Hwy. 191 more dangerous as traffic levels rise

Moab resident Petenia Pfnister recently survived a head-on collision in this vehicle, which she was driving near Wilson Arch south of Moab last month. See related story. Photo courtesy Todd Pfnister

After two pedestrians died crossing Main Street last month, a side-by-side closely missed construction workers on Mill Creek Drive, and a collision with a car injured two motorcyclists, traffic safety is on the fore of many Moabites’ minds.

The events also serve as a reminder of some of the starkest statistics about traffic-related injuries and deaths.

Car accidents are one of the leading causes of accidental death worldwide. For people in the United States who are 15 to 29 years old, vehicle collisions were the most common cause of death last year. Data from the Utah Departments of Transportation and Public Safety offers a closer look at how these risks apply in and around Moab.

Deadly collisions with motorcycles, pedestrians

Of all the accidents reported to police in Grand and San Juan counties since 2015, almost a quarter involved death or injury, according to state data. The most common type of crash reported to police involves no injuries, only damage to the vehicle or vehicles involved.

Two pedestrians from Ohio were killed in Moab recently as they crossed Main Street outside of a crosswalk. Most accidents on Highway 191, including Main Street, result in moderate to severe injury or death when a pedestrian is involved. Photo by Carter Pape

While most accidents yield no injuries, certain collisions are highly dangerous. In Grand and San Juan counties, accidents involving pedestrians, cyclists and motorcycles are relatively rare but deadly when they occur.

Despite representing one in 20 collisions since 2015, pedestrian and motorcycle accidents together account for one in four accidents in the two counties. No collisions with bicycles resulted in death, but most of them yielded moderate to severe injuries.

This chart shows where along Highway 191, between Monticello and Crescent Junction, accidents most often occur. Spikes in Moab and Monticello are correlated with higher traffic. Image by Carter Pape

Alcohol is another highly dangerous factor in accidents. For collisions where police alleged that a DUI had been committed, 64% resulted in death or injury.

Accidents are becoming more common

One of the obvious trends in crash data from state data is that the number of car accidents in Grand and San Juan counties has risen over the years, from a total of 556 in 2015 to 661 in 2018.

This chart shows the increasing number of accidents that have occurred on Highway 191 between Monticello and Crescent Junction since 2015. The exact reasons for the increase are hard to discern, but higher traffic levels likely account for much of the uptick. Image by Carter Pape

The increase could be caused by a variety of factors. Visitation to Moab has increased in recent years, meaning there are more vehicles on the road. Population in Moab is also growing, and the number of teenage and senior drivers is likely having an effect, as well.

Whatever the causes, data suggests not only that more accidents are occurring, but also that the average person who drives locally is more likely to get in an accident now than they were four years ago.

Highway crash risks have slightly increased

One random fact about Highway 191—the portion between Monticello through Moab and on to Crescent Junction—that turns out to be very useful is that, in 2017, drivers collectively put in 210 million miles of driving on the highway.

A driver’s fleeing from police ended abruptly after she collided head-on with a semi-truck on Highway 191. The woman, earlier in the day, had allegedly run into a car on purpose, prompting pursuit by police. Photo by Doug McMurdo

In 2015, this figure was 190 million miles. For reference, this is almost exactly the distance of a round trip from Earth to the Sun and back.

These figures, along with data from the Utah Department of Public Safety, show that between 2015 and 2017, the number of collisions on the stretch of Highway 191 between Monticello and Crescent Junction grew faster than the total distance traveled.

Two people on a motorcycle were recently injured when a car turned in front of them on 100 East. Collisions involving motorcycles are among the most deadly. Photo by Carter Pape

This finding suggests that drivers on Highway 191 faced a slightly increased risk of getting in a car accident in 2017 compared to 2015. Whereas one collision occurred every 230,000 miles traveled in 2015, one collision occurred every 210,000 miles in 2017.

More recent data is still pending, as the department compiles and finalizes traffic data for 2018. The Times-Independent is awaiting a response to a request to the Utah Department of Transportation for historical data to analyze longer-term trends.

Most crashes involve only one driver

Of the approximately 2,500 collisions that happened in Grand and San Juan counties between 2015 and early 2019, two out of every three of them involved only one vehicle. Most of these accidents, according to police, involved distracted, drowsy or drunken driving. Animals were another common factor.

A man was recently injured after his truck went off the road near the intersection of Highway 191 and Mill Creek Drive. Most accidents on the highway involve only one vehicle. Photo by Carter Pape

Roadway departure is one of the other common factors in local car accidents. Roadway departure occurs when a vehicle goes off the road during an accident, and although it can happen anywhere, it is particularly common on certain stretches of road.

Do road conditions cause accidents?

Along Highway 191, around mile marker 142, there is a series of pull-offs that lead to Dalton Wells, an area just south of Canyonlands Airport with dispersed camping. The area is also known for being rich with paleontological finds.

Two cars faced each other on a turn near mile marker 142 on Highway 191. The corner is obscured by rocks, and because it is a hill, the view forward of a driver in a shorter car is blocked by the road ahead. Photo by Carter Pape

Of the 13 accidents that have occurred between mile marker 141 and 143 since 2015, 10 were rollover accidents. This two-mile stretch of road accounts for more than one-sixth of the rollovers that have happened along Highway 191 since 2015.

Much of this stretch of highway has two lanes of travel—one in either direction—and no roadside barriers, but without more detailed crash data, it is hard to know whether these factors or, for example, the size of the shoulder contributed to the crashes.

Most of the accidents that occurred on Highway 191 near Dalton Wells did not result in injuries, and none were fatal. This anecdotal data does show that roadway departure is more common in some areas, but more data is needed to assess the safety gains offered by roadside barriers, large shoulders and rumble strips.

The Times-Independent will provide follow-up analysis on vehicle collisions, particularly on Highway 191, as more data becomes available.