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Safer driving key to safe travel on northern U.S. 95

Change in driving habits may be best way to cope with increasingly crowded commute

James Hagengruber
The Spokesman-Review

When Lisa Kaastad tells people she commutes from Sandpoint to her job at a salon in Coeur d'Alene, most offer their sympathies.

Although U.S. Highway 95 winds through landscapes that are downright heavenly, the road itself has a reputation for being fairly hellish.

There are trucks carrying loads of wobbly logs, adrenaline-filled skiers in SUVs, the constant concern about moose or deer and enough commuters to bring comparisons to a California interstate. But the big highways in California usually have more than two lanes and don't get covered regularly by thick blankets of snow, ice or slush.

Kaastad has heard it all. But driving the highway hasn't been the white-knuckle experience most people imagine, she insists.

"I have been very pleasantly surprised," she said. "It's really been a nice commute."

However, Idaho's main north-south road is getting busier by the month. The state is pouring millions of dollars' worth of concrete to try to keep up, but traffic seems to be winning the race. And law enforcement officers are scrambling to keep order on the hectic little highway.

Barring a massive infusion of cash for construction or more state troopers, the burden increasingly is falling on individual drivers. The best bet for a safe U.S. 95, according to police officers and transportation planners, is to improve the habits of drivers.

About 33,000 vehicles travel the highway each day at its busiest point: the intersection with Appleway in Coeur d'Alene, according to figures from the Idaho Transportation Department. That's not too far from the 45,000 cars and trucks that travel on Interstate 90 near Post Falls, North Idaho's most heavily traveled patch of pavement.

Conservative estimates say about 100 vehicles are being added each month to U.S. 95's traffic count. Despite the growing congestion, fatalities on the highway have held fairly steady. The 27 deaths statewide on the highway in 2003 are up four from the year before, but down from the peak in 1999 when 35 motorists died.

To keep the death toll from rising with the congestion, Idaho State Police officials say they need new tools -- unmarked patrol cars and higher speeding and seat-belt fines top the list.

For the moment, at least, the traffic gods are giving North Idaho a break.

The reasons aren't entirely clear, but North Idaho motorists had an unusually safe year in 2003. There were 25 driving-related fatalities in the five Panhandle counties last year, said Rick Ohnsman, spokesman for the Idaho State Police. That's down nearly 40 percent from the number of fatalities in 2002.

"Those are impressive numbers," Ohnsman said. "To have that low of a number for that region means something is being done right up there."

North Idaho was the state's safety exception. The death count won't be official until the end of the month, but preliminary counts show at least 280 people died on Idaho's roads last year, which would be close to a 20-year record high, Ohnsman said.

Most recently, a 75-year-old Sandpoint woman died early Saturday when her vehicle crashed into a log truck at milepost 459 in Bonner County.

One reason for North Idaho's relatively low death rate is probably its high rate of seat-belt use, Ohnsman said. About three out of every four Kootenai County motorists regularly wear seat belts, according to a November 2003 highway safety report. That mirrors the national rate. Only 47 percent of Bingham County residents used seat belts, which is the lowest rate in Idaho. The southeastern part of the state also had among the highest number of traffic fatalities.

The state hopes North Idaho can offer some help in bringing down the number of traffic deaths.

"It's not just luck," said Idaho State Police Capt. Wayne Longo, of Coeur d'Alene.

Apart from the higher rates of seat-belt use, local motorists have access to a winter driving program offered by ISP. About 600 people have taken the free course, which is offered during the winter months.

Trooper Mark Todd started the class after a triple-fatality on U.S. 95 in 2000. A Sandpoint grandmother, along with her daughter and granddaughter, were killed when their car slid into oncoming traffic.

"Three generations in one shot," Todd said, while driving in his Crown Victoria cruiser on a recent day. "There's no reason people have to die behind the wheel. If you want to die fighting Saddam's people in Iraq, that's one thing, but to buy it in a car, that's unnecessary."

Snow fell and a north wind blew as Todd patrolled in a large area north of Coeur d'Alene. He became agitated watching a steady stream of traffic driving the speed limit in weather fit for a cough drop commercial. Some people chatted on mobile phones.

No one seems to take driving seriously anymore, Todd said. "Everybody should be nervous in this kind of stuff. You should be nervous when it's bone dry."

Before finishing his 10-hour shift, Todd made two more traffic stops. One was to assist in a crash between a pickup truck and a locomotive. As he pulled away from the scene, an SUV with frosted windows drove past. Todd pulled the vehicle over and gave the driver a stern lecture in traffic safety.

"That's ridiculous. It's like going to the shooting range with a blindfold on," he said.

Todd thinks North Idaho and U.S. 95 will face a growing traffic safety problem. The region keeps growing, he said.
"You can only cram so many cars onto the pavement," he said.

The state Transportation Department continues to add more concrete for these cars. The most significant road-widening projects are between Coeur d'Alene and Plummer. And about $40 million in reconstruction work is being planned for the highway just south of the Canadian border.

One of the most ambitious efforts is the three-year Sandcreek Byway project, which will reroute the highway around Sandpoint. Work on the byway is expected to begin in late summer, said Barbara Babic, Transportation Department spokeswoman.

Babic did not want to speculate how long it would take before most of U.S. 95 between Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint becomes four lanes. Funding is never predictable, she said.

"Besides the big $20 million-type projects, there's a number of things we can do in the meantime," Babic said.

One such project is a 30-mile safety corridor beginning in Coeur d'Alene. Work is expected to begin this summer on the project, which involves grinding rumble strips into the center-line of the highway, painting brighter stripes and installing better reflectors marking the side of the roadway. The rumble strips alone have been shown to cut fatalities by 20 percent -- they're the same ones that rattle the teeth of drowsy interstate drivers, said Sean Hoisington, senior transportation planner for the Idaho Transportation Department. The rumble strips work even in snow.

"They save a lot of lives," he said.

Many drivers, though, continue to dream about a four-lane solution.

"The congestion is just horrendous. The fact that it's a two-lane road makes it even worse," said Joe Crowe, operations manager for the North Idaho Community Express, a bus system that makes three runs daily between Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint. "The only answer is to widen that puppy. That's the only thing that's going to make that highway safer."

Crowe said bus drivers have been able to measure growing congestion by the amount of time it takes to drive to Sandpoint. The 45-mile drive now takes about 75 minutes, up from an hour only a few years ago.

Even with the growing congestion and anxiety, the drive is worth it for Linda Michal, who commutes to Coeur d'Alene from her home five miles north of Athol. The 26-mile drive takes about 50 minutes, the traffic is usually bumper-to-bumper and there's often a steady stream of headlights aiming at her eyes, she said.

"I love coming home to the peace and quiet up here," said Michal, an instructor at North Idaho College. "It's worth the drive. Very seldom does it make me anxious. And I have a basic approach to life: You can't let fear rule it. If I'm real anxious I'm going to make more mistakes."