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Traffic fatalities still high on U.S. 85

Posted 2/16/16 (Tue)

By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer

With 19 motor vehicle fatalities occurring on U.S. Highway 85 from Watford City to Williston in 2015, the question being asked by many motorists and McKenzie County officials is, “Is U.S. Highway 85 safe?”
For the past several years, McKenzie County has led North Dakota in the number of motor vehicle fatalities. And in part of the process to reduce accidents and fatalities in this busy 50-mile stretch of highway, the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) spent over $300 million to convert the two-lane highway into a four-lane roadway.
But according to Karolin Jappe, McKenzie County Emergency Services manager, while turning the two-lane highway into four lanes obviously improved driving conditions, she also wonders whether it has completely improved safety conditions.
“We lost 19 people last year on our highways,” stated Jappe. “And I’m still not happy with U.S. Highway 85. You can’t put asphalt down from shoulder to shoulder with the extreme winters here and not expect these accidents to not happen. I’ve said all along that if that was the plan, we were setting ourselves up. Don’t let it fool you.”
Jappe adds that even though the NDDOT has taken steps forward in trying to make the roadway safer, there is still a huge problem that exists and needs to be addressed - the fact that there is no type of barrier in the middle of the bypass, keeping motorists from crossing over into oncoming traffic of the opposite lanes.
The NDDOT counters Jappe’s concerns by saying that the highway’s design is safe.
“From an engineering perspective, there’s a lot that goes into the design of a highway like U.S. Highway 85,” stated Jamie Olson, public information officer with the NDDOT. “There is a reason it was designed the way it was. And so far, it’s functioning well and meeting the needs it was designed for.”
According to Olson, the NDDOT conducted a safety review of the entire U.S. 85 corridor just a little over a year ago. In doing so, they wanted to figure out ways to make the roadway safer for motorists. From that safety review, Olson says the NDDOT installed some lighting, traffic signals, and other safety features to meet their goal of better safety. And they will be installing additional turn lanes in the near future, says Olson.
“U.S. Highway 85 does not have a median barrier because part of the challenge with that is that there are so many access points in that stretch of U.S. Highway 85, from Watford City to Williston, such as driveways and turnoffs,” stated Olson. “The insterstate, for example, has controlled access. It’s harder to control with a highway as opposed to an interstate because a lot of the logistics have to go into the planning of that, especially because there’s so much development going on, and that is continuing along that stretch of roadway.”
According to Wayne Zacher, transportation engineer with the NDDOT, there are approximately 200 approaches between Watford City and Williston. Because of such a large number of approaches, he says the team felt it was best to provide access by not installing some sort of median barrier. The current design, said Zacher, gave them the ability to get traffic where it needed to go.
Additionally, Olson says that when the NDDOT expands a highway or builds a new roadway, there’s always developers who want to put their development or business there and then there’s those added logistics that have to be worked through. It’s not an easy process or one that takes a short amount of time.
But despite what the NDDOT has done with U.S. Highway 85 to better the safety of its motorists, there are those that are still concerned that the NDDOT hasn’t done enough.
According to a report released by the NDDOT, as of Sept. 18, 2015, there were 13 motor vehicle fatalities in McKenzie County. That number didn’t include the fatalities for October, November, and December of 2015. At the same time in 2014, McKenzie County had 13 fatal motor vehicle crashes resulting in 14 fatalities, and in 2013 at the same time, McKenzie County had 13 fatal motor vehicle crashes resulting in 15 fatalities. So, if the total number of fatalities in McKenzie County for 2015 really is 19, that number says our fatalities are not decreasing and we still have safety issues.
In the two most recent motor vehicle fatalities on U.S. Highway 85 this year, between Watford City and Williston, both of those fatalities resulted when a vehicle crossed the median and was struck by the on-coming traffic.
“The two crash reports for that stretch of highway that I am looking at right now involve crossing over that median area and being hit by oncoming traffic,” stated Lt. Tom Iverson with the North Dakota Highway Patrol. “One thing to note, however, is that there are other factors that play into these motor vehicle accidents and fatalities such as weather, slippery roads, and excessive speed. And in these two specific crash reports, one says excessive speed was a factor and the other lists the speed as unknown.”
Iverson says those other factors also need to be looked at, in addition to no barrier in the median area. He adds that a large number of the motor vehicle crashes and fatalities come down to driver behavior. For example, failure to wear a seat belt or drinking and driving.
“Our job is to be out there enforcing laws and investigating the motor vehicle accidents that take place the best that we can,” Iverson said. “From our point of view, a lot of these crashes are due to extenuating circumstances that need to be looked at.”
One McKenzie County official that agrees with Iverson is McKenzie County Commissioner Vawnita Best. She says that we have a careless driving community here.
“We have drivers that drive very carelessly,” stated Best. “We have people passing on ice and snow, pulling out in front or each other, and just not caring how their driving is affecting the other drivers.”
But Best also says the sad thing about not having some sort of median barrier in the middle of U.S. Highway 85 are the innocent people that are affected by these accidents.
“When someone crosses over and gets hit, it’s sad and it’s something that affects the other drivers that have no control over situations like that,” said Best. “But I feel we have very careless drivers here.”
None of this information really answers the question, “Is U.S. Highway 85 safe?” What it does do is open the door to the many factors that cause or help to cause motor vehicle accidents and fatalities on a dangerous stretch of highway in McKenzie County. What it should do is make people think - think about their driving behavior, the weather or conditions of the road, their speed, and any other factor that could ultimately lead to the loss of a life.
“We have a real problem here,” stated Jappe. “Not having some sort of barrier in the median area of our bypass is going to continue to allow fatalities to happen on our highway. It’s one problem that can be fixed and help prevent our highway deaths.”