Work needs doing sooner than later
A little more than three weeks ago, I was involved in a head-on collision with a semi in the Red Narrows of Spanish Fork Canyon. Fortunately, I and the other passenger of the car lived. So did the driver and passenger of the semi.
I was driving a Plymouth Neon with my fiancÃ¯Â¿Â½e riding in the passenger seat. That evening, I was mostly concerned with our physical health and dealing with the hassle of insurance and replacing the car. But almost a month later, I'm driving another car, insurance checks are paying the bills and I've had time to think about what happened that night.
Along the way, I've had a few laughs as I learned that I and my fiancÃ¯Â¿Â½e were almost killed by a truck hauling 20 tons of yogurt. We were almost killed by a health food.
I am especially appreciative of friends and family who have helped us through the last week. I recommitted myself to wearing my seat belt. I believe it helped save my life.
I gained a different perspective on the value that emergency responders have in our community. The same firefighters, paramedics and state troopers that I have photographed and interviewed as a reporter came to my rescue. I am more appreciative of those women and men than I was previously.
However, I also gained a new perspective on the risks associated with driving U.S. Highway 6.
At the scene of the accident, law enforcement and witnesses almost immediately jumped to the conclusion of driver error. And while driver error plays a role in many accidents in the canyon, it is not the only cause of the high number of collisions and deaths on Highway 6.
As I've covered accidents during the last year that I have worked as a reporter for the Sun Advocate, I have noticed a trend in the locations of the most serious accidents. By and large, the most serious wrecks are on two-lane sections of highway.
In the past year, I reported on at least four fatal wrecks on Highway 6. All but one were on two-lane portions of the road. And as I have covered other wrecks, many of the near-fatal collisions were in similar areas.
The trend is obvious. In areas where there are only two lanes, there is no room for error. The slightest error in judgment or a minor obstacle results in fatal and near-fatal collisions.
Growing up on the Wasatch Front, I have beem driving Interstate 15 on a regular basis since I was 16. And while collisions are common on any highway, a divided highway and added lanes, like what's on the interstate, give some room for error and help lower the number of accidents resulting in serious injuries and death. But through many parts of Highway 6, there is nothing more than a stripe of yellow paint between small cars and massive semis. Even at the posted speed limit through most of the canyon, a head-on collision is likely to be fatal.
I have made another observation as I have traveled the canyon in wet and snowy conditions. On the night of my collision, it took me 90 minutes to travel 47 miles. I was not speeding. I was traveling slow enough for the wet and snowy roads that night.
I saw no snow removal trucks until one passed the heap of metal that was left of my car. As I climbed out of the wreckage, I almost slipped more than once on the road, which was covered with a thin layer of ice.
Later that night after we were released from the emergency room in Payson, a friend drove us home to Price. It took more than two hours to get from Spanish Fork to Price. We saw no plows.
The next day, I drove a rental car to Spanish fork to retrieve our personal belongings from the wrecked car. Though the road was slick and visibility was poor, no snow plows were maintaining conditions on the road.
Last Saturday, we again faced the perils of the highway and headed to the Wasatch Front for medical appointments. On our way back, we called 511, the number for highway conditions. No report warned us of the dangerous conditions in the canyon. The sign over the highway in Spanish Fork was blank, giving no warning of what lay ahead.
Still, traffic came to a halt near the Highway 89 junction when white-out conditions compounded with three-inch deep snow. Though snow plows were parked in a shed just a few yards away from where we turned the car around, we saw no plows as we headed back down the canyon and out of the storm. It wasn't until the storm had let up and roads were clear that a plow truck passed us in Spanish Fork.
Yet the exact storm we faced in the canyon had been moving across the state, with heavy snow, high winds and low visibility. Despite the obvious warnings that a storm would hit the canyon hard, UDOT officials failed to mobilize. Before the storm hit, workers should have been staging equipment. Before the storm hit, trucks should have been ready to roll. And as the storm hit, plows should have been on the road.
Over the period of one week, I drove the canyon six times. Five of those were in unfavorable weather. I saw a total of four plow trucks. That is not enough. As a storm hits, five hours later and two days into a snow storm, UDOT should be mobilized.
I'll recognize that high speeds, bad passes and tailgating drivers are among the greatest risks in the canyon. However, the road itself is no longer adequate for the volume of traffic that it currently sustains. It must be widened and it must be better maintained.
UDOT has said that it will be years before the road is widened to the level that traffic currently warrants. In the next 20 years, while UDOT expands the highway, traffic will increase. Before the expansions are finished, the road will need to be still wider.
Twenty years is too long. Five years is too long. The road should be widened, and it should be widened now. Our elected officials should stop funding projects like the Moore cutoff and Legacy Highway and fund roads that need it more immediately.
Slow traffic during rush hour and a few hundred cars a day on a road in Emery County are paltry justifications compared with the proven needs for expansion along Highway 6.
UDOT officials should be better prepared when bad weather strikes. Cameras along the highway have been installed to show the conditions along the road. And weather tracking systems show where snow is falling.
While we as citizens work to slow down, drive safer and wear our seat belts, state officials should be more committed to maintaining the road in poor conditions.
And elected officials should recognize the need to expand Highway 6 sooner rather than later.