JACKI LYDEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
It's one of the busiest travel days of the year. And if you're traveling today, please be careful, especially if you're going over the river and through the woods, as the song goes. Rural roads are the deadliest in the country.
In the final report in our weeklong series on highway safety, NPR's Howard Berkes looks at why rural roads are so dangerous. A warning that some parts of this piece may be difficult to listen to because of their graphic nature.
HOWARD BERKES: There may be no better example of a dangerous rural road and the efforts to fix it than U.S. Highway 6 in Central Utah. John Leonard of the Utah Department of Transportation gave me a tour.
Mr. JOHN LEONARD (Utah Department of Transportation): We have some challenges just in the traffic mix that's through here, the number of passenger cars, the larger trucks as well as the number of recreational vehicles. We are generally constrained by the location of the mainline railroad tracks, as well as steep canyon walls.
BERKES: It's a volatile mix of 6,000 vehicles a day, barreling along at freeway speeds with only 18-inches of double yellow lines at times keeping the frenzied flow apart. In some stretches, the road climbs, dips, twists and squeezes through narrow canyons. And it's like that on and off for 120 miles. At the halfway point in Price, Utah, Brad King says everyone knows someone killed or maimed on Highway 6.
Mr. BRAD KING (Vice President, College of Eastern Utah): A lot of them have bumper stickers that say: Pray for me. I travel on Highway 6.
BERKES: King is a state college vice president and former state representative. Ten of his students, friends and neighbors died on Highway 6. In the last 12 years, 500 serious and fatal accidents have plagued the road.
Mr. KING: It's just always been that way. I can't remember a time when you didn't worry about it. Parents, when they send their kids away for college, you know, that's one of the big concerns: Do I send them north so they travel Highway 6? Or do we go south where it's not so dangerous?
BERKES: Highway 6 is difficult to avoid because it connects to medical specialists, shopping, government offices, colleges and relatives in populous Northern Utah. It's the shortest truck route between Salt Lake City and Denver. And it's the tourist link to the national parks, reservoirs and red rock canyons in Southeastern Utah.
(Soundbite of town meeting)
Unidentified Man: You hear that?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Unidentified Man: All right.
BERKES: At this town meeting in Castle Dale, Utah in 2002, the frustrated and the grieving confronted Mike Leavitt, the governor of Utah at the time.
Mr. MARK JUSTICE (Insurance Agent): Please. Please. We're as valuable as anybody else who lives in the state of Utah and this is a disaster. The highway is a disaster.
Mr. MIKE LEAVITT (Former Governor of Utah): Let me just�
(Soundbite of applause)
BERKES: The applause for insurance agent Mark Justice was followed by ghostly silence, as Connie Voorhees spoke sitting in a wheelchair and holding a photograph of her husband and daughter.
Ms. CONNIE VOORHEES: My husband touched our brake. That was all it took. It threw our car on black ice into a semi that spun us around, and then the truck behind us hit us also. My husband was killed instantly and I'm still crippled from it. I had my pelvis bone smashed. I had my foot smashed. I had my leg broken. All my ribs on this side broken, my lungs punctured. This right arm broken. And we were all seat-belted and driving carefully.
And my husband's body went in the back seat and landed on my daughter. She had to lay there with her father's broken body, with parts of him that she should never have to see, laying on her for two hours until they could get her out of the car. And she's now being treated for post-traumatic stress. I mean, my grandsons that are overseas are safer than my grandchildren that drive back and forth on that mountain.
BERKES: One of those grandsons was in Iraq at the time.
Governor Leavitt said he was ready to spend $80 million to make Highway 6 safer.
Mr. LEAVITT: I'd like you to know that your message has been heard and all that can be done will be.
BERKES: The 80 million was a start, but it was a fraction of the money spent elsewhere in the state. In fact, when the death rate was highest on Highway 6, $1.5 billion was spent on an interstate project in Salt Lake City, rushed to completion before the 2002 Winter Olympics. But state officials admit the project had nothing to do with the games.
Nationwide, rural roads account for 56 percent of all traffic fatalities, but get only a third of federal highway funds. It's a familiar disparity to Jerry Donaldson of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Mr. JERRY DONALDSON (Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety): The highways that need the money most are the ones that will usually get the least. And the reason is is because you put your money where you already have a higher-type highway with higher traffic volumes serving a more densely populated area. And the highways that are underfunded and have gone for decades without any real design improvements for safety, they remain in that condition.
BERKES: So that mishaps that are survivable on wider, urban highways turn deadly on narrow, rural roads. People driving rural roads also have higher rates of some bad driving habits, including speeding and driving and dying drunk. But on Highway 6, speed and driving under the influence are factors in a fraction of the serious accidents. Most occur on dry pavement under clear skies.
Insurance agent Kathy Justice and retired coal miner Bert Collins, together lost four family members on Highway 6 and tried to get politicians to focus on the narrow and outdated design of the road.
Ms. KATHY JUSTICE (Insurance Agent): Well, I think that mostly it was political. You know, there's not a lot of voters down here.
Mr. BERT COLLINS (Retired Coal Miner): They're giving us the runaround. The roads were being built upstate. They had the Olympic road building extravaganza, nothing down here. No action down this way.
BERKES: Collins and Justice gathered 12,000 signatures and attracted the attention of Reader's Digest, which named Highway 6 one of the nation's most dangerous roads. After that embarrassment and after the Olympics, Utah officials finally acted.
(Soundbite of construction)
BERKES: At one of the most dangerous canyon curves on Highway 6, bulldozers, backhoes and earth movers have been scraping away a mountainside.
Mr. LEONARD: Well, we're literally moving the mountain at this location to straighten out the road.
BERKES: John Leonard of the Utah Department of Transportation.
Mr. LEONARD: We're actually realigning this short section of road through a rest area that we used have here to provide a better alignment so that people will be able to drive it easier and hopefully eliminate those crashes that we've had over the last couple of years.
BERKES: The price tag for this project: $45 million - that's for four miles of highway. Another 180 million has gone into easier fixes: 47 miles of additional lanes, rumble strips that warn drifting vehicles, signs that count down the miles to passing lanes and electronic signs flashing drivers heading into curves too fast.
Mr. LEONARD: We've committed significant resources to this roadway and will commit significant resources in the future to try to make this the safest road that we can.
BERKES: And the annual death rate has plummeted from more than 20 10 years ago to four last year. Activist Kathy Justice.
Ms. JUSTICE: And that's what gives us hope is that they are doing things now that they said at that time 10 years ago would be impossible or not to expect in my lifetime.
(Soundbite of highway)
BERKES: Justice and other activists still hope for four lanes on 120 miles of Utah's Highway 6 and that's what an environmental impact statement actually recommends. But the project would cost nearly a half billion dollars more. And the state highway says the narrow canyon sections presents significant engineering and environmental obstacles. That's the problem on all rural highways where the very things that make them dangerous also make them expensive and challenging to fix.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
LYDEN: At our Web site, a map and photos tell more stories about Highway 6. And to hear other reports this series yields, steer your way over to NPR.org.