ITD employees who regularly drive Idaho’s highways as part of their job to ensure safe public travel do so at considerable personal risk. Bad weather... Road hazards... Impatient drivers... Split-second decisions... They are ever-present dangers.
Threats exist even under ideal conditions. Such as those Tuesday.
There was nothing extraordinary about the task Jim Onthank and Toby Stevens set out to accomplish. Early, spring-like conditions enabled them to begin patching potholes on U.S. 95 a little earlier this year than in most. They loaded cold mix asphalt in the back of their six-wheel dump truck and left the maintenance shed for a day of filling holes caused by alternate freezing and thawing.
Routine assignment. All in a day’s work.
They could not have imagined the peril that lay ahead. They could never have predicted that a cement truck would lose a tire and cross, out of control, into their lane.
Today, the army of ITD road warriors is missing two soldiers, and all of Idaho mourns the loss. Jim and Toby were killed in the two-vehicle crash at about 9:18 a.m. (PST) near Slate Creek south of White Bird. There was no warning, no time for evasive action, no escape route.
Their premature deaths are poignant reminders that highway maintenance is accompanied by inherent risks… and that we should never take for granted the importance of those efforts.
Before the onset of winter, ITD Director Dave Ekern acknowledged the challenges maintenance workers face. In a November message to employees, he wrote:
Tuesday’s tragic crash brought stark reality to the director’s observation.
“We are always concerned by the loss of lives on our highways, but it is especially tragic when we lose members of our own ITD family – employees who dedicate their lives and service to keeping Idaho highways safe,” Ekern wrote following the crash.
“No one is ever prepared for such an event, and I know that I speak for all of us in acknowledging how deeply the loss will be felt throughout the department. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones of all who were involved in this tragic crash.”
In tribute to Jim and Toby, Ekern instructed that ITD flags flying on their own pole be lowered to half-staff. Memorial arrangements for both employees is under the direction of Blackmer Funeral Home of Grangeville.