Road of Ruin | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Road of Ruin 

Activist Kathy Justice brought attention to Utah’s deadly Highway 6. Is it a safer drive today?

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Mile Marker 181: Fatal.

Kathy Justice heard about Trever Tuttle’s white Ford Ranger drifting across the center lane in Spanish Fork Canyon, killing him instantly. She learned his death left four small children without a daddy; that his casket would have to be closed. Then she heard that Tuttle wrecked his Ford on Oct. 11, 1999, and that his was the fifth accident in the canyon that month.

Justice knew the Tuttle children were there at the funeral, in the LDS stake center in Orangeville, Utah, sitting in the front row, just like she had 28 years before. But, although Justice was there, she couldn’t see the Tuttle children over the heads of the 300 or 400 people filling the building. Neighbors, friends, and even community members with no ties to the Tuttles were in attendance to pray for them, to show support and love and to mourn with them.

Justice was mourning doubly. She lost her mother on Highway 6 in the Red Narrows area. She knew the Tuttle children would have to feel much the same as she, wondering what their father would have been like had he been with them as they grew into adulthood. “That was in their future and in my past, but it connected me to them,” she said.

But something was trying to pound itself into Justice’s head that day. Amid all the grief, one stream of thought ran continuously. She couldn’t get it out of her head: That highway hasn’t changed much since my mom died 28 years ago. Why hasn’t that highway changed? Why hasn’t somebody done something about that highway?

After the funeral, Justice went home and wrote down what she was feeling: That her mother was not the first, and Trever Tuttle would not be the last to die on Highway 6: The highway provided too few passing lanes. That the governor and Legislature were neglecting the safety of their residents and state visitors in favor of elaborate construction projects along the Wasatch Front. That she wanted to help. And that she would put petitions for change all over town. She wrote down everything she could think of and mailed the letter to her local paper, The Emery County Progress. Justice went to bed that night, exhausted.

Mile Marker 195: Fatal.

Twenty-eight years ago, in 1977, Justice was 19 years old and had just had her first baby. She and her husband, Mark, were then living in Salt Lake City, and her parents were in town to see their new grandchild. Justice and her mother spent the day together, admiring the new member of the family.

After their visit, Justice’s parents left Salt Lake City via Highway 6 to their home in Ferron, Utah. Justice’s brother phoned later that night. Mark told Justice the news: Her mother was gone. Her parents were driving in the Red Narrows, around mile marker 195, when a horse stepped into the road. Hairpin turns, falling rock, and the absence of a passing lane hampered her father’s ability to navigate the road. Had George Nielson swerved out of his lane to miss the horse, he would have driven head-on into a semi. He chose the lesser obstacle, aiming at the horse. He lived, but Justice’s mother, Alta Nielson, was killed instantly. Justice’s children would never know their grandmother.

The pain of that loss came back to haunt Justice when she saw another family lose a parent on that highway. When her letter to the editor was published in the Progress, people started phoning and writing. They thanked her. It was time, they said, that someone finally protested.

They, too, had their own catastrophic stories. Teri Marquez wrote to say that her mother, sister and 15-month-old nephew were killed on Highway 6 when they were hit head-on by a semi. She offered to do anything she could to help. Bert Collins phoned to say that his nephew and the nephew’s mother and grandmother died on Highway 6.

Some 200 people phoned Justice in the weeks following her letter. By then, in November 1999, the media was starting to take notice. The Deseret News published letters about the highway. The Salt Lake Tribune published an article about its dangers. Petitions that Justice passed around Emery County filled with signatures.

Finally, someone suggested she form a committee to formalize her intention to change the highway. Thoughts from Tuttle’s funeral came rushing back: Why hasn’t somebody done something about that highway? She was asked to be that somebody.

Mile Marker 229: Fatal.

Patricia Gallegos, 29, and her two sons, ages 8 and 5, were traveling westbound on Highway 6 through Price Canyon. They were hit head-on by a semi crossing a centerline on a tight curve. Only Gallegos’ 8-year-old boy survived the crash.

