The road: Death count mounts in Albemarle

"Let me grab my phone– I'm expecting a victim's family to call."

That's Sergeant Sean Hackney on November 17, the morning after the fifth person has died in less than a week on an Albemarle County road. He's operating on an hour-and-a-half of sleep, and all the officers in Albemarle police's traffic unit are working a fatality.

At the Albemarle police station on 5th Street, the bland cubicles stand in sharp contrast to the grisly scenes officers encounter out on the street. A map of the county is dotted with pushpins– 19 of them, representing all the locations where people have had fatal encounters with vehicles this year.

There are motorcycle accidents– three of them. There's the tragedy of backing up and realizing too late that a child is behind the car. There are the seemingly inexplicable single-car accidents. Sergeant Hackney has seen them all.

Scottsville Road has had two deaths. Earlier this year, Black Cat Road had two in a row.

"We do see geographical trends," says a clearly frustrated Hackney. "Right now, it's all over the county south of 64."

But why the recent spate of deaths, pushing Albemarle to 19 so far this year, the highest death toll since 2003's record 24 fatalities?

'What we see over and over again are speed, seatbelts, and alcohol," says Hackney. "We see at least one of those in most accidents."

The vast majority have all three factors, and Hackney points out that impaired driving isn't limited to alcohol, that driving while taking a prescription medication– particularly one that warns against use with alcohol or while operating heavy machinery– can constitute driving under the influence.

"It's amazing how many times you'll see the prescription bottles at the crash scene," says Hackney, who hopes that reconstructing the components of a crash will go beyond answering questions and hopefully save some lives.

"Sometimes I can tell what happened before and after," he says, "but I can't tell what made them swerve."

He says he doesn't know why Jane McKay, 76, apparently veered off Scottsville Road and down an embankment November 8. She was not wearing a seatbelt and died a week later.

Just two days afterward came the horrific accident on Half Mile Branch Road in Crozet. There, around 7:50pm on November 10, Amber Leigh Johnson, 20, and her father, Michael Johnson, 40, lost their lives after returning from dinner at Cheeseburger in Paradise, where Amber worked. Her mother, driver Jessica Lewis, 36, crashed into a tree and has been charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter as well as driving under the influence.

"She was going a minimum of 85 miles per hour," says Hackney. He says he makes that claim from the yaw marks on the road, which leave a distinct pattern from which police can calculate an approximate speed.

Half Mile Branch Road is a narrow two-lane road with hills. "That road is known as the roller coaster road," says Hackney. "Unfortunately, it just takes a second." He notes that Lewis, the wreck's sole survivor, was the only one wearing a seatbelt.

Speed and seatbelts factored in again the very next day, a bright Friday morning when Honda Civic driver Samuel A. Wells entered eastbound I-64 and slammed into 59-year-old Larry L. Taylor's 1985 Ford Ranger in the far left lane. The pickup rolled at least three times, and Taylor, who wasn't wearing a seatbelt, was partially ejected from the truck and died at the scene. His cousin, D.J. Taylor, was thrown from the truck but survived. Wells, 25, has been charged with reckless driving in the November 11 incident.

The deadly trio of speed, seatbelts, and alcohol may have been to blame on November 16 when 24-year-old Amy Ouypron headed south on Scottsville Road around 10pm. Police say she veered off the road, over-corrected, and then slammed into a northbound SUV. Ouypron, who had allegedly been drinking, wasn't wearing a seatbelt and died at the scene.

Last year, seven of the 12 people who died in Albemarle weren't wearing seatbelts. This year, the numbers are grimmer. Of the 12 deaths from car crashes, 10 people didn't use a seatbelt. After generations have grown up hearing "seatbelts save lives," why are so many unbuckled?

Hackney mentions an urban legend about a person who was cut in half by a seatbelt. That's nothing he's ever seen.

In the Scottsville Road crash the night before, two women were in the SUV that Ouypron hit. Only one was wearing a seatbelt and had relatively minor injuries. "The other had more significant injuries– broken bones and a head injury," Hackney says.

