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Evan Saugstad: Simple solutions for South Taylor Hill nightmare

Top of the hill is poorly planned and, as a result, a complex place to navigate when the highway is busy
Google street view image of the top of South Taylor Hill on the Alaska Highway. The top of the South Taylor Hill is poorly planned and as a result a complex place to navigate when the highway is busy, writes Evan Saugstad.

saugstadOn Tuesday, I sat in a line-up for more than two hours waiting for the Alaska Highway to be cleared of a two-vehicle crash at the top of the South Taylor Hill. Impatient, frustrated, yes — but nothing compared to how those involved and their families and friends now feel for those involved.

As always, our hearts go out to those seriously hurt, or in this case, who have died.

It could have been me, or you. Don’t have to be at fault, don’t have to caused it, just have to be in that spot at the wrong time and it is us.

At 3:40 in the afternoon, there was good light and despite what some think, the roads were bare and dry, unlike the ice and snow coverings roads the North Peace were experiencing at the same time. I do not know what either driver was doing, or what may have happened to cause the crash. I won’t speculate, but I have seen more than one close call in this same spot.

The top of the South Taylor Hill is a crash waiting to happen, or as one traffic constable once explained to me, there’s no such thing as an “accident.”  Crashes are preventable and do not happen by “accident.” There is always a reason, many times by someone not paying attention, and sometimes compounded by poor highway planning.

The top of the South Taylor Hill is poorly planned and as a result a complex place to navigate when the highway is busy.

Northbound traffic:

  • Large trucks must, by regulation, pull off the highway to check their brakes;

  • The brake check is partially hidden by a corner;

  • Speed limit is 90 km/h, but some trucks must slow to less than 10 km/h to safely navigate into the pull-off area;

  • No separate slowdown lane for trucks to get off the highway, so they slow on the highway;

  • No room for vehicles to pass slowing trucks, and if drivers are not paying attention and slow down when they come around the corner, they must either pull into the oncoming lane or…?;

  • No pullout lane for trucks to merge back into traffic from the brake check, so they must do so into a 90 km/h zone;

  • On a busy day, there can be a dozen or more trucks trying to get on and off the highway, all at the same time.

Southbound traffic:

  • Two lanes merge into one opposite the brake check;

  • Speed limit is 90 km/h, but heavy haulers drive slowly up the hill, many at less than 30 km/h;

  • Light vehicles can do 90 km/h, many at 10 km/h over, and some at substantially more than that;

  • Light vehicles and some empty heavy haulers, seeing the merge sign, speed up to get past slow-moving vehicles, and pass at or past the end of the two-lane;

  • A pullout on the right, the former chain-off area, adds to the confusion as it makes the highway appear wider than it is;

  • Vehicles who have pulled over into the pullout must merge back into the highway with no merge lane and into traffic that is trying to sort itself out in the merge at the end of the southbound two-lane.

Put all these factors together, excluding weather, and this is as good a place for a crash that exists anywhere.

When I was Mayor of Chetwynd, I dealt with a very similar situation, and after three years of steady pressure on the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI), they fixed it.

Normally roads are not part of a municipal council’s purview, but in this case, the Chetwynd Fire and Rescue was funded through the district, and I received their reports and could see where crashes occurred. Part of the job for the Regional Manager of MoTI was to have annual meetings with local governments to discuss issues, so I had an in to raise concerns.

One spot with regular crashes was east of Chetwynd at the top of Wabi Hill on Highway 97. A bit different from South Taylor Hill, but similar circumstances: Merging lanes, brake check, fast traffic combined with slow traffic, large trucks pulling off and onto the highway.

The top of South Taylor Hill needs some of the same attention, and it doesn’t need to be complex. It also doesn’t need to wait for years to be completed concurrently with whatever plans MOTI has to fix the remaining South Taylor Hill nightmares.

Simple solutions that can be completed without thousands of hours of engineering studies and plans are:

  • Add merge lane into brake check that allows trucks to slow without impeding traffic and prohibit parking on it;

  • Add merge lane out of brake check until it reaches the downhill portion of the highway to allow trucks to get up to speed and away from the congestion;

  • Slow to 70 km/h at the corner leading into the brake check and until past the brake check (might think to leave that in place until the bottom four-lane is reached);

  • Remove the southbound pullout (former chain-off area) to eliminate confusion and congestion (traffic needing to pull over can use current chain-off area).

Not complicated, not expensive, and a simple fix until South Taylor Hill gets its, hopefully, long-term makeover. Doesn’t need the normal the year wait either.

I do realize that ridding our highways of stupid and inconsiderate drivers would go along way in preventing crashes. Unfortunately, seems every time one is taken off the road, another takes its place.

Evan Saugstad lives and writes in Fort St. John.