Almost every morning Joe Usry of Midvale witnesses near disaster.
To get to work in West Valley City, Usry takes the northbound I-15 off-ramp to westbound I-215. The two-lane off-ramp merges into one lane about 100 feet before merging again into I-215.Most drivers anticipate the merge and stay in the lane that doesn't get cut off. But every so often a motorist unfamiliar with the territory speeds along the outside lane and suddenly discovers he has to merge, fast.
"Gosh, it gets hairy. I just want to close my eyes," Usry says.
Hundreds of motorists like Usry encounter "white knuckle" areas of the freeway - where hearts start pumping, hands clutch the wheel and feet hit the brakes to desperately avoid a collision.
Transportation officials say most areas of the freeway that cause panic among drivers involve merging or weaving of traffic. But ironically, they note, very few accidents occur in these areas.
"Motorists perceive the need to be careful in dangerous areas and exercise more caution," said Fred Lewis, a safety operations engineer with the Utah Department of Transportation.
UDOT doesn't keep non-fatal accident statistics of specific sections of the interstate freeway system. Officials said no funding is available to collect the data because the accident rate is too low to make it worthwhile.
But UDOT does keep an eye on freeway traffic movements and tries to reduce the risk of weaving and merging at high speeds.
For example, traffic moving from eastbound 2100 South to eastbound I-80 used to have to take the southbound on-ramp to I-15, then cut across two lanes of high-speed traffic to get to the I-80 on-ramp. During rush hour, traversing two lanes was hazardous, if not impossible.
To reduce the risk, UDOT has barricaded one lane of oncoming traffic so motorists from 2100 South have to make their way across just one lane, not two, to get to I-80.
UDOT has also narrowed some double-lane on-ramps to one lane, reducing the danger and complexity of merging into fast-moving freeway traffic.
"We've learned a lot in 20 years. The standards have changed," Lewis said, noting many "white knuckle" areas drivers encounter are sections designed for traffic 20 to 25 years ago.
As much of the interstate along the Wasatch Front goes under reconstruction in the next 10 to 15 years, new federal guidelines will require longer on-ramps to allow vehicles to build up speed and also allow traffic to begin merging sooner.
UDOT engineer Mack Christensen said adjustments in pavement marking on existing on-ramps can sometimes accomplish the same thing until new interchanges are built.
New designs and standards, however, will not completely eliminate the hazards of merging in high speed traffic. Motorists have to take some responsibility.
State traffic codes say traffic entering a lane must yield to traffic already in that lane. But to keep traffic moving, drivers already in the lane should let vehicles traveling along the on-ramp enter the freeway without having to stop, said Gary Whitney, spokesman for the Utah Department of Safety.
He said out-of-state drivers often complain about Utahns' lack of courtesy in letting other motorists into a lane.
"Utah has a problem with that. Drivers from other states are used to heavier traffic and recognize the need to let people in and keep traffic flowing. If you don't let them in, then it causes traffic to back up."