Killer commutes in the rural West

 

Every day a clot of drivers moving at high speed takes on the Gallatin Canyon between Bozeman and Big Sky, Mont. It is the second-busiest commuting corridor in the state, and the most dangerous. Between 5,500 and 7,500 drivers navigate the perilous gantlet of highway 191 on a daily basis, on their way to work at construction sites, to Yellowstone National Park, to the ski resort or back and forth to school. For these thousands of drivers and their passengers, it may be the most dangerous thing they ever do, and yet they take it on routinely enough that it becomes mundane.

For all of us, unless we live in an active war zone, driving is statistically chancier than anything else in our lives. We may fixate on terrorists and nasty encounters with bears or mountain lions, but for true fear and loathing, nothing trumps time behind the wheel. And in my neighborhood, no roadway trumps 191 through the Gallatin Canyon.

Driving conditions there are a mortal confluence of bad weather, a narrow, winding roadway, antsy motorists, concentrations of wandering wildlife and semi-trailer truck traffic. Locals aptly refer to it as the Luge Run. Since 1996 there have been 21 deaths and 374 injuries along this one stretch of road, and counting. White crosses bloom on every curve. In a recent, and typical, three-year period there were 367 reported collisions between vehicles and wildlife. Who knows how many more went unreported?

Temperatures in the canyon can vacillate 50 degrees between night and day, so that deadly ice patches linger on shaded curves. Ninety inches of snow fall over a normal winter, with winter extending into June. Whiteout blizzards, glare ice and fog are standard fare. Elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, coyote, bear, and the occasional wolf cross the highway.

The pavement closely parallels the curves of the river. Guardrails are sporadic. When motorists lose control, it’s about a 50-50 proposition whether they’ll end up in the icy, rapid-filled drink. Just to complicate matters, truckers succumb to the temptation of this highway shortcut, so that on an average day, several hundred semis traverse the canyon, hurtling along with their gargantuan inertia, and far too often becoming involved in horrific accidents. Add to this the construction boom in Big Sky, and you get a daily rush hour of pickup trucks, skiers, truckers and miscellaneous travelers, most of them in a hurry, but some meandering along and sightseeing. Drivers pass on blind curves, tailgate and generally proceed as if this old stage road were an interstate.

Highway 191 is a regular topic of legislative conversation, with “Something must be done” a constant refrain. Fact is, however, that given the circumstances, only so much can be done. You can mess with speed limits, add pullouts and encourage enforcement, but as long as people in these numbers, and under these circumstances, travel regularly up and down the canyon, it will remain a form of highway roulette. As everyone knows, if you play roulette long enough, you’re certain to lose.

I’d like to think that my neighborhood highway nightmare is an anomaly, a Montana-based vortex of tragedy. Not so. Every state in the West has its version of the same syndrome. Different circumstances, same result. Consider these notably-gnarly highway commutes from around the region:

*Highway 22 between Driggs, Idaho and Jackson Hole, Wyo., over 8,429-foot Teton Pass, regularly driven by service-sector workers who can’t afford Jackson’s real estate prices. Overnight survival gear is standard equipment. Avalanches are frequent.

*California’s highway 17 between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley. The mountainous stretch is only 20 miles long, but the “rush” can last three hours. Locals refer to it as Valley Surprise in honor of all the motorists who end up in the median.

*Colorado’s high-elevation commute on highway 550 between Durango and Silverton. In 47 miles you cross both Molas (10,910 feet) and Coal Bank (10,640 feet) passes. Nice views, but at what price?

*For high-volume intensity, there’s Oregon’s “Terwilliger Curves,” a portion of I-5 south of Portland featuring jostling triple-trailer trucks, poorly banked curves and frequent deluges of rain that kick surf up over windshields.

*Finally, though I could list even more Western commutes you’d rather avoid, there’s one from the Far North -- the section of Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood, renowned for avalanche intensity. Storms have been known to let loose as many as a dozen slides along a 40-mile stretch. This sometimes closes the road for a week, and the only way out for trapped motorists? A helicoper.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.
Anonymous
May 07, 2007 11:23 AM


Dear Alan,



I have suffered for years with a driving phobia that people regularly ridicule me for. I can't tell you the times I've had people say, "oh your fears are so irrational and unfounded", yet these same people are terrified of tarantulas, grizzly bears and armed terrorists...things none of them are ever likely to encounter.



