Traffic along some of Alaska's busiest roadways has steadily increased in recent years, but one thing that's gone down: major-injury crashes in designated "safety corridors."
The safety corridors, noted by the innocuous orange-and-white signs dotting sections of four major Alaska roadways, might not look like much to drivers, but they've unobtrusively been improving highway safety in a major way.
Since first being implemented along the Seward Highway in 2006, the four sections of road have seen dramatic declines in major-injury crashes. According to data collected by the Alaska Department of Transportation major-injury crashes are down an average of 41 percent in the safety corridors since the sections of road have been designated as such.
It's down slightly from previous years, when the average hovered closer to 50 percent. Central Region Traffic and Safety Engineer Scott Thomas is OK with that.
"I would love it to be 50 percent," he said in a phone interview Thursday. "But 40 percent is really a success with a two-lane road. Usually you build a divided highway to get 50 percent."
There are four corridors: the Seward Highway from Potter Marsh to just outside Girdwood, the 10 miles of the Sterling Highway from milepost 83 to 93, the Parks Highway from milepost 44 to 53 outside Wasilla and 17 miles of Knik-Goose Bay Road in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The areas were selected because of their high rate of injuries and high-profile fatalities.
The safety corridor program was implemented after state legislators pushed for more safety along some of Alaska's busiest roadways. The model isn't new, with safety corridors first installed in California and Washington state in the early 1990s and Oregon in 2001.
The rationale behind the corridors is simple: Raise public awareness of highway safety through signs and education, threaten additional fines (double the fees and points on drivers' licenses) and increase enforcement.
Thomas said major-injury crashes -- which are defined as crashes that incapacitate the driver with broken bones, serious burns or deep cuts that often lead to hospitalization -- are a better indicator of overall safety on the roads. With so few fatal crashes occurring in the safety corridors DOT considers them "volatile indicators." In 2014, DOT reported only three fatal crashes in the corridors.
Small investment, major return
Thomas said the safety corridors often serve as an interim until larger road improvement projects are completed.
The corridors are also cost-effective, especially in times of limited funding. Thomas said installing the signs costs about $25,000 -- still expensive but more accessible than the $277 million in proposed improvements on the Seward Highway.
"Some people would say, 'Let's make them all four-lane highways,' but there isn't a budget to do that in all these roads," Thomas said.
Lt. David Hanson, deputy commander of the Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol, said the signs do plenty of the work to make people more aware. His bureau, founded in 2009 and housed under the Alaska Department of Public Safety, focuses on highway safety around the state, including enforcement of the corridors.
He said there are always discussions about whether there are enough corridors. Other roads, like the Palmer-Wasilla Highway, are also a safety concern, but there's worry that too many corridors could lessen the importance of the current ones.
"There's always discussion about that, whether (too many corridors) becomes white noise. There's a real balance there." Hanson said. "DOT is constantly having those discussions with us."
Osama Abaza, professor of civil engineering and chair of the University of Alaska Anchorage Civil Engineering Department, studies Alaska highway safety. He had not directly studied the safety corridors but was working on a project looking at whether trooper movements in the corridors had any correlation with a reduction in crashes in the areas they patrol.
"Initially speaking, it looks like there is some effectiveness of those projects," he said.
Abaza is also looking at other safety impacts on the roads, particularly on the Seward Highway. He's in the middle of a multiyear project monitoring whether "differential speed" passing lanes on the highway -- where one lane is 55 mph and the other is 65 -- have any impact on safety. He's also working on a driver survey of the Seward Highway to see if perceptions of the road match the safety.
DOT still hasn't stopped working to improve the roads. In 2014 the department revamped some of the signs to indicate driver speeds and installed high-intensity reflectors along guardrails. Yearly audits of the safety corridors include "decommissioning plans" for when the corridors could be eliminated. The decommissioning generally involves major highway improvements like constructing divided highways. The timeline on when that could happen is listed as "uncertain."
But despite perceptions, Thomas said the overall improvements come down to drivers taking the corridors seriously.
"It's worth crediting the drivers that turned the tide," he said. "You can't get these results with out people buying it … I'm thankful that people basically get it."