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Few answers surface for summer’s Sterling deaths

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Speeding down the Sterling Highway, it’s easy to forget the only thing separating your car from hurtling head-on into another 4000-pound vehicle is a six-inch-wide yellow line.

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The prospect of a plentiful haul of fish, visiting with friends and family, or enjoying a weekend getaway down on the Peninsula urges the foot to compress the gas pedal further than what might be safe. And as the month of July has shown, the consequences can be devastating.

Of the nine traffic-related fatalities that occurred throughout Alaska in July, seven happened on the stretch of the Sterling Highway between Cooper Landing and Ninilchik. Of the 40 fatalities in the state since the beginning of 2011, 11 have occurred on the Kenai Peninsula; that’s more than any other area in Alaska.

And no one really knows why.

“I wish I had a magic wand and all of the answers, but I don’t,” said Bureau of Highway Patrol Sgt. Eugene Fowler. “I can’t tell you exactly why these are all occurring.”

Law enforcement officers can speculate, though. Between the annual invasion of tourists and fishermen, the physical composition of the road, and driver inattention, distraction, and aggression, little room for error is allowed on the Peninsula highways.

“We have a phenomenal amount of traffic, and I think we’ve also had lots of publicity about a wealth of salmon returning to the river,” said Soldotna Chief of Police John Lucking. “So there’s a strong interest in people getting here, and people getting here go fast.”

But the huge influx of people is nothing new, nor is the constitution of the narrow-shouldered, turn lane-lacking highway. Yet in 2010 and 2009, the Sterling only saw one fatal crash each year. This was preceded by three fatalities in 2008 and six in 2007, but now, only seven months into the year, the highway has already claimed nine lives.

Unfortunately, when the road was constructed more than 60 years ago, designers couldn’t have foreseen the Peninsula becoming a fishing hotspot and doubling in population every summer.

“The road is not designed to be so used,” Lucking said, pointing out that, ideally, the Sterling would include passing, merging, and turning lanes.

“It’s how much you can do with how much money,” he explained. “Four lanes with two going each way on a separated highway are going to be the safest; you’re not going to have a center line to cross over and have the head-on collisions which are generating all of these fatalities. Unfortunately, we just don’t have millions and millions of dollars to throw at the road.”

The Soldotna Police Department, Kenai Police Department, and Alaska State Troopers are all participating in the statewide Strategic Traffic Safety Plan, which is a comprehensive, data-based study focused on addressing problems and forming goals as they relate to the 4 E’s of highway safety: engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency response.

“There are other roads that have needs and tragedies on them as well,” Lucking said, “so there’s a limited amount of resources that we’re competing for.”

But the problem isn’t entirely the road’s fault. Human error, including driver inattention, distraction, aggression, and intoxication frequently play a part in the occurrence of highway fatalities.

Joanna Reed, the traffic records research analyst for the Alaska Highway Safety Office, said she is still receiving toxicology reports from many of the Sterling crashes, and cannot determine how many were alcohol-related.

When it comes down to preventing crashes — fatal or otherwise — changing how drivers behave on the highway is crucial, Lucking said.

“Attitudes have to change either through enforcement or education or a combination of the two,” he elaborated. “That’s half of the problem. The problem is how the road is composed combined with driver attitudes.”

Refraining from speeding, dangerous passing, and distracted driving are all good measures to take to ensure safety. And of course there are the two mantras of law enforcement agencies everywhere: don’t drink and drive, and always wear a seatbelt.

“I have personally seen people walk away from horrendous crashes because they were wearing their seatbelt,” Fowler said. “And I’ve seen people die in less traumatic crashes because they weren’t wearing their seatbelt.”

Some things will always be out of a driver’s control. But the key to getting somewhere safely is taking advantage of the factors he or she does have control over.

“You can’t change the composition of the road and you can’t change the weather. What you can change is the way that you drive,” Lucking said. “And if you employ safe driving practices and are defensive and looking out for other people, then odds are you will arrive alive.”

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