My fears don't keep me from driving the places I have to go, but I do alter my plans whenever possible to avoid peak traffic times and I stay as far away from semis as I possibly can. No matter what others say, I know the most dangerous thing I do every day is to get in my car and drive...anywhere! I live in the Bitterroot Valley and drive Hwy. 93 nearly every day and nearly every day I witness speeders, cell phone talkers, aggressive drivers and folks you can tell are under the influence. I don't understand why more folks aren't as terrified as I am when you hear the reports of yet another head-on collision through the Lolo curves.



I appreciated your article because it's comforting to know that someone else out there realizes that you do take your life into your hands when you get behind the wheel and I'm not crazy to be a little anxious on our nation's highways.


Anonymous
May 09, 2007 12:12 PM

  Dear Anonymous: You are not paranoid. I have the same fears when I used to be in the backseat of my sister's car,on some of the fastest freeways in northern California.  I hated it.

  I think these drivers who fail to notice how dangerous it has become, have deliberately "desencitized themselves",so that it does not bother them and they can put up with it.However, just because they are "in denial" of the danger, does not mean they are safe from it. 

   Don't let anyone call you "chicken."You are very sane.Those people who are so blase about driving danger, are taking their lives in their hands every day.To me,it would not be worth it. To risk your life, over a stupid commute? Sure, people need to get to their jobs. But, at what price?? Is it worth killing yourself over??  

  Race-car drivers,professionals,who do it for a living,know just how dangerous it is,and they do not fool themselves.Even they often wind up in fiery crashes,and death. These idiot commuters do not have a right to call YOU the strange one.

Anonymous
May 17, 2007 01:43 PM

Yep, many of us in Alaska understand your story but you missed the point entirely on the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood.  It is the highly diversified road traffic that is the hazard, not the avalanches.

 The Seward Highway is the only way onto and out of the Kenai Peninsula for vehicular travel.  The peninsula is a mecca for both resident and non-resident recreation and this very heavy recreation travel is mixed with commercial traffic.  Drugs, alcohol, speeding, drowsiness from a night of fishing on the Kenai and other factors make this a very dangerous stretch of road and it is less than 30 miles long.

Anonymous
May 24, 2007 11:21 AM

Leadville, Colorado, is a bedroom community for many who work in both Summit County and the Vail resort areas. As a result, highways 24 (to Vail) and 91 (to Copper Mountain) are clogged with commuters morning and night. While they don't compare to US 191, they both have their share of hazards in the form of reckless drivers, blind curves, and winter whiteouts. Because of Leadville's lower cost of living many of these commuters are first-time mountain drives who have moved out here for the resort experience and have never driven a vehicle off of city streets. I also drive these roads, and I've tried to leave earlier than the average commuter. I'd rather have a cup of coffee at work when I arrive a bit early than drive with the crowd.

Anonymous
May 25, 2007 12:18 PM


For those who are afraid of driving in rural montana at high speed, may I suggest driving I-4 through Orlando, FL faor a death ride. You have a mix of morons going 50 and 55 mph in the center and passing lanes and those who want to flow at 70 or 80 trying to get around these bozos. Speed limits are low, cops are everywhere, making it the most dangerous ride next to the space shuttle.



Almost 10 years ago, I visited Montana to try and prevent a speed limit from being imposed on Montana highways. The reason was freedom and later, I found out, safety.  After the 70 and 75 mph speed limits were imposed on Montana's two and 4 lane Interstate roads, fatalities doubled. Google Montana Paradox for more information. If you want to improve your safety picture, repeal your 75 mph speed limit and go back to R/P.  To join the effort, join the National Motorists Association, www.motorists.org.

Anonymous
Jun 04, 2007 11:55 AM

Mr. Kesselheim, how long is that perilous gantlet?  I wondered and re-read twice.  Your editor must be behind one of those trucks on 191, hope he/she is okay. Perhaps mapquest will tell me. Thanks. jhm