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Few answers surface for summer’s Sterling deaths

Posted: July 31, 2011 - 8:00am

Speeding down the Sterling Highway, it’s easy to forget the only thing separating your car from hurtling head-on into another 4000-pound vehicle is a six-inch-wide yellow line.

The prospect of a plentiful haul of fish, visiting with friends and family, or enjoying a weekend getaway down on the Peninsula urges the foot to compress the gas pedal further than what might be safe. And as the month of July has shown, the consequences can be devastating.

Of the nine traffic-related fatalities that occurred throughout Alaska in July, seven happened on the stretch of the Sterling Highway between Cooper Landing and Ninilchik. Of the 40 fatalities in the state since the beginning of 2011, 11 have occurred on the Kenai Peninsula; that’s more than any other area in Alaska.

And no one really knows why.

“I wish I had a magic wand and all of the answers, but I don’t,” said Bureau of Highway Patrol Sgt. Eugene Fowler. “I can’t tell you exactly why these are all occurring.”

Law enforcement officers can speculate, though. Between the annual invasion of tourists and fishermen, the physical composition of the road, and driver inattention, distraction, and aggression, little room for error is allowed on the Peninsula highways.

“We have a phenomenal amount of traffic, and I think we’ve also had lots of publicity about a wealth of salmon returning to the river,” said Soldotna Chief of Police John Lucking. “So there’s a strong interest in people getting here, and people getting here go fast.”

But the huge influx of people is nothing new, nor is the constitution of the narrow-shouldered, turn lane-lacking highway. Yet in 2010 and 2009, the Sterling only saw one fatal crash each year. This was preceded by three fatalities in 2008 and six in 2007, but now, only seven months into the year, the highway has already claimed nine lives.

Unfortunately, when the road was constructed more than 60 years ago, designers couldn’t have foreseen the Peninsula becoming a fishing hotspot and doubling in population every summer.

“The road is not designed to be so used,” Lucking said, pointing out that, ideally, the Sterling would include passing, merging, and turning lanes.

“It’s how much you can do with how much money,” he explained. “Four lanes with two going each way on a separated highway are going to be the safest; you’re not going to have a center line to cross over and have the head-on collisions which are generating all of these fatalities. Unfortunately, we just don’t have millions and millions of dollars to throw at the road.”

The Soldotna Police Department, Kenai Police Department, and Alaska State Troopers are all participating in the statewide Strategic Traffic Safety Plan, which is a comprehensive, data-based study focused on addressing problems and forming goals as they relate to the 4 E’s of highway safety: engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency response.

“There are other roads that have needs and tragedies on them as well,” Lucking said, “so there’s a limited amount of resources that we’re competing for.”

But the problem isn’t entirely the road’s fault. Human error, including driver inattention, distraction, aggression, and intoxication frequently play a part in the occurrence of highway fatalities.

Joanna Reed, the traffic records research analyst for the Alaska Highway Safety Office, said she is still receiving toxicology reports from many of the Sterling crashes, and cannot determine how many were alcohol-related.

When it comes down to preventing crashes — fatal or otherwise — changing how drivers behave on the highway is crucial, Lucking said.

“Attitudes have to change either through enforcement or education or a combination of the two,” he elaborated. “That’s half of the problem. The problem is how the road is composed combined with driver attitudes.”

Refraining from speeding, dangerous passing, and distracted driving are all good measures to take to ensure safety. And of course there are the two mantras of law enforcement agencies everywhere: don’t drink and drive, and always wear a seatbelt.

“I have personally seen people walk away from horrendous crashes because they were wearing their seatbelt,” Fowler said. “And I’ve seen people die in less traumatic crashes because they weren’t wearing their seatbelt.”

Some things will always be out of a driver’s control. But the key to getting somewhere safely is taking advantage of the factors he or she does have control over.

“You can’t change the composition of the road and you can’t change the weather. What you can change is the way that you drive,” Lucking said. “And if you employ safe driving practices and are defensive and looking out for other people, then odds are you will arrive alive.”

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akmscott 08/03/11 - 06:19 pm
Bye the way JOAT-my driving

Bye the way JOAT-my driving record is perfect!It don't take being an egotistical hero wanna-be fire fighter to do that!

JOAT 08/03/11 - 09:45 pm
Good for you akm. But if

Good for you akm. But if you're driving is so great, why do you blame the good drivers for the accidents being caused by the bad ones? Doesn't that mean you are blaming yourself? You make no sense.

My ego is perfectly in check and since I know exactly what I am, I have no need to give your feeble attempt at mud-slinging a response.

As for the comment that slowing down when being tailgated is retaliatory or somehow trying to "punish" bad drivers, you can't be further from the truth. Slowing down is the only proper response to a tailgater. If you don't slow down, you are driving in a reckless manner. By slowing down, you allow yourself more reaction time for what's going on in front of you. That allows you to slow down in a controlled and gradual fashion when you have to and maybe the moron tailgater will not crash into the back of your vehicle. Further, by slowing down, it makes it far easier for the following vehicle to pass you, which is what they are trying to do. If you speed up, you are making their pass much more dangerous.

Had folks attended even a basic driver's ed course, they would have been taught this exact thing. You should always slow down for tailgaters. It goes along with a looking both ways, using a turn signal, and making a complete stop at stop signs.

spwright 08/04/11 - 11:38 am
Road Rage

Thur 8/4/11
Got to add my 2 cents worth.
Getting "All Macho" with Drivers that Up-Set You can be a very dangerous issue. That can escalate into a violent & ugly
situation when emotions take control instead of "Cooler Heads"

Remember that this is "The Wild West" here in Alaska & everyone carries a Gun. Just ask the State Troopers to confirm that fact.