Nothing makes the point better, he says, than a crash in which the person not wearing a seatbelt dies, and one wearing one doesn't.

He has one other theory. "It's not scientific, but the person who decides not to wear a seatbelt is more likely to drink and to speed," says Hackney. "That's what I see."

Cruel myth of country living

Fresh air aside, you're much safer in the city than in the bucolic countryside, according to UVA professor Bill Lucy, who's done studies on the menace of rural living.

"The irony is, it's commonly believed that being in the outer area is safer than in the big city," says Lucy. "It's always the outer counties that have the greatest fatalities."

Albemarle ranks nearly four times more dangerous than larger, denser Fairfax County in traffic deaths per 100,000– 13.2 here compared to 3.37 in Fairfax.

"Albemarle is not as dangerous as Greene and Fluvanna," Lucy points out. "Throughout the state, low-density counties have higher fatalities." And the dangers that typically kill country folk aren't homicidal maniacs– they're drivers on those beautiful back roads.

Why so dangerous? Lucy lists the two-lane roads, which are not lit at night and can have limited visibility. They don't have shoulders. Add alcohol and speeding, and it's a disaster waiting to happen. Oh, and look out for deer.

In contrast, Charlottesville's two-lane roads have speed limits of 25mph and 35mph, and so far for 2011, the city has no traffic fatalities.

"People are driving slower– that's crucial," says Lucy. "Even a pedestrian can survive at 25mph."

In Albemarle County in the past seven years, 90 people have died in traffic accidents. During that same time, there have been just six homicides.

Driving America's highways is more dangerous than going to war. Since 2002, 6,290 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, 33,000 people died in automobile accidents nationally– and that was the lowest number since 1949, according to the Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

People tend to fear death from a stranger, but statistically, a stranger is 15 times more likely to kill you accidentally in a car than in a homicide, says Lucy.

"It's really unpleasant driving at night in Albemarle County," he says.

"Worst day of my life– ever"

Debbie Shipp will never forget the 2:30am phone call on January 23.

"A young voice said, 'Your son's been in an accident.' It was like a bad dream," she says.

The connection was bad, and she lost contact. Even now, it's still a blur, but she also remembers hearing, "It doesn't look good."

Shipp, the Albemarle County Circuit Court clerk, talked to a police officer, who told her to wait and he'd call her back. "Fifteen minutes seemed like two hours," she recounts. "I said, 'I'm going there.'"

Officers were on the way to her house when she arrived at Markwood Road near Davis Shop Road in White Hall. "I needed to know," says Shipp. "I couldn't wait."

Her son, David Shipp Jr., 21 years old, had been at a friend's house. "He'd gotten some new speakers he wanted a friend to hear," says his mother.

He was traveling north on Markwood Road when his BMW went off the road and flipped three times. David and his passenger, Darrell Harris, were both thrown from the car. David died at the scene.

"They said if he'd been wearing a seatbelt, he would have lived," says his father, David Shipp Sr., his voice breaking.

The elder Shipp says he can't look at photos of his son.

"To be frank with you, it's still painful to talk about it," he says. "It hurts so much."

A supervisor at North Anna Power Station, David Shipp Sr. had helped his son get a job after Albemarle High School, and the two went to work together every day.

"He was happy-go-lucky," says Shipp. "Everybody liked him. He was a fun-loving guy, and he had a lot of friends."

Ten months later, the elder Shipp thinks about young men and the movies that show speeding in hopped-up cars. "David had one too," says the father. "I blame myself. They don't realize how short life is. They don't think about the outcome when they're out hot-rodding. I did it myself. In a blink, your life can change. In a matter of seconds..."

"My heart goes out to those families," says Debbie Shipp of the most recent victims. "It's just devastating for the families."

Says Debbie Shipp, "I've preached to my kids their whole lives– think about how any decision you make affects the people you love. It's doesn't just affect you."

