Change in driving habits may be best way
to cope with increasingly crowded commute
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
"They save a lot of lives," he said.
Many drivers, though, continue to dream about a four-lane
"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."