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Deadly at any speed

Posted 10/17/12 (Wed)

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

“In this traffic, you can die going five miles an hour and you can die going 70 miles an hour.” That’s what Watford City Fire Chief Ben Weltikol states about the fact that the northwest corner of North Dakota leads the state in traffic fatalities.
Williams County, which is home to Williston, a community whose last census had its population at around 15,000, to date has had 17 traffic crashes that have caused 20 deaths in 2012. McKenzie County, home to Watford City, its biggest town whose population hadn’t broken 2,000 in the 2010 census, is second to Williams County with 14 crashes that caused the death of 15 people, and nine of those crashes were alcohol-related according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol.
What is driving the dramatic number of traffic fatalities is the sheer volume of traffic on U.S. Highway 85. According to traffic numbers from the North Dakota Department of Transportation, 13,000 cars pass through the junction of U.S. Highway 85 and N.D. Highway 23 in Watford City a day, 5,000 of which are trucks.
“Things are different now. You can’t just drive somewhere, take your eyes off the road and look at your surroundings,” states Weltikol. “You have to drive defensively, because you never know what you are going to encounter on the road anymore.”
Weltikol and McKenzie County Ambulance Manager Kerry Krikava, both cite road hazards such as six-inch-deep semi-traffic-induced ruts in the roadway, people passing in unsafe conditions, people traveling too fast, and drivers who don’t understand the mechanics of a traveling semi.
According to Krikava and Weltikol, having a respect for the mechanics that go into driving a semi, in terms of whether it is loaded or unloaded and whether it’s carrying fluid or a solid material, would go a long way toward keeping people safe. Additionally, understanding that many semis traveling these highways today are hauling hazardous materials is equally, if not more important.
“Most semis can’t stop quickly or turn quickly,” states Weltikol.
“And semis carrying fluid can be even more unpredictable because the fluid moves and sloshes around while the truck is in motion,” states Krikava.
“If people would just give themselves more time to get where they need to go, things would be better, but people seem to be in such a rush nowadays. It seems as though everyone is in a bigger hurry than before,” Weltikol states.
All these factors affect Krikava and Weltikol as well as they strive to guide the emergency services they have been given charge over.
“One thing we don’t do as much as we used to is go out hot,” states Krikava. “Now we tend to go with the flow of traffic and keep the lights and sirens off. Not every stretch of highway is conducive to pulling over and letting us pass and not everyone knows what to do when they see us coming. This way, we ensure that we are keeping our crew safe as well as the public.”
According to the North Dakota Highway Patrol, Weltikol and Krikava, people need to change their thinking when it comes to driving these roads.
“More compliance with not driving while intoxicated, wearing seat belts, following the speed limits and yielding to traffic are the NDHP’s main areas of focus,” states Lt. Tom Iverson of the NDHP. “These are the main factors that we feel contribute to traffic crashes and fatalities, and if we can educate people on the importance of complying with these laws, we can help correct driving behavior and reduce traffic fatalities.”
“Slow down,” states Weltikol. “Be aware of your surroundings, drive defensively, and give yourself some time. There is a lot of traffic on roads that were never meant for so much traffic.”
Krikava manages 36 employees in the McKenzie County Ambulance Service and Weltikol leads 28 volunteers in the Watford City Fire Department. Krikava sets an on-call schedule for her employees, while with the volunteer fire department, whoever can respond, does respond. The two have different dynamics to deal with, but their responsibilities are the same and they both go out into the same conditions, oftentimes together.
“McKenzie County is the largest county in North Dakota and the second largest county in the nation, second only to one in Texas,” states Krikava.
“We are responsible for 5,625 square miles and there is always a possibility that two emergencies will occur at both ends of the county,” states Weltikol.
In 2011, the Watford City Fire Department responded to 153 calls. Already from January to September of this year, they have responded to 166 calls. In 2010, that same department handled 89 calls.
No matter what, however, Krikava and Weltikol state for themselves and the emergency responders they represent, that they never feel unable to meet a need.
“There is always a way,” states Weltikol. “We always find a way to make the situation work. If all the trucks and ambulances were out, Kerry or I would be on the phone setting up something with another department. There is always a back-up plan.”