"Keep Your Cool" & live for another day. Take photos & license plate numbers & call 911

SPW "Airborne"

jessnjeff 08/04/11 - 03:22 pm
slowing down while people are

slowing down while people are trying to get past you for moseying along at less than the speed limit is not conventional, it is called PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE.

Meanwhile, yesterday we went up to ANC and were stuck captive behind a douli semi carrying fluids, at about 40-43 mph. I finally called AST when I observed people passing on double yellow lines with visible oncoming traffic and taking the gamble so as to not be required to be hostage any longer.

I would like increased highway patrol , at least during tourism months and consequences handed out for failing to pull over when driving consistently below the speed limit, more signs posted about the requirement to do so and more pull offs, and lastly would like to see restrictions placed on the semi's... I fully believe that they shouldn't be driving during the high traffic times and shpould be restricted to travel at they are in many other places. It only makes good common sense.

What did I do when I got up to the semi who had been holding us hostage for more than 30 miles?? I gunned it to get past them in the little window of time we had. If the state won't look out for my family, I'll do my best on my own.

NickinKenai 08/04/11 - 08:20 pm

The composition in which they speak can be changed by adequate roads such as a four lane. It will change traffic flow and change the risk of fast and slow drivers. The construction comment was just an added complaint about a related issue.

To others that have commented you should know also going to slow is as dangerous to other drivers as it is to go too fast.

The solutions proposed so far is more Highway Patrol... I think Alaska needs elected officers instead such as Sheriffs instead.

Driver better, they're called accidents for a reason and they are not always avoidable. To say this as a solution is just brushing the issue off as "it's their own fault" and most the time I would say it's not. The roads and state are to blame for not allowing for minimal error or correction for other vehicles mistakes. They need shoulders to pull all the way off on and vibration to warn them if they go over the line. Remember these are tourists and will be looking around for animals instead of the road.

More pull-offs/ pass lanes... no we should just do four lanes. It works down south. Also we need quality rest stops.

Toll bridge... I agree with this but it will add more traffic to Kenai and will need the four lane in place.

After another horrible accident today on the Seward Highway we need these now.

JOAT 08/05/11 - 01:46 pm
Not accidents... just excuses

The term "accident" is simply used as an excuse. There was probably some negligence and at a minimum there was distraction or inattention. All accidents are preventable unless they were caused by an "act of God", such as an asteroid fell out of the sky and hit your car.

So, if you fall behind a semi driving 40mph (which is doubtful as commercial drivers are getting paid to cover the distance as quickly as possible - the slower they go, the less they get paid) and they do not yield to a delay of 5 or more vehicles, then that guy is breaking the law. In other words, he is being negligent and anything that happens is no longer an accident. Now, if someone following gets impatient and performs an illegal pass, they are also negligent. So now we have a compounding of negligence. Add in an inattentive oncoming driver and you have a crash. I'll bet that most passing crashes occur when the oncoming guy is also speeding, not using their lights, or not paying attention to what's going on down the road.

Remove the negligent part of any one of these people and you don't get a crash. The semi-driver could drive the speed limit or utilize the pull-outs. No crash. The impatient following driver could take a deep breath to relax, maintain his 2-second spacing and match the speed of the semi while waiting for a proper location to perform a legal passing maneuver. Again, no crash. All the traffic going the other way could be driving the speed limit with their headlights on, see the oncoming commercial vehicle with a line of cars behind and prepare to take immediate action (take foot off gas and hover over brake, look for escape routes, watch the oncoming traffic line closely for signs of that impatient moron). Again, no crash.

I fail to understand why these concepts are so difficult for people to grasp, but then I remember the impatient, self-centered nature of so many people. And it becomes quite clear.

s2wheel 08/05/11 - 03:20 pm
4 lanes

has anybody seen a wreck on a four or 6 lane highway down south? instead of 2 or 3 cars its like 40+ i dont want to see that. and you are right joat we are to leave a space cushion around our car which means slowing down when you have to, that gives the tailgater a better chance to pass when he has an opening.I also agree that car crashes are not accidents,they can be prevented.

BrianW 12/15/11 - 01:53 pm
Just my take

Great observations. I would also add that these are not "accidents" they are incidents. An accident is something we cannot predict or an act of God. An incident is what these wrecks are. We have identified shortcomings of the road composition itself, coupled with heavy, distracted, aggressive traffic, we can reasonably predict the occurence of incidents.

I would also suggest that the police department step up their enforcement efforts of the roads during heavy traffic months. With an immediate negative consequence of aggressive and reckless driving, speeding, or passing in unsafe manners, drivers will likely decrease the behaviors that lead to these incidents.

The fact is, it is an identified hazard and now the State is responsible to protect the public from this hazard. The State can cry broke all they want, but there is enough money to fund any project they want. If they don't fix the road, I think they should be held responsible for any future incidents caused by the composition of the road. Road Rager's beware; this also means you should be held criminally liable for any incidents you cause!

One statement for the State: Safety is NOT expensive; it is PRICELESS; fix the road. If you knew your son or daughter, wife or husband, mom or dad would be killed on this road on their way to a 4th of July camping trip at Johnson Lake, would it be worth the cost to fix it?

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