The late 1990s were rife with deaths on Highway 6. A record 23 people died on the highway in 1997; another 22 perished the following year. In 1997, speed became a major culprit when the speed limit on the highway was raised from 55 to 65 mph. That made Highway 6 the deadliest road in Utah. Highway 6 had a higher ration of vehicles to deaths than any other Utah roadway'even surpassing Interstate 15'and those who died in the ambulance or in the hospital weren’t even counted in the toll of fatalities.

Accidents on Highway 6 peaked in the canyon between Price and Spanish Fork, where tight turns, deer, and infrequent passing lanes test drivers’ patience. The Red Narrows lies in that stretch and, according to the Utah Highway Patrol, an average of five big trucks a year tip in the Narrows while driving too fast on “decreasing radius turns.” In other words, turns too tight for semis to negotiate easily. In some areas of the canyon, 56 percent of accidents comprise vehicles running off the road. These can have deadly consequences because of narrow or nonexistent shoulders, and cars with no room or time to move often get hit head-on.

The section of Highway 6 from Price to Green River is dangerous as well. Thirty-four percent of the state’s heavy-truck traffic uses some portion of U.S. 6 through Carbon County, either following it the entire way from Spanish Fork to Green River, or by following U.S. 6 to state Route 10 south of Price. Heavy trucks on the route mingle with interstate travelers, pickup trucks pulling trailers, Jeepers heading to Moab, and school buses traveling to the Wasatch Front for competitions and field trips. The highway is two lanes almost all the way, is sometimes bumpy, and drivers often take chances passing against oncoming traffic.

It wasn’t just news of deaths along the highway that spurred Justice to action. Those who lived through accidents often had their lives forever changed.

It was in 1999 that Justice came up with a protest idea. Given then-Gov. Mike Leavitt’s upcoming visit to Carbon County for his “Capitol for the Day” tour, she just happened to have a stage. It would be a day to put the governor on the spot. Justice phoned the media and prepared a statement.

People who lost loved ones to Highway 6 picketed the road through Spanish Fork Canyon'called Price Canyon on the southern end'and stood at the mile markers where family members had died holding signs printed with the names of the dead. “Alta Nielson Died in Hwy 6, Mile Post 195,” Justice’s sign read.

Bessie Sacco, who overcorrected while driving Highway 6, told a KSL television reporter about the death of her husband in the resulting accident. “You can’t help but be moved with the human tragedy that’s played out constantly,” Sacco said.

Some 50 protesters stood at the mouth of Price Canyon, where it enters the town of Helper, holding picket signs. The day before, some had placed white crosses at accident sites in the canyon. Justice and a few friends placed signs at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon, warning drivers they were about to enter a deadly highway.

Once the governor’s caravan had passed, the protest group met in the Price Civic Auditorium with 350 other concerned citizens to hear Leavitt’s speech. He pledged to invest $80 million over the following five years on seven projects to improve safety conditions on U.S. Highway 6. The money, coming from the Centennial Highway Fund, would be “more money than we will invest in any other corridor, except for I-15, in the state for that period,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt promised money, but was prepared with facts, too. He warned the crowd that Highway 6 would still be “inherently dangerous.” In a press conference following his speech, he told those in attendance that nearly one-third of the accidents in Spanish Fork Canyon are single-car accidents. Vehicles run off the road, hit deer or simply drift into traffic. Widening roads, he cautioned, would not alleviate wrecks caused by driver error.

The governor’s first fact was true. Justice knew as much from her own research and conversations with the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT). But she had a different take on the governor’s assertion that widening the roads wouldn’t help. Wouldn’t widening the road give people a little more time to correct? Wouldn’t four lanes lighten the road’s load of travelers and remove the need to pass against traffic when stuck behind a slow-moving semi? If a four-lane highway were to be built with a high median in the center, wouldn’t it be impossible for a car to drift, or be forced, into oncoming traffic? And, wasn’t most of the state’s transportation budget committed to I-15 for the next four to eight years, to the tune of $2 billion?

