Drive along WYO 59, and you can learn a lot about the oil and gas industry. Just look at your fellow drivers. It feels like every other passerby is in a white pickup. Oil and water haulers are a dime a dozen, too. It’s common to see semis loaded with turquoise pipe, tractor trailers carrying a bulldozer or a flatbed lugging cube-shaped sandboxes for fracking. Once in a while you will see a massive rig move.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation hasn’t yet compiled the 2018 data, but anecdotally, oil and gas traffic has spiked on WYO 59. WYDOT tracks traffic at several points along the highway. At one counter near Douglas, overall traffic held steady between 2016 and 2017, but truck traffic doubled from about 500 trucks per day to more than 1,000.
With more drivers on the road, especially big vehicles, 59 becomes more dangerous.
Since the beginning of 2018, six individuals have died in accidents on WYO 59 between Douglas and Gillette. In 2018, one individual had a heart attack before crashing – which WYDOT doesn’t count as an official fatality – and in 2019 a North Dakota man died while outside of his vehicle.
Not counting pedestrians and medical emergencies, the stretch of highway between Douglas and Gillette has already claimed as many lives (2) as of March 19 as it did during the entirety of 2018.
It’s unusual for WYO 59 to have four fatalities in a 15-month window. 2014 was the highway’s worst year in the past decade (eight deaths) and three years saw zero deaths. At the current pace, 2019 would set a dubious record.
“Obviously it’s been a quick start unfortunately, with fatalities,” WYDOT Senior Public Affairs Specialist J.L. O’Brien said.
2019 has been deadly across the state, with 30 fatalities on Wyoming roads as of March 18. In the past six years, the state had never seen more than 21 deaths as of March 18, and if the fatalities don’t let up, 2019 will be one of Wyoming’s deadliest on record.
IS 59 DANGEROUS?
Many drivers say that, under ideal conditions, 59 isn’t especially dangerous.
“If it’s nice out, it’s not too bad, but if it’s wet …” Twin Peaks Pump & Supply’s Triston Wright said.
During storms or periods of heavy traffic, 59 can become more uncomfortable. Those who work at the coal mines even have a nickname for WYO 59 because of the way workers hustle home at the end of shifts. They jokingly call it the Coal Miner 500.
Coal miner Teresa Malone said 59 is dangerous.
“I feel like it’s a big concern because the traffic is so much heavier,” Malone said, “especially the oil field traffic and truck traffic.”
Mark Rasmusson of North Dakota has been a trucker for half a century. He said he’s never personally had issues with 59, but can see why the road could be dangerous.
“There’s just so much oil traffic, I think,” Rasmusson said. “There should probably be a four-lane. If it was four lanes, of course the traffic incidents would drop dramatically.”
Nearly every driver with experience driving 59 mentioned that they would like to see the highway expand to four lanes, and gain more turn off lanes. 59 acquired new passing lanes a couple years ago and last year, in part thanks to a push from state Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Converse/Campbell, but all drivers said more would help.
“It’s just too small for all that traffic,” trucker Nick Juenemann said.
Many experienced and local workers say that 59 is made more dangerous by inexperienced drivers. Chet Johnson of Twin Peaks Pump & Supply said WYO 59 “sucks.”
“A lot of out-of-staters are used to driving 55 mph; they’re flying 70-75 up there,” Johnson said. “If you know where everything’s at it’s ok, but they don’t. They don’t know where the roads are, so they’ll go from 70 to 30 mph in about 0.5 seconds to turn.”
Some companies also could be hiring green drivers as the boom causes a spike in the demand for services.
“There are so many people out here that are not qualified to do the job,” Rasmusson said. “People just aren’t paying attention the way they should be.”
As activity increases, some drivers may be tasked with working tired, too. Haulers are paid by the barrel, which encourages them to travel as fast and often as possible. Rasmusson gets paid by the mile, but he noted that the current national rules might not be conducive to safety.
“A lot of times they’re forcing us to drive tired,” he said. “Years ago, if we got tired, we’d be able to lie down, take a four to five hour nap and go again. We can’t do that anymore because of the 14-hour law. And it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
In its accident reports, the Wyoming Highway Patrol frequently mentions that driver fatigue could have been a contributing factor in the crash. A large number of accidents occur during rush hour, after workers have finished a long, exhausting shift.
Malone said she has seen highly questionable decision-making by at least one driver on 59.
“It is dangerous,” she said. “The other day I was headed to work and one of those sandboxes was turning around right in the middle of WYO 59, with three of those boxes right on the back of his truck. Turning around right in the middle of the highway. How safe is that?”
SEATBELTS SAVE LIVES
O’Brien said he hasn’t heard that WYDOT considers 59 to be especially dangerous, and it’s up to the public to watch out for itself.
“We’re concerned about safety on all the roads,” he said. “Wrecks can happen anywhere, for any number of reasons.”
Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Randy Starkey, who frequently patrols 59, said that traffic is heavy as a result of the oil field activity. He also noted that, unfortunately, drivers along the highway tend to disregard safe driving decorum.
“We have people that are passing in no passing zones, speeding, trying to pass when people are turning,” Starkey said. “It’s dangerous out there right now.”
Starkey and O’Brien both emphasized the importance of safety. Read the fatality reports for WYO 59, and you’ll notice a theme: Many who lose their lives weren’t wearing seatbelts.
“We’re up there as much as we can with the manpower we have,” Starkey said. “People need to buckle up and slow down on WYO 59, and be cautious.”