By Cinthia Stimson, Douglas Budget Via Wyoming News Exchange
DOUGLAS — Wyoming roads have always been risky with long distances between cities and higher speeds, but signs this year are pointing to them becoming more dangerous than anytime in the last few decades.
The number of fatalities on state highways skyrocketed this year to 142 as of Sunday.
That’s 36 more deaths than last year at this time and the highest since the previous record set in 2014 — the last energy boom year. Wyoming now has the second most deadly roads in the country, according to one insurance industry report.
Officials are citing several factors with a surging fatality rate on roadways — from more frequent and severe storms to more congestion as the oil and gas boom in central and eastern Wyoming explodes to growing reckless and distracted driving situations.
Whether it’s due to severe weather, traffic congestion or reports of reckless drivers following motorists for long distances, caution, preparedness and defensive driving on our roads and highways aren’t just a requirement but a life-saving necessity, the officials stress.
The most recent threat to motorists on Wyoming roads has been credited to an early winter blizzard, bringing a whopping 8-to-12 inches of snow to Douglas Nov. 29 and 30.
Roads in and out of Douglas were closed Friday and Saturday, severely impacting post-holiday travel. In fact, most roads across the state were closed during the two-day time period due to the state’s extreme weather.
Closing the roads to travel is a major hassle, but erring on the side of caution can save lives, officials said.
Wyoming Department of Transportation Public Affairs specialist Aimee Inama said WYDOT only closes the state’s roads when it is absolutely necessary.
“During winter months we keep the roads open as long as possible. If the conditions are bad enough, if the winds pick up and visibility gets poor with blowing snow off of the sides of the roads, then those are incidents where we have to close the roads. In this case, winter conditions prohibited safe travel. The visibility was poor,” Inama said.
WYDOT reminds motorists to buckle up, put away any distractions and slow down, she said.
“Before you travel, check out the 511 website, wyoroad.info, with the latest information in place, included the anticipated time a road is to reopen, if it’s closed,” Inama said.
The Wyoming Highway Patrol reported eight crashes between Casper and Wheatland on I-25 during the inclement weather Friday and Saturday, as well as five crashes on WYO 59 between Douglas and Gillette. This does not include slide-offs, of which there were many, but only actual reportable crashes.
“It was an eventful weekend. We had a lot of activity on Friday, when (the blizzard) started. Saturday we didn’t have too many accidents because the roads were closed,” WHP Sgt. Randy Starkey noted.
Despite I-25 opening Sunday morning, sections of the highway continued to be shuttered throughout Sunday and Monday due to ice on the roadways, continuing blowing snow and nearly zero visibility. By midday Monday, nearly all roads and highways were open.
WHP is more aggressively closing highways either before or during storms, prior to accidents occurring.
“We’re getting better at it. If the snowplows can’t keep up with the weather, we close the roads. Saturday, the wind was blowing so hard that it was drifting in right behind the plows and that didn’t do any good. We close the roads to keep people safe,” he said.
Weather, however, isn’t the only concern when traveling on Wyoming’s roads.
Our roads and highways are ranked as the second most-dangerous to drive on in the nation, according to information released earlier this year by Esurance, who used data collected between 2013-2017 for their report.
The statistics don’t stop there, either. During 2019, WHP has reported 142 vehicle fatalities — 36 more deaths than were reported on Wyoming roads in 2018. This is the highest tally since 2014 when 146 deaths were reported on the state’s highways.
While WYDOT hasn’t compiled detailed data for 2018-19, but oil and gas traffic obviously has spiked on WYO 59.
WYDOT tracks traffic at several points along the highway. At one counter near Douglas, overall traffic held steady between 2016 and 2017, but truck traffic doubled from about 500 trucks per day to more than 1,000.
Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s only getting worse month-by-month.
With more drivers on the road, especially tractor-trailers and additional extra-large vehicles, WYO 59 and other roadways in Converse County are becoming extremely dangerous.