Traffic fatalities have declined each year since the Alaska Strategic Safety Plan was introduced in 2007.
State officials gathered Wednesday in Anchorage to release and discuss an updated version of the comprehensive plan.
Nearly 80 safety stakeholders from around Alaska have been working to prioritize highway safety issues. The Soldotna Police Department, Kenai Police Department and Alaska State Troopers all participated in updating the plan.
It is mandated every four years by the federal government and has three emphasis areas: driver behavior, roadways and special users.
The state attributes the plan’s success to a data driven effort that addresses the four Es of road safety: engineering, education, enforcement and emergency response.
Soldotna Police Chief John Lucking has a passion for highway safety. He is a voting member on the Alaska Traffic Records Coordinating Committee, created to bring people together who are interested in reducing traffic injuries and deaths by improving the timeliness, accuracy and consistency of traffic crash data.
Lucking’s department did not work on one specific area for the traffic plan, but instead invested in all emphasis areas via local and Anchorage meetings.
One particular interest beyond the personal desire to increase road safety is the Soldotna-owned portion of the Sterling highway.
“It’s a pretty significant highway safety traffic corridor that we’ve had tragic deaths on,” Lucking said. “Even when (the accidents) fall just outside the jurisdiction of the city, it’s still people who work in the city, who are part of the city.”
There have been 53 fatal vehicle crashes this year to date. A total of 13, or 25 percent, of the crashes were alcohol related.
A total of 12 fatal accidents have occurred in the Kenai Peninsula. Locations of the accidents include Spur Highway, Robinson’s Loop and Brown’s Lake Road. The majority have occurred on Sterling Highway, ranging from Mile Post 4 to 96.
The traffic plan focuses on Sterling Highway and highways just like it, Scott Thomas, Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities traffic and safety engineer for the state’s Central region, said.
The plan states, “Lane departure (run-off and head-on) crashes and intersection-related crashes are the central focus areas in the Roadways emphasis area. With fewer divided highways than other states, Alaska has a higher proportion of fatalities resulting from head-on crashes when compared to the national average.”
One goal of the plan is to reduce the annual number of lane departure fatalities from a 2008 baseline of 40 to 34 by Dec. 31, 2015.
To accomplish this and other goals the roadways emphasis areas team indentified seven strategies, which include preserving main roads and building multilane and divided highways for the state’s growing economy.
“The first roadway strategy says ‘how are we going to manage these roads as a route from Anchorage to Soldotna, in terms of a reasonable day’s travel and a safe travel at the same time,’” Thomas said. “In the end, that strategy says it won’t last as a two-lane road. We’re going to have passing lanes, we’re going to have four lanes in places, we’re going to have to build for the future.”
Strategies within the plan do not layout individual projects, but instead work as a principle to guide future projects.
With the governor’s support, the DOT hopes to lead a plan developed with public and private stakeholders. This would include conducting economic analysis of new highways and recommending major corridors, budgets and timelines.
Multiple projects are already under way, but Thomas contends they are not enough. It would take more than the DOT’s entire budget to cover the highway from Anchorage to Soldotna, he said.
“There’s more work there then we have a budget for, but that’s what this strategy clarifies, that we’re going to need more resources to be able to do all these things for the main roads and communities,” he said.
Right now, because of the road situation, the Soldotna Police Department is focusing on driver behavior.
“It’s not going to change overnight. … That is certainly our most significant issue that we’re confronting,” Lucking said.
The department is using multiple methods to address driver behavior. The current strategy includes public education and enforcement, addressing behaviors of texting while driving, interaction with animals on the roadway and driving under the influence of alcohol.
To accomplish driver behavior objectives, the traffic plan outlines nine strategies. These include reducing DUIs by expanding the therapeutic court program to additional communities, strengthening the marked license law and promoting responsible driving among the youth.
The final emphasis area of the plan, special users, includes bicyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists.
Pedestrian related crashes account for a little over 1 percent of all crashes in Alaska, but result in nearly 11 percent of all fatalities, according to the DOT.
Alleviating special user issues has proven complex. The emphasis team has identified 20 strategies to do so. They include preserving the right-of-way for pedestrians and bicyclists during snow events to increasing funding for motorcycle safety programs.
The strategic plan is a step in the right direction, Lucking said.
“It’s a refocus and rejuvenation,” he said. “I think it will stoke the coals. I just hope we don’t go as long as we did before until it’s rewritten or modified again.”
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.