February 3, 2010

Increased traffic makes for rough roads, more accidents

By Tina Foreman
Farmer Staff Writer

It doesn’t matter who’s driving or where they are heading, every vehicle accident has a cause. It may be road conditions, weather conditions, driver error or something else, but with vehicle accidents up 50 percent from one year ago, many people in McKenzie County think that something needs to be done.
“In 2008, the Watford City Fire Department responded to 26 motor vehicle accidents,” says Ben Weltikol, Watford City fire chief. “In 2009 we responded to 52. That kind of an increase is just crazy!”
Although Weltikol is certain that road conditions aren’t the only cause in the majority of the accidents, he says that the condition of the road definitely has an affect on the number of accidents.
“It’s not our job to determine the cause of the accidents,” adds Weltikol. “I think for the most part, the increase in accidents is due to the fact that there is more traffic and everyone is in a hurry. But when you’re driving on a road that is in bad shape, your chances for an accident are even higher.”
The Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association (TREA) is fighting to make road improvements to Highway 85 which runs north and south of Watford City.
“The TREA is fighting to make the highway a decent place to travel,” says Gene Veeder, McKenzie County Job Development Authority. “We aren’t asking for a four-lane. We just want a safe and well maintained highway.”
The TREA’s plan is to update highways making a well maintained corridor across North and South Dakota and into Canada. In doing this, they say travel will be stimulated in a 100 plus mile area on either side of the highway which will improve trade efficiency, add economic growth opportunities, and improve overall highway safety.
“For the past two years, we’ve been working with the TREA because if the roadways around Watford City are dilapidated, people won’t travel through here and the county will lose out economically,” adds Veeder. “However, over the past year there have been several bad accidents on Highway 85 and Highway 23, making us wonder if the road is at fault. Although I don’t think the blame can go solely to the road itself, I do think that it is part of the problem, and if we don’t get ahead of it things are just going to get worse.”
According to Veeder, as part of the TRE, some road improvements are slated to happen on Highway 85 during 2010. These improvements include adding or widening turn lanes, micro-surfacing and adding center-line rumble strips.
Because some people want to see more done to improve Highway 85, the NDDOT conducted a traffic count survey along the highway south of Watford City.
“Unfortunately, according to the DOT’s recent study, there isn’t enough traffic on Highway 85 to warrant additional improvements,” states Veeder. “If you live in the area, you are well aware of the increase in traffic throughout the county. But compared to other highways in the state, the DOT doesn’t feel that Highway 85 has an excess of traffic.”
Although the increase in traffic is due to the oil industry, Veeder says he doesn’t see anyone pointing the finger at the oil industry or the truckers on the road.
“The oil field today is much different than it was during the last boom,” adds Veeder. “Today we are seeing more professional drivers and a lot more safety. But that doesn’t keep the heavy equipment from damaging the roads. However, oil has been a part of our county since 1952 and we don’t see it going anywhere, so something needs to happen to make sure our roads stay safe.”
“What we really need is funding,” states Veeder. “It’s hard to get additional funding from Washington because when we share our problems with people who are driving the Beltway everyday, things in North Dakota look pretty good.”
Veeder, along with members of the community have contacted Governor John Hoeven seeking funds for Highway 85. But unfortunately, according to the NDDOT, the funds just aren’t available.
“Right now we are being proactive and optimistic,” states Dave Leftwich of the NDDOT. “We are waiting for a new highway funding bill to come out of Congress. In the meantime, we are basing our 2010 plans on getting the same amount of funding we received last year. We are hopeful that we will also get some stimulus money so that we can complete some of the 2011 projects this year. The worst case scenario is that we get less funding than last year. If that happens then we’ll just push some of the projects back a year.”
Unfortunately, after enduring eight vehicle accident fatalities in 2009, pushing road maintenance projects back a year is the last thing residents of McKenzie County want. But Weltikol stresses that there is still something drivers can do to help the problem.
“With increased traffic and increased wear to the road, everybody needs to be driving defensively,” says Weltikol. “People need to slow down and stop being in a hurry. If your trip should take two hours then you need to allow three hours for the drive. There is a lot more traffic out there than we’re used to and everyone needs to do their part to help avoid accidents.”