. On July 1, an Isle of Wight woman, Kayla Williams, crashed her Ford SUV on the bridge's grid deck. A day later she died of her injuries.
VDOT launched an internal investigation after the increase in crashes on the bridge and also took several safety precautions — like installing overhead signs warning motorists that they were approaching the steel grid deck.
The department also lowered the speed limit on the grid deck to 45 mph.
VDOT spokeswoman Lauren Hansen said the new grid deck, which was installed at a cost of $3.8 million by Curtis Contracting, used a design that transportation officials thought would make using metal studs unnecessary. Initial tests performed by VDOT during an internal investigation were inconclusive and didn't show anything wrong structurally with the grid deck
But in late July, VDOT Hampton Roads District Administrator Jim Utterback said "the number of crashes speak for themselves," and said the department would once again install studs on the grid deck to try to provide additional traction.
McGhee later said tests performed in conjunction with researchers at Virginia Tech after the decision to install the studs was made were "more revealing" about the conditions on the grid deck, but didn't provide a clear "smoking gun."
"We really don't know why we're having these friction issues we want to know if we can find out what's causing it," said McGhee. "We need to document it, so others don't have to go through this."