Justice wanted to believe the governor really listened to the stories of loss he heard that day. She wanted to hear Leavitt say they would get a complete four-lane highway from Spanish Fork to the juncture of Highway 6 and I-70, near Green River.

“The $80 million felt like nothing because I knew UDOT told me how many millions it would cost,” she says. That figure was about $300 million. The papers ran stories, all of them ending in one way or another with the terms “Band-Aid” or “drop in the bucket.” The Spanish Fork press went so far as to headline an article, “Governor Turns Deaf Ear.”

The year 1999 ended with 300 accidents along the highway, nine of them fatal. January 2000 began with the deaths of two more people.

Although the governor’s visit gave those worried about Highway 6 the distinct feeling that their hope for a four-lane highway would be forever ignored, Justice had spread her petition from her hometown in Emery County to other counties affected by the highway. In two months’ time she had about 10,500 signatures from people in Emery, Carbon, Utah and San Pete counties in favor of constructing four lanes on U.S. Highway 6.

Justice had seven pages of telephone and fax numbers for television, radio and newspapers statewide. She was only beginning her crusade, but was learning fast. “If there was any stunt we could pull to get ourselves on TV, we knew we’d get more money,” Justice said. So if the governor’s visit to rural Utah couldn’t give Justice what she wanted, she brought rural Utah to the Capitol.

In January 2000, the newly formed Highway 6 Improvement Corporation, including a handful of Emery High School students, three state representatives and one senator, arrived on the Capitol steps, petitions in hand. They gave the petitions to the governor’s secretary, but were told they could not see the governor. Nonetheless, they were on television and in the papers, making their wish clear: “We are not going to quit until it’s a four-lane highway,” Justice told reporters. The petition asked the governor to make Highway 6 the highest priority in the transportation budget.

The governor’s $80 million pledge was going to be put to real use; $30 million would be spent in 2000 to widen nine miles of pavement through the Red Narrows. Still, Justice felt legitimate concerns were not being heard.

And stories of highway death kept coming. “It was overwhelming. Every time there was a death on Highway 6, I would get a phone call,” Justice says. “There were many points I wanted to quit,” but, “I would take a deep breath and tell myself, it’s worth it. People could call me and say, ‘You’re saving lives,’ so that would keep me going.”

On Memorial Day of 2000, Justice contacted Father Mike Sciambato, then pastor of Notre Dame de Lourdes Catholic Church in Price, Utah. Father Sciambato had many parishioners who had lost family on Highway 6, including one family whose newly engaged son died while traveling to see his fiancée in Salt Lake City. The young man tried to pass a car using the center lane and was met head-on by another vehicle.

The priest was eager to help the Highway 6 Improvement Coalition, which now had about 50 regular members and which numbered as many as 300 during special projects. He met with Justice two weeks before Memorial Day and decided to ask people statewide to put a memorial wreath on the highway where they had lost a loved one as a reminder for people to drive more safely during the holiday. Justice sent a news release about the project to newspapers. She got a call the next day from UDOT, telling her that she could be held liable if drivers were distracted by the memorial wreaths and caused accidents.

“Emotionally, it was very draining,” Justice says. “To have people fight you all the time, to fight the system [yourself].”

The group had to change plans. They decided to meet at Soldier Summit, where Father Sciambato would bless the highway, praying that nobody would be killed during the weekend. Justice got out her seven-page list of media contacts, already well worn, and started phoning. A few families had placed crosses on the edge of the highway despite UDOT’s disapproval, and Justice left those in place. She also added two, one where her mother had died 28 years before, and another where Trever Tuttle had died a year and a half before.

Mile Marker 210: No fatalities.

