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Sat, Sept. 21

Emergencies can 'numb' workers <BR>

There is an old saying that used to go around the club scene, "Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse." Two out of three is not a good average. Yet that is precisely what is happening along the highways between Prescott Valley and Black Canyon City. Emergency workers witness hundreds of grotesque episodes involving friends and family of residents in this area. It takes an emotional and physical toll.

"When you deliver a motorist's remains to the funeral home in plastic bags it makes you pretty numb," said Hud Dutton, Maintenance Supervisor for ADOT.

Contrary to conventional wisdom it is neither the elderly nor the impaired drivers accounting for most of the mayhem. It is more likely a young person in a hurry to get to some recreational activity. With youth comes the sense of invulnerability. Additionally young people think their reaction time is superior to other drivers. This may be true but often, on local highways, a combination of steep grades and hairpin curves neutralizes even the most razor sharp reflexes.

In the past few years traffic has doubled along this corridor. As would be expected the number of accidents also increases. Working each of these accident scenes are personnel from ADOT, the nearest fire district and DPS. It is their job to attend to the injured, remove disabled vehicles, put out fires and keep traffic flowing. It is a difficult and thankless task.

With every primary accident scene comes the heightened risk of the secondary accident. These are often the most dangerous and too often fatal. The scenario might be something like this. A vehicle goes out of control and hits a guardrail near a curve on a steep downhill grade. Emergency personnel arrive to attend to the first accident. Soon inattentive drivers speeding around the curve lack sufficient braking distance to avoid the first accident and bang, you have a secondary crash.

Now add to this the emergency personnel attempting to extract the driver of the first vehicle. They are now in the path of another speeding, out of control vehicle, which, in turn, causes multiple opportunities for additional smash-ups.

This is a very real scenario facing emergency personnel every time they are called to assist at a roadside situation. With traffic speeding by at up to 90 miles per hour there is little time for corrective action. Usually by the time a driver knows there is trouble ahead it is too late to react in a positive and safe manner.

In the case of fire fighting personnel. During the summer months many drivers are towing boats or construction trailers with safety chains dragging on the pavement. From this flows a river of sparks. When the sparks get into the dry grasses along the roadside you have a grass fire sometimes hundreds of yards in length. Enter the firefighters. They must take the big tank trucks out to provide water for the fire. These trucks often have to take up space in the driving lanes to get to the fire. Now the speeding driver is rounding a curve to be met with a ten-ton obstruction in the driving lane. Braking is often not an option especially in a curve so the driver attempts to go around the truck. Then comes the added danger of striking personnel fighting the fire. Add to this the smoke drifting across the roadway. Drivers are blinded to whatever might be ahead.

Common sense would make you think drivers would automatically slow down when they see blinding smoke across the road. "Not necessarily," says Black Canyon Fire District Chief, Tom Birch. "I have 28 years experience in various fire districts. This is the most dangerous area I've worked. Every time I go to work a wreck on the highway it is the worst experience imaginable. Add to that darkness, smoke, rain or snow and it is more dangerous than a house fire."

Randy Skinner, Lead Man Supervisor for ADOT echoes these sentiments saying, "While working a scene, trying to stop traffic I've seen three tractor trailer rigs, side by side, coming down a six degrees slope with brakes smoking and taking up the entire roadbed from guardrail to guardrail. All I could do was leap over the rail and play mountain goat."

Hud Dutton is in charge of managing traffic at the primary accident scene. He is on call 24/7. "When we shut down traffic the chances of a secondary accident goes up exponentially. For each minute the traffic lanes are closed the traffic backs up a mile. If we have the interstate shut down for 15 minutes it will take two hours to unsnarl traffic.

"The only people who show us any resect are the injured. We've had people spit at us, throw stuff at us and cuss as they go by. We've seen more of the one-finger wave than the five finger variety.

"What we usually do is shove the disabled vehicle off the road and get the injured in the ambulance and open the roads again. We usually keep a front-end loader at Sunset Point just to have on hand to shove vehicles off the road.

Sgt. Randy Sorter of DPS has seen his share of fatalities during his 25 years working traffic in the corridor. "The main contributing factors to accidents and death is speed and inattention to the road ahead. ADOT did a traffic study at milepost 252. The first 8,000 vehicles passing that point averaged 96.6 miles per hour. Nine were clocked at over 120 miles per hour. Now most of this area is surrounded by wild land with no fences. Imagine hitting a cow or an elk at 120. People driving well below the speed limit are just as dangerous. Not too long ago a woman was killed when she ran up under a semi moving slowly up a hill."

"It is our number one goal to keep traffic moving, not only for the public's convenience but because there's more danger of the secondary accident. Almost weekly an early responder is killed somewhere in the country. We all know the risk and we all work together to get traffic flowing as safely as possible," said Chief Birch.

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