Western N.D. combats ‘learning curve’ on roads

Western N.D. combats ‘learning curve’ on roads

Aug 17

Accident fatalities jump as traffic increases in rural areas

By Chuck Haga – Forum Communications

Late in 2008, as the rush to develop western North Dakota’s oil accelerated, a 68-year-old McKenzie County man was killed when the vehicle he was driving struck an oil work rig on a county road near Watford City.

Few things concern longtime residents more about the oil boom than how it has changed life on the road – life and the fear of death.

Plumes of dust stream from oil trucks as the drivers make their way across the landscape in western North Dakota. Photo by Dave Samson, The Forum

Traffic fatalities statewide jumped from 104 in 2008 to 140 in 2009, and those numbers do include fatal accidents involving oil industry vehicles and drivers.

But in many cases, law officers in the region say, the oil drivers were not at fault.

“The increase in traffic is certainly something all motorists traveling through that area need to be aware of,” said Lt. Jody Skogen of the North Dakota Highway Patrol’s headquarters in Bismarck. “Those trucks are working around the clock.

“But the common trend in the crashes we’re seeing is that the contributing factor often is motorists in the passenger vehicles,” he said.

“It’s a learning curve, like when that first winter storm comes through. People need to be reminded how to safely operate in that kind of traffic. You may feel you have plenty of time to pass a long oil truck, but then you’re halfway past him and you see there’s another oil truck in front.”

Patience is key to avoiding disaster, Skogen said.

“It can be frustrating. Some of these oil trucks do travel at slower speeds,” he said. “A lot of times, you see impatience taking over. That affects judgment, and you have people taking risks they normally wouldn’t.”

As of Aug. 4, the state had recorded 44 traffic fatalities for 2010, well below the pace set last year, according to patrol statistics.

Presence in ‘oil triangle’

In the first seven months of 2009, there were 25 fatal crashes – with 36 deaths – in the 17 oilproducing counties, Skogen said.

In the same period this year, there were 14 fatal crashes with 15 dead.

Skogen attributed the lower numbers so far in 2010 to a concerted “awareness campaign” targeting alcohol use and failure to use seatbelts, stepped-up enforcement “and the increased visibility of our troopers and law enforcement in general, which has a tendency to deter people from taking risks.”

The State Patrol increased its presence in the “oil triangle,” from Parshall to Stanley to Watford City, late last year, partly in response to residents’ concerns about oilfield traffic.

But Capt. Gary Orluck, commander of the patrol’s northwest district, has said that drivers working in the oilfields today are professionals and well-screened by the companies that hire them, and they should not be singled out.

“I’m not going to place blame for the increase in fatalities on trucking or the oil activity,” Orluck told the Minot Daily News last fall. “When you get more vehicles using the same stretch of highway more often, you’re going to have incidents that happen.

“In our experience, we find a lot more mistakes by passengercar drivers creating these crashes. I think impatience comes into play. When that truck isn’t accelerating as fast as your Honda Accord is, the temptation is to get out and pass.”

Haga is at chaga@gfherald.com.