Memorial Weekend, 2000: Father Sciambato stood at the edge of the well-traveled Highway 6, flicking holy water onto the pavement and praying in as loud a voice as possible. A group of 50 mourners and protesters prayed with him that no one would be killed on Highway 6 during the holiday weekend. Television and newspaper reporters observed the scene through the unseasonable snow. By the holiday’s end on Monday night, from Spanish Fork to Green River, despite the increased traffic and bad weather, there were no fatalities on Highway 6.

Later that year, Justice got a phone call about Highway 6 she didn’t expect. It wasn’t another death. Instead, Reader’s Digest wanted to look into a story. They picked up on Utah’s embarrassing publicity buzz and were interested in a story about Highway 6 as one of “America’s Most Dangerous Highways.” Coincidentally, one of the other deadly routes was a three-mile stretch of Highway 6 in western Rhode Island.

First attention, then momentum. Justice’s little tool, the media, was beginning to do the work for her. “The article in Reader’s Digest really caught the attention of people, and that’s the kind of publicity we don’t want to have,” says Mike Miles, UDOT senior project manager for Highway 6. “There was already a bigger public awareness and when the article came out it just tipped everything over … There were several things right there that made [plans for widening U.S. 6] turn around.”

Certainly, the article was damaging to Utah. The national magazine has a readership of more than 41 million. Its November 2000 article blamed the stall of highway safety projects nationwide on local budget battles, environmentalists’ tactics or simple bureaucratic inertia, despite public demands for action.

But the public read the article, and maintained demand for action. In a letter to one of Salt Lake City’s daily newspapers, a reader wanted to know why funding wasn’t moved from the Legacy Highway in order to improve Highway 6 and save lives.

About the time Reader’s Digest started work on its article, a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) affiliate phoned Justice from England. They, too, were dubbing Highway 6 one of America’s most dangerous stretches of road, and wanted to film in the canyon, interview improvement advocates, and speak with others whose lives had been altered after accidents or the loss of loved ones.

The BBC narrowly missed having its own accident while working on the story. Riding in the patrol car of Utah Highway Patrol public information officer Lt. Doug McCleve, someone in McCleve’s lane passed him on a double-yellow centerline. “I had to completely drive off the road into the dirt with the camera crew in my car,” he says.

BBC aired “Dangerous Highways” on the Discovery Channel that June. Utahns who tuned in heard Justice state, “UDOT’s response has been, over and over again, that, ‘We’re doing all that we can possibly do. There is not enough money.’ I find that very offensive.” Mile Markers 190 and 191, 193 and 194: Improved.

Near Soldier Creek Bridge and just south of the rest area, in a segment where the accident rate was higher than expected, UDOT crews worked to construct passing lanes. The project cost $2.5 million of the $80 million Gov. Leavitt promised Justice and the Highway 6 Improvement Corporation in 1999.

In all, the Centennial Highway Fund from which the $80 million was drawn paid for 11 projects on Highway 6 over the course of three years.

Though Highway 6 advocates feared it was just a drop in the bucket, Centennial Highway Fund projects on Highway 6, including the construction of passing lanes in critical areas, widening to four lanes in others along with bridge improvements, translated into real life savings: The average 24 fatalities per year before the centennial investment became 11 fatalities. Highway 6 safety improvements are not now listed among UDOT’s highest priorities on its Website.

At one point during her crusade, a UDOT official told Justice that a conversion to four lanes on Highway 6 would never happen during her lifetime. But in 2002, after the media onslaught of Reader’s Digest and BBC, UDOT undertook an environmental impact study to see just what was possible for the highway.

“We’ve determined that we want a four-lane road all the way through,” said project manager Miles. “For most of the sections of road, four lanes would be acceptable and practical to build. In other spots, a three-lane would be an acceptable level of service, and in other spots two lanes would be necessary. We’ve got some wetlands we’ve got to consider, some wildlife resource issues we’ve got to consider, but it’s all doable.” For about $500 million, that is.

Jim Matheson, the state’s democratic 2nd Congressional District representative, this year declared Highway 6 a “high-priority corridor,” making it eligible for more improvement money through the Transportation Equity Act under the federal transportation bill rewritten every six years. The bