Trooper: Driver in I-77 potato spill feared ticket if he pulled over to sleep

I-77 potato truck wreck

A truckload of potatoes was spilled Friday on I-77 at exit 9.
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A truckload of potatoes was spilled Friday on I-77 at exit 9.

The driver of a rig that crashed and spilled 50,000 pounds of potatoes onto Interstate 77 early Friday told troopers he was sleepy but decided to keep driving because he’d heard of truckers being ticketed for parking along the roadside to rest in North Carolina, Trooper John Burgin said.

The driver, who is from Utah, didn’t quite make it to South Carolina before he fell asleep on I-77 southbound. His truck hit a barrier wall and overturned near John Belk Freeway, Interstate 277, Exit 9.

The wreck closed two of the three lanes for at least six hours, backing up traffic to Brookshire Freeway. The third lane reopened about 10:30 a.m.

The truck was destroyed, Burgin said, although the driver had few, if any, injuries.

The State Highway Patrol had not released the name of the trucker by Friday afternoon.

Fuel spilled onto the interstate and onto most of the potatoes, Burgin said. The damaged potatoes were scheduled to be taken to Waste Connections in Wadesboro, he said.

Cleanup crews at the scene said a few hundred pounds of potatoes had fallen into grass near an exit ramp, were not contaminated and would be donated to a food gleaning group.

The driver will likely be charged with a minor traffic offense, such as failure to maintain control of a vehicle, which can be paid off through the mail, Burgin said.

Last June in Raleigh, the Highway Patrol announced a statewide effort to reduce crashes that involve vehicles illegally parked along interstates and ramps . But the Highway Patrol had quietly launched its no-parking push three months earlier, focusing at first on I-77 in Surry and Yadkin counties, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported.

The new enforcement effort was sparked by complaints to Gov. Pat McCrory from a longtime political supporter: Charlie Shelton, a business executive, Republican fundraiser and former state Board of Transportation member who lives in Surry County, the newspaper reported. Surry is nearly 90 miles north of Charlotte.

A Highway Patrol spokesman attributed the initiative to Col. William Grey, the patrol commander, who had “traveled the state and noticed a lot of this” illegal parking. But a Highway Patrol memo in March 2015 told local troopers that the I-77 no-parking effort was in response to complaints that were “funneled through the Governor’s Office.”

Staff Photographer John Simmons contributed