When many residents of Winslow hear there has been an accident on Route 99, the first response is to ask, “Again?”
The reaction is due to what seems like an inordinately large number of auto accidents on the five-mile stretch from Highway 87 to McHood Park. However, the numbers don’t support the road’s bad reputation.
Long-time residents of Winslow can recall accidents on Route 99 dating to the 1930s. A permanent memorial is dedicated to two men killed in 1980. Then, of course, there were this summer’s two tragic accidents that claimed a total of four teenagers.
Including this year’s two fatal accidents, only one other fatality has occurred since 1995. Department of Public Safety records researched from 1994 to 2004 show a total of 25 accidents on a 13-mile section of the road. Three resulted in fatalities, 12 in injuries and 10 caused no injuries. A high mark of five accidents were recorded in 1994. There were none in 1998 and there have been three so far this year.
Officer Tom Neve is an accident reconstructionist for DPS. In his six years of patrolling Route 99, or Clear Creek Road, he has given more warnings and tickets than he can remember to people who want to experience “Tickle Hill.”
As motorists pass over the hill, there’s a sudden drop in elevation causing a sensation that their stomachs drop, which feels like a tickle.
“I’ve worked a lot of enforcement right at that hill this year and some of the people I caught, the only place they speed is right over that hill,” he said. “This specific hill draws a lot of attention, who want that thrill, that little tickle, so to speak. I’ve had parents specifically tell me that they only sped up to go over that hill so their kids can feel the tickle.”
Route 99 has several of these hills north of Clear Creek. Along with the hills are blind valleys where it appears the yellow lines rise off into the horizon. These formations can be exciting, especially to young drivers.
However, in the three fatality accidents, the road was not included as a cause of the wrecks. The first, in August 1995, and the first of this summer, June 4, involved alcohol. The third, August 27, was due to excessive speed. The most common contributing causes to all recorded accidents involved a driver who had been drinking or not paying attention. Both causes occurred seven times in the 25 crashes.
Since the road was not considered a factor in this summer’s incidents, the Arizona Department of Transportation has no plans to change it.
ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel said the entire state highway system is reviewed on an annual basis to look at areas that might need changing. That’s not occurring here.
“There are no plans to change that section of the highway,” he said. “Over time we do look for things that could prompt changes, but in this case the roadway is not seen as the problem.”
Route 99 is also not a heavily traversed road. According to ADOT statistics, between 1998-2002, a daily average of 329 cars passed between Highway 87 and Chevelon Creek Road. That’s about six miles.
Without seeing the exact numbers, Neve guessed correctly that that stretch doesn’t see much traffic.
“I would say in terms of all our highways we probably handle less than five percent of our traffic volume on that highway,” he said. “In terms of accidents, I would say it’s probably the same or less.”
The weather could also have indirectly played a part in most of the 25 accidents. Twelve accidents occurred in the summer time when the attendance at McHood Park is much higher. After having a good time at the park, people leave wanting to keep the good times rolling.
However, speed and drinking and driving do not occur as often as people simply forgetting their wallets.
“Our two biggest violations on that road are ‘no seatbelts’ and ‘no license in possession,’” Neve said. “This year I haven’t had that many DUI arrests, not that people aren’t drinking and driving, but this is probably a lighter year for it.”
Officially, weather only played a part in three accidents. Twice, police listed the conditions as cloudy and once as rainy. Otherwise, conditions were clear.
Regardless of weather and road conditions, many of the injuries could have been lessened and the deaths might have been prevented had passengers been wearing their seatbelts, Neve said.
“If you’re going to gamble, you’re going to gamble that the seatbelt is going to save your life or minimally reduce injury,” he said. “I can’t say wearing your seatbelt is going to save your life… but seatbelts would have made a huge impact on the types of injuries we probably would’ve seen versus what actually did happen.”
Of the four teens killed this summer, just one was wearing a seatbelt, according to the police reports.
Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans under 35. DPS estimates 14,000 to 18,000 lives could be saved each year if car occupants wore their seatbelts. Only 10-15 percent of people wear them every time they get in a car. The restraints would lessen injuries both immediate and long-term.
“The more people that are wearing seatbelts in the vehicle the better the medial attention those people that are injured are going to get because now we have less people to focus on,” Neve said.
Not everyone is convinced the road had nothing to do with this summer’s crashes. Mayor Jim Boles said he believes the road is a factor and has talked with ADOT engineers and officials about it.
“I am of the opinion that the terrain and the physics of the construction definitely has something to do with it,” he said at the Sept. 14 City Council meeting. “The engineer said that there is a way of looking at strips or spots in roads that are considered to be dangerous. And sometimes without going through all the hullabaloo that normally takes five or six years, sometimes they can go in and just work on certain sections of road.
“I think it’s time that we do bring this to the attention of ADOT and let them know that we feel that it certainly merits a good long look to see if some corrective measures need to be made.”