He nearly died on U.S. 33 and has some thoughts on how to improve it

Tristan Miller’s Mercury Topaz sits on U.S. Route 33 after it was crushed between two cars in a November 2016 accident. (Photo courtesy of Tristan Miller)

By Jessica Kronzer, contributor

Tristan Miller described the coma after his 2016 car accident on U.S. Route 33 as seeming like one long dream. In it, Miller would fall from a skyscraper toward his car on the ground, but just before he’d hit the car, the dream would restart. 

That dream finally ended with him landing on the windshield. He could see a scene around him with glass everywhere, a helicopter and an ambulance. He was cursing at people around him and asking for help. After awakening from his coma, Miller realized that the dreams were not a product of his imagination, but memories he pieced together from the day in November 2016 when he was rear-ended on U.S. 33 between Penn Laird and McGaheysville. 

“I felt like I was swallowing glass, when I did land, but that was them putting the tube down my throat to intubate me,” Miller said. “And then that’s all I remember … it’s starting to come back, like pretty slowly.”

Tristan Miller, left, poses with Mallory Fox, who was one of Miller’s professors at the JMU School of Nursing,

Now a senior at James Madison University, Miller recovered from a traumatic brain injury that required he be put into a medically-induced coma for three weeks. And in part because of the nurses he interacted with during his recovery, he chose to study nursing and will graduate in December.

Miller also is one of hundreds of drivers in recent years who have been involved in accidents on the stretch of Route 33 between Elkton and Harrisonburg — a section of road that’s part of a study the Virginia Department of Transportation is conducting to “improve travel conditions and reduce crashes.”  That study includes a 5-part survey that’s open through March 15. The survey asks respondents to rank issues by importance, to specify the frequency of their use of the corridor and to identify problems they’ve encountered or noticed.  The study will be completed in June. 

It’s a major artery in and out of Harrisonburg. In fact, about 26,000 cars per day traveled in the study area and from 2015-2019, there were 550 car accidents, according to Transportation Department data. Brad Reed, the project manager for the transportation study, said VDOT is also examining more recent severe or fatal crashes. Using a screening tool, VDOT determined that several spots along the corridor have a “much higher than expected number of crashes given the characteristics of the intersection and the roadway.” 

He said there are a number of potential causes for why so many crashes occurred there. 

“We’re finding it varies from intersection to intersection,” Reed said. “There might be some bigger themes, like speed, for instance…maybe the ability to recover without shoulder areas along the road [or] availability of turn lanes of adequate length.” 

Caught in a chain reaction

In Miller’s case, he was sitting in a traffic backup on Nov. 11, 2016, caused by another car accident. He had stayed after school at Spotswood High School to do homework before leaving for his third day at work at Sunnyside Retirement Community, where he served meals to residents. He was wondering if he should let his boss know that he would be late for work when he noticed  a car was approaching behind him — and wasn’t slowing down.  

Miller braced for impact, which he later learned might have exacerbated his injuries because his head swung forward and hit his steering wheel. His airbags didn’t deploy. The driver, whom police determined at the time was distracted by her phone, was travelling at more than 65 mph when she propelled Miller’s car into the car in front of him, causing a chain reaction, as the Daily News-Record reported at the time. 

A man carried Miller out of his car, and he was airlifted to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. Miller had a craniotomy on the right side of his head. 

“Basically they just removed the bone” because of brain swelling, he said. He suffered a traumatic brain injury related to a subdural hematoma, a blood clot near the surface of the brain that bursts. Miller was placed under a medically-induced coma to prevent further trauma to his brain. He lost 30 pounds. And suddenly his future was uncertain. 

By December 2016, Miller moved to a rehabilitation center near Richmond called Sheltering Arms. He was expected to stay at that facility until June but left on Dec. 17 after eight days, partly because Miller wanted to be home for Christmas.

At Sentara’s Outpatient Therapy Center, Miller attended three types of therapy close to five days a week: speech therapy for “memory” and working on brain functions; occupational therapy to re-learn skills like getting dressed or brushing his teeth; and physical therapy to learn to walk again. Although he couldn’t walk for long, his sister would take him for walks in downtown Harrisonburg, carrying his wheelchair along. 

Miller was absent from school for three months. But he dug in to make up the work. 

“I was having to put school before therapy to be able to still graduate on time,” Miller said.  

Miller finished the year with straight As and was inducted into the National Honor Society. 

He is now a certified nursing assistant and hopes to someday become a nurse practitioner. He said he wants to go beyond passing a patient their medications to instead treat them “holistically.” 

“I aim to be that kind of person where I’m doing more than just treating their illness, I’m treating them as a whole person,” Miller said. 

Many of the residents at the retirement home he worked in for those three days in high school sent him cards or donations, despite only knowing him for a few days before the accident. Now, more than four years later, some of the same people he served lunches to are now residents under his care in the dementia unit at Sunnyside Retirement Community. 

“It’s kind of sad if you look at it from the outside, but I kind of find that humbling,” Miller said. “It’s an honor to see them through their time at Sunnyside, being there for them when they’re at their best and being there for them when they’re at their worst.”  

Reasons for concern along Route 33

Typically, VDOT would conduct a public meeting to gather input rather than conducting an online survey. Reed said sometimes that means about 30 people attend to share their concerns or maybe 50 if they’re “really lucky.” The Route 33 survey had more than 1,700 responses in its first week. Reed called that a “tremendous response,” compared to the 800-1,000 the agency typically gets. 

“Certainly, we want even more people to contribute,” Reed said. “We’re going to be reviewing all of the comments we’ve received, [and] reviewing the mapping tool within the survey to find trends where people are seeing issues.” 

The existing problems are “threefold” to Reed. The corridor has areas with unusually high numbers of crashes. It also has “operational concerns” of congestion, especially near Harrisonburg on the west side of the corridor. And some areas along the corridor are growing, which could aggravate existing traffic problems. 

“Rockingham County’s urban development area is just outside the city where you see a lot of dirt moving right now,” Reed said. “[We’re] trying to set the stage for handling that traffic and any potential issues that might come about”

After VDOT determines preliminary recommendations for the corridor, Reed said the agency will use a follow-up survey to gather further input. Among potential solutions are adding signage and looking at changing particular intersections to improve their efficiency. 

“Public input helps contextualize data on the modeling that we’re doing on our end, so we can start to understand the nuances of what might be contributing factors to the safety issues and operational issues along the corridor and specific intersections,” Reed said. 

Outside of the survey, VDOT is examining police reports from accidents at specific intersections to look for trends. For example, Reed said areas prone to congestion are more likely to have crashes where a car is rear-ended, but intersections with less traffic might have “angle crashes” where a car attempting to make a left turn is crossing a road with fast-moving cars and collides. VDOT is also interviewing law enforcement, school employees and some business owners along the corridor.

First-hand experience 

Miller shared his experience through VDOT’s survey on the high number of distracted drivers on Route 33. He said he’s also seen instances of reckless driving at high speeds.

“People get used to the pattern they know — when and where the police are going to be,” Miller said. “So they know that they can go faster in some areas.” 

While the driver who hit Miller’s car was distracted, he said the design of the road also could have influenced the accident. He said the hill in that area could mask drivers’ view of stand-still traffic. The speed limit is high enough that drivers might not have space to slow down before hitting stopped cars. 

Miller also said he sees too many people texting and driving on Route 33 and thinks more surveillance could discourage people from reaching for their phones. Miller said he has lost several friends in car accidents, including one who died when texting and driving. 

“I would rather have my friend than another tragic news headline,” Miller said. “I like to share my story just in hopes that if it could stop one person from texting and driving, then that would be a success for me.”

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