Motorist Impatience, Driving Patterns Create Major Traffic Hazards on U.S. 6
The safety of U.S. Highway 6 represents a shared responsibility. The responsibility lies on the shoulders of the individuals who build and maintain the road, the Utah Department of Transportation, the drivers who travel along the roadway and the Utah Highway Patrol as well as other agencies enforcing the laws.
Arguments about changing U.S. 6 in order to improve safety have been passed back and forth between state agencies, government officials, politicians and the public.
It is easy to claim that a change in the road or its design will make a difference. It is another thing to effect a change and show that it has fixed the problem. That is particularly true when other factors change, too.
In recent years, automobiles and other vehicles have been designed with safety in mind. Laws for how the manufacturer builds a vehicle and how it is operated have changed a great deal since 1970.
Manufacturers have been required to not only make vehicles safer, but more fuel efficient. Manufacturers have upped the performance of small engine vehicles to the point where many four cylinder engines can outperform stock V-8 engines of the 1960s, while using less fuel.
Personal restraints, airbags, padded dashes, car seats for children and other safety devices have vastly improved the chances for people to survive accidents.
Crash tests force manufacturers to come up with better safety designs for vehicles or face the wrath of a public whose buying patterns turn on the whim of a story of a few disintegrating tires.
Tougher laws on how a driver performs have also taken hold. Pressure to eliminate drunk driving has cut down the number of DUI operators in vehicles, although in the last couple of years some agencies indicate that the problem is starting to re-emerge.
Stronger laws on young motorists securing drivers licenses and older people being tested for competency to operate a vehicle have all been employed.
The experience state and federal departments have accumulated in 100 years of building roads for motor vehicle traffic has led to safer innovations in highway design.
Specialized intersections like single point urban interchanges such as at the University Parkway and Interstate 15 in Orem or the 1-15 and 7200 South exit in Midvale have reduced accident rates. Roads with restricted access, divided or multi-level highways, safer operating lanes, construction methods that keep road surfaces in better shape longer and many other improvements have had a significant effect on traffic safety.
All of the conditions have affected the roads across America, including U.S. 6. Nevertheless, the death rate on the highway stretching from Cape Cod to California continues to rise, particularly on the eastern Utah section of the road.
The reasons for the problems are elusive. Many people think they have the answers. But some of the answers are extremely expensive, especially in a state facing a $200 million dollar budget shortfall .
Constructing a divided highway from Spanish Fork to Green River, which in some places would also have to be multi-grade, is the answer many people favor.
If U.S. 6 were stretched from the existing four-lane built to the mouth of the canyon on the Utah County side to the divided highway in Helper, the roadway would cost roughly $200 million to complete. If the four lanes were extended from the east interchange in Price to Green River, the U.S. 6 improvement costs would almost double.
"One lane built one mile through areas like Spanish Fork-Price Canyon costs about one million per mile," indicates Myron Lee, UDOT region four director for public information. "Flat areas that are not hard to work with cost only $600,000 per mile. Building roads of any kind is a very expensive proposition."
Motorists traveling through the canyon can see, particularly in the last few years, where UDOT has been spending its limited funds for the road.
Passing lanes have been added not only where there is sufficient room to build easily, but also where lower cost is involved. Two examples are the Sheep Creek passing lanes that were improved last year and the ones installed two years ago west of the Scofield junction.
Traffic planners try to build roads that will not only last for at least 30 years, but remain useful throughout the designated time period. However, increased traffic flow tends to make roadways obsolete, no matter how well highways are constructed. Changes in demographics or industry can alter the function of an adequate road into an inadequate one.
Traffic patterns and flow on U.S. 6 in the local area has changed a significantly during the last 20 years. In the last 40 years, the situation has changed almost completely. In fact, traffic increased fairly dramatically just in the last five years of the 1990s.
Traffic counts vary, depending on where the numbers are recorded on a highway.
For instance, the average traffic count per day at Thistle junction in 1996 was 5,765 vehicles per day. In the same year, the average at the junction of State Road 10 and U.S. 6 was 11,365 per day.
By 1999, the numbers had both increased. The Thistle count had gone up to 6,510 per day, for a 745 unit increase. The SR 10-U.S. 6 numbers rose more dramatically, climbing to 12,730 for a 1,365 increase.
But the two places are located where divided highways already exist and accidents, particularly fatal ones, do not occur as often.
The junctions also generally take a lot of drivers off U.S. 6 onto other roads. But what about motorists traveling over the passes at the top of the Wasatch Plateau?
The traffic flow count at Soldiers Summit in 1996 was an average of 5,765 vehicles per day. By 1999, the count reached 6,250, an increase of 485 vehicles per 24-hour period.
The highest count on any one area of the highway between Spanish Fork and Green River in 1999 was west of the Wellington city limits, where the traffic flow averaged 18,440 vehicles per day.
The lowest count on the highway was at Woodside, with 4,245 vehicles per day. However, the number still represented a 1,245 vehicle increase per day from 1996, when an average of 3,400 units passed Woodside in each 24 hour period.
When road traffic climbs so much in a short period of time, problems increase before design can catch up with the situations.
The responsibility of making roads safer has to be assumed by the individuals who use the highways until permanent design changes can be implemented.
So while physical changes in the roadway have been made by UDOT during the years past, increased traffic flows and faster traveling speeds have created a situation that constantly compromises the design improvements.
Improving motorists' habits and curbing drivers' impatience have become key to ensuring U.S. 6 safety in eastern Utah.