Unfortunately, Debbie and David Shipp aren't the only parents this year who've lost a child in a moment that changed everything. Stephen Heim was 19 when he died January 1. Jesse Clark was 21. Alegna Wingfield was 5. Matthew Crawford was 23. Yunze "James" Sun was 15. The list goes on and on.

"It's almost like you've been inducted into a club you don't want to be in," says Debbie Shipp.


It's a relief to me that people are finally noticing
how dangerous driving is around here. In some
states taking OTC antihistamine is
considered potential impairment and can be
part of a charge. Major problems I see every day
are crossing over too far (way too far) and large
vehicles esp school buses and delivery trucks
driving way too fast and cutting too close when
passing. Anything else I do including riding
crazy horses doesn't come close to the risk
I perceive in driving around here. It's very

mer- driving is "dangerous" everywhere. I gave up riding a bike every morning, for exercise only, because the traffic on a country road didn't care about me.

Driving is not stressful for everyone- it is a matter of expereince, just like public speaking is not stressful for everyone- it is a matter of expereince.

I drive for a living and do not do a lot of public speaking- which I dread............?

Oh you're right of course. We all have our own
neuroses. Public speaking is not stressful
for me. But driving doesn't have to be as
dangerous as it is if people would choose
to be careful. Plus public speaking etc
can't kill or maim you (I think!).

I am printing this and having my now driving 16 & 17 yr olds read it. Thanks.

What's more scary is that you yourself could be driving just perfectly, not under the influence, wearing a seatbelt, and going at or even below the speed limit...but some idiot hopped up on who knows what, speeding too fast for road conditions could be the one plowing into you. That's what scares me, especially those stories where you hear about how somebody crossed over the median into oncoming traffic, plowing head on into other cars, killing innocent victims. Being the innocent person being plowed into by the other idiot driver, versus ramming my own car into a tree or something...that's what scares me.

Yes booo, that is exactly what happened to another community member who touched the lives of so many.

The world of folk music mourns the premature passing of Freyda Epstein. Freyda was killed in a car accident early Saturday morning, May 17 on her way to a music retreat in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was driving south on US 29 from Dulles Airport at 1am. Authorities say her death happened around 2-3 am. A man had just stabbed his wife and was fleeing from the scene, driving up Highway 29 on the wrong side of the road. He hit Freyda's car head on killing her.

Life goes by in a flash so - be kind, compassionate, and in the time you have left, attempt to serve those that still remain.

Nice one Nancy; I still think about the loss of Freyda Epstein--that was a very beautiful person lost to stupidity.

"In Albemarle County in the past seven years, 90 people have died in traffic accidents." Jesus, Mary, and Joseph this is senseless--buckle up, sober up, slow down, and pay attention.

I think one of the major causes of this increasing problem is the fact the local city and county police are spread so thin now. And this of course is a self inflicted problem on their own behalf. There have been so many cops assigned to specialized duties over the last few decades that there's few left to patrol the roadways and make people behave and drive responsibly. Any cop that's been in law enforcement for a few years can rattle off a number of these gravy train specialized duties they would to be assigned to. Many of these gravy train jobs involve daylight hours with weekends off.

My suggestion to the police chiefs is to abolish some of these gravy train positions and get more men out on the street where they belong. There's nothing any more boring than writing tickets and arresting drunk drivers, but it saves lives!

Sorry, the above was suppose to read:

Any cop that's been in law enforcement for a few years can rattle off a number of these gravy train specialized duties they would LIKE to be assigned to.

Great idea. More sobriety checks and safety checks would be a deterrent badly needed as a safety issue to protect the public. If you look at where deaths are occurring it's on the roads and additional resources need to be allocated to this.

I dont see a decrease in highway patrol but an increase. Maybe they just looking for the easy cash cow, speeders on the interstate. Need to run more backroad checkpoints. Nip these hooligans in the bud.

I see just human nature...carelessness in many forms. I moved here in summer 1998, and I recall right after I moved here, the fall/winter of 1998/1999 had several fatals on Rt. 20 south of I-64. Some of the memorials are still there. When the fatals wane, the attention and alarm will wane...again, human nature.

