Highway deaths have Watford City mayor looking for answers

Brent Sanford, mayor of Watford City, N.D., stands near U.S. Highway 85 on Wednesday, April 10, 2013, in Watford City. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Driving on U.S. Highway 85 between here and Williston is “like taking your life in your hands,” says Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford.

McKenzie County has had nine traffic fatalities so far this year, representing 28 percent of North Dakota’s total of 32 traffic deaths, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

“It’s an appalling figure for a county that has 10,000 people,” Sanford said.

While community members are grateful for upcoming road projects, including the widening of Highway 85, Sanford said he’d like to see the Department of Transportation take steps to improve safety in the short term.

One option Sanford suggests is to reduce the speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph until the road is expanded to four lanes.

“We’re in this limbo period. What can we do right now so we don’t lead the state in fatalities next quarter and the quarter after that?” Sanford said.

Mark Nelson, director of the safety division for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said officials take the increasing traffic fatalities seriously.

“What’s happening in McKenzie County and around the state is truly tragic,” Nelson said.

But the Department of Transportation points out that five of the nine victims in McKenzie County were not wearing seatbelts. Two of the four fatalities from January and February were alcohol-related. Testing for March crashes is not yet available.

Other contributing factors to the fatalities were driving too fast for conditions, crossing the centerline and improper turn, the department said.

“A lot of it comes right back down to the choices that people are making in their day-to-day driving,” Nelson said. “We can’t engineer our way out of this problem.”

Other than driving too fast for conditions, excessive speed does not seem to be contributing to the McKenzie County crashes, Nelson said.

Billy Schmidt, who manages Larry’s Trucking in Williston, hauls water up and down Highway 85 eight to 10 times a day. Schmidt, who moved to North Dakota from Arizona more than two years ago, said North Dakota highways are the most dangerous he’s ever seen.

“Everybody blames it on the trucks, but most of the time it’s the pickups,” Schmidt said. “Slow the pickups down. They’re going 80.”

Sanford said he’d like to see a greater law enforcement presence patrolling the highway, but officers often are busy responding to crashes.

The North Dakota Highway Patrol has three troopers graduating in May who will be placed in McKenzie County.

While safety improvements are in the works, that doesn’t help calm drivers’ fears in the short run.

Sanford said Watford City residents call him every day with concerns about highway safety.

“They’re scared to drive to Williston anymore,” Sanford said. “The traffic counts are high and they’re mainly two-lane roads and it’s bumper-to-bumper with trucks. You have zero room for error.”

From 2010 to 2012, western North Dakota saw a 53 percent increase in traffic, compared to a 22 percent increase in traffic statewide. Highway 85 west of Watford City averaged 11,051 vehicles a day in 2012 compared to 2,322 in 2006.

Nelson said the state’s traffic fatality rate follows the same trend as the increase in vehicle miles traveled. In 2008, the state had 1.3 fatalities per 100 million vehicles miles traveled, compared to 2011 state fatality rate of 1.6 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Construction will start this year on a $300 million four-lane highway between Watford City and Williston. The first phase, between Watford City and north of Alexander, will be bid in May and completed this fall, the department said.

A Highway 85 bypass around Watford City also will be bid for construction this summer.

Over the past two years, the department has spent $50 million to add passing and climbing lanes, add turning lanes and access points and realign curves between Williston and Watford City.

The passing lanes have shortened the commute from Williston to Watford City, which previously had been about 1½ hours, Sanford said.

But as crew camps, oilfield facilities and other developments have sprung up along Highway 85, some of those passing lanes are now used as turning lanes, creating traffic hazards, Sanford said.

Legislation providing $720 million for highway and road improvement projects was “fast tracked” and signed by the governor in February to allow projects, including the Highway 85 expansion, to begin as soon as possible. Future projects include a Watford City Highway 23 bypass and an Alexander bypass.

“We’re taking great strides to get the infrastructure in place,” Nelson said.

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