Barry Flitton feels lucky.
He's driven the infamous "Mountain Road" for 29 years and hasn't been killed.But he's come close to death and serious injury regularly traveling the 11-mile stretch of U.S. 89, from Weber Canyon to I-15 near Lagoon.
"I've had some harrowing experiences," he says.
One day a car pulled in front of Flitton from one of the many side streets intersecting the highway. He anticipated the potential danger and slowed to let the car by. What he didn't expect was that the car was towing another vehicle several feet behind.
When Flitton saw the taut tow cable a few yards in front of him, he thought his luck of surviving the deadly highway had run out. But he got another chance.
"The car put on its brakes, the cable slacked and I drove over it. Otherwise I would have wrapped two cars around me," Flitton said.
Hundreds of others haven't been so fortunate. From 1984 to 1989, more than 1,250 auto accidents on what local residents call the Mountain Road have claimed 17 lives and injured 279, according to statistics from the Utah Department of Transportation.
The personal tragedies behind those accidents and recommendations to improve the road will be aired at a series of public meetings this week in Davis and Weber counties. State transportation officials are sponsoring the scoping meetings to help draft an environmental impact statement on improvements to the "Mountain Road" portion of U.S. 89.
What makes the road's accident record so notable is not the thousands of accidents - UDOT safety engineers say the accident rate is below normal for that type of road -but rather the severity of the collisions.
"Whenever I was dispatched to an accident on 89, I expected the worst," says Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Richard Greenwood, who used to patrol Davis and Weber counties.
A study on the highway's safety problems by the Wasatch Front Regional Council said that from 1984 to 1987 the fatality rate was four times greater than normal. UDOT director of traffic and safety Dave Miles notes that many of the victims are residents of the area, adding emotion to the numbers.
East Layton resident Bruce Wilkes drove by an accident on the evening of April 17 and, as he always does, looked to see if it was someone he knew. The next day he learned he knew the family of the victim, 15-year-old Mindy Child. She became the latest Mountain Road fatality when the car she was riding in was broadsided while turning left off the highway.
UDOT's long-term solution to fatalities on U.S. 89 is to upgrade the road to a limited-access expressway.
Traffic on that particular section of the highway has mushroomed to 23,000 vehicles a day, while development along the route has turned it into a heavily populated residential area. One of the primary dangers Flitton and other motorists face is cars creeping into high-speed traffic from the 125 side streets and private drives intersecting the highway.
Limiting access to the road to just a few major crossroads will resolve the multiple-access problem. Expressway design will also eliminate the poor view of oncoming traffic that motorists now confront when leaving or coming onto the hilly highway.
This week's hearings kick off the long process of upgrading U.S. 89, and UDOT is still trying to secure adequate federal funding for the project.
In the interim, however, UDOT will erect traffic signals this year at 200 North in Kaysville, Oak Hills Drive and South Weber Drive to regulate traffic. UDOT district one director Lynn Zollinger said traffic volumes at those intersections justify signals, but he's dubious whether they will reduce the speed and severity of accidents.
"The Shepard Lane signal (near I-15) didn't slow traffic, but it didn't speed it up" either, Zollinger said.
So, the thousands of motorists who travel the "Mountain Road" daily must continue to take extra care:
- The most commonly mentioned precaution is to maintain the posted speed limit of 55 mph. Studies show speeding is the leading cause of accidents on the Mountain Road.
- The next major accident contributor is failure to yield right of way in either turning left, crossing the road or merging from a side street.
Poor view of oncoming traffic on U.S. 89 means motorists should take more than a cursory glance before turning into traffic or crossing the road. "Check twice and then keep checking as you proceed," Greenwood said.
- Those turning right and merging with traffic should use available acceleration lanes to build up speed before merging, Greenwood said. And motorists should take notice of vehicles making right turns into traffic and allow them to merge.
Bruce Wilkes, Layton, who has traveled the "Mountain Road" to work for 10 years, said he stays in the left-hand lane near intersections to avoid conflicts with right-turning traffic.
- If possible avoid U.S. 89 and take another route. That's what Flitton decided to do three years ago, after 26 years of dodging death on the "Mountain Road."
"The time difference is not significant and the safety factor rests heavy on my mind. So I take the freeway the majority of the time now," he said.
GRAPHIC\ Summary of accidents on U.S. 89 from the mouth of Weber Canyon to I-15 at Lagoon Junction:
Year # of accidents 1 2 3 4 5
1984 172 106 16 16 32 2
1985 188 119 20 21 25 3
1986 219 143 22 23 28 3
1987 198 126 21 24 23 4
1988 243 179 19 20 22 3
1989 237 166 24 22 23 2
Totals 1,257 839 122 126 153 17
*Severity is ranked in numerical order
1 Property damage of $400 or more
2 Possible injury
3 Non-incapacitating injury
4 Incapacitating injury
5 Fatal *****
Schedule of meetings
Public meetings on improvements to U.S. 89, from Weber Canyon to Lagoon Junction, will be held:
- Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., Knowlton Elementary School, 801 Shepherd Lane, Farmington.
- Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Kaysville Junior High School, 100 E. 450 South, Kaysville.
- Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Layton High School, 440 Lancer Lane, Layton.
- Friday, 7:30 p.m., Weber County School District offices, 5320 S. Adams Ave., Washington Terrace.