All the slice-of-life stories and sympathy--as well as the police alarms--will not stave off this problem.

However, the GSOE comments on PD assignments is spot on. I do not know how you can have a Sgt. Byers spending one iota of time on press releases when Hackney is getting no sleep due to MVA cases.

What in Nikki Minaj's name is Lee Catlin being paid to do?

I think people should note that not everyone who dies or is injured in a car accident is speeding or is under the influence or is otherwise voluntarily behaving improperly. The roads in the County, like many other rural areas, are simply less forgiving of even slight human errors or emergencies.

Back in 2007 when the state legislature was debating transportation funding, the focus of the discussion was primarily on the traffic woes of Northern Virginia and to a lesser extent, Hampton Roads. Virginians heard about the frustrating comutes of residents in our urban areas and the money that is wasted during delays. Unfortunately, very little attention was paid to roads like routes 20, 6, 231, and other similar roads that lack visibility and have no shoulder or guard rails near before their deep and dangerous drop-offs.

When this discussion of transportation once again arises in Richmond, hopefully our elected leaders will at least lightly research the conditions of our rural roads and determine what, if anything, can be done about them.

Scottsville Rd. terrifies me, and I refuse to drive it at night.

There was another close call last night, but since the guy who ran of the road in Albemarle County and hit a tree was another newsman, we won't hear much about it. The general manager of the News Virginian, Jonathan Hunley, was charged with driving on a forfeited license due to a DUI conviction and other charges. Why is this not news since he hit a tree on an Albemarle County road in the wee hours of the morning?

The media doesn't tattle on their own, any more than the police tattle on their own.

It's human nature to cover and protect your own kind.

That's exactly what I was talking about, Liberalace. While I certainly didn't have Byers in mind, his is an example of a gravy train job. Daylight hours, off on the weekends, very little if any work involved, come and go as he pleases, a take home car, etc... Who could ask for anything better? More power to him!!

But he is just one of two or three dozen that could serve much more purpose back out on the streets in the patrol division. They need all the help they can get!

I am a nurse and I just want to say that SEATBELTS DO SAVE LIVES!

Commentary- yes they do- how many recall when there were no seatbelts in cars- it has only been since 1970 when they were required- now that I think of it, a pretty scary scenario if based on todays driving habits. Then again, cars were basically 2500 lbs of rolling thunder back then too.

The cops cant save us from ourselves. They complain when they get a ticket and then they complain when somebody has an accident. Forget the cops and save yourself. Gas and Lib, yall need to let it go.

"You cant fix stupid" - Ron White

You're probably right. If we let it go the seed that there's a waste of resources and poor management won't be planted. Wouldn't want the public to know the truth under any circumstances.

Yeah but a lot of those "Seeds" are doing great work and deserve better. Hopefully the new guy gets thew ship righted.

As usual, a barrel of apples....

OK, I will buy into your suggestion, give the new guy time. But the new guy needs to get out there on the street once in a while. And I'm not talking about between his 10:00 a.m. coffee break and 4:00 p.m. departure to head home He needs to sneak out there on the evening and midnight shifts once in a while. He would be surprised at what the mice do when they think the cat is at home sleeping.

And I do mean SNEAK out there! Had a dispatcher once tell me, a sgt and another guy that we needed to keep our game faces on, the sheriff is out and about. Might as well have printed it on the front page of the newspapers. The sheriff learned pretty quick not even to let dispatch know he was out.

Excellent suggestion GSOE - all managers should do just that once in a while - keeps everyone on their toes just to pop in unexpected. I would think in law enforcement this would be standard operating procedure. Just too obvious not to.

I was in a car wreck in '89. My car was broadsided by a truck, early morning, foggy on Rt 231. I don't remember anything from the accident itself. If I had not been wearing a seat belt, I wouldn't be here. That is a fact.

Wish everyone would stop calling them accidents - they are wrecks and can be prevented.