Much of local opposition to the Department of Transportation
(DOT) plan for Highway 83 centers on proposed island curbing in
the downtown area, but opponents are taking issue with other topics also.
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
March 4, 1999
We were told at the Community Council / Highway Department meeting of several weeks ago that the proposed road project, through downtown Seeley Lake, was necessary because the conditions surrounding the present highway were unsafe.
This was somewhat surprising to me as I have been a regular reader of the Pathfinder for the past ten years and I could not recall that there was a preponderance of accidents reported.
Subsequent discussions with numerous business owners seem to support my suspicions. They also could not recall the occurrence of many accidents. I requested, through Community Council President Paul Conn, a copy of the accident data used to justify the project.
It turns out that the Highway Department never presented the Community Council with the applicable data, nor did the Community Council request it. Mr. Conn did, however, secure a copy of the data for me.
The data, while presented in an obfuscatory manner, is nevertheless revealing. Some of the information gleaned from it follows.
The project, as presented at the meeting, involves highway 83 from Whitetail Drive at mile post 13.3 to the Duck Inn at mile post 14.8, a distance of 1.5 miles.
Over the past 15 years (from 1-1-84 to 12-31-93) there was a total of 56 accidents, for an average of a mere 3.7 accidents per year.
The breakdown of accidents, by year, is in the accompanying chart. As you can see, the number of accidents has declined in each of the past three years. Although traffic counts are not included in the data, I would be quite surprised if road use has not increased over that same time period.
While intuition says that the highway is unsafe for pedestrian and cycling activity, the data reveals that perception to be false. Although observation indicates that cycling along the highway has increased substantially in recent years there was only one accident involving a bicycle in the past 15 years and that was in 1990. Additionally there were only two accidents involving pedestrians in that same time span, one in the first year of the study and one in the last. One of those occurred off the roadway in a parking lot.
Part of the project involves the installation of numerous lighting fixtures. In the study period, of 15 years, there were 15 accidents that occurred in dark-unlit conditions, for an average of only one per year. The Highway Department contends that the installation of lights makes those accidents "correctable". Information provided by the Highway Safety Department in Helena shows the potential for a 30% reduction in accidents that occur in dark-unlit conditions. In arriving at those figures they do not, however, take into account other factors that may have contributed to the accident. In fact, for most of the accidents there were mitigating circumstances such as weather conditions, road conditions, driver error (i.e. falling asleep) etc.
Data of critical importance was not included in the documents provided. For instance; How many of the 56 accidents involved speeds which exceeded the posted limits or were too fast for conditions? How many involved alcohol and/or illegal drugs? How many injuries resulted from the failure to wear seatbelts or provide lawful child restraints? In order to analyze this project from a safety standpoint this information is essential. The project, as designed, would have little or no impact on accidents wherein alcohol, excessive speed, etc. played a significant role.
So what can we expect if this project is implemented as proposed? Will the accident rate drop to zero? Even the Highway Department would be unwilling to predict that.
Again, using numbers provided by the Highway Safety Department in Helena (which are suspect because they do not take mitigating factors into account) we can expect to eliminate, on average, .9 accidents per year. Does the possible elimination of .9 accidents per year justify the major disruption inflicted on many downtown businesses?
Does it justify the esthetic ruination of the downtown area? Does it justify the expenditure of approximately 1.3 million dollars?
And, finally, what if because of increased speeds, reduction of sight lines due to snow piled on the pin-down curbing, cars colliding with artificial trees (light posts) etc., the project actually increases the number of accidents?
Will the lights be taken down, the pin-down curbing torn up and the center lane removed? Of course not! Perhaps then, the only solution will be to install traffic lights at each intersection or, by Highway Department logic, increase the speed limit!
It may seem, after all of this, that I am in favor of maintaining the status quo. I am not. A full 12% (7 of 56) of the accidents occurred at Whitetail Drive, indicating the need for remediation in that area. Turn lanes and/or reduced speeds would seem to be appropriate there.
The pin-down curbing currently designed to run parallel to the highway, is unsightly and inhibits snow removal. A reduced number of appropriate barriers, placed at right angles to the roadway, would serve to extend driveways, thereby limiting access. A slight widening of the existing roadway would be desirable. Changes of the magnitude proposed are not needed, wanted, or supported by the Highway Departments own data.
J. L. Ashmore,
Seeley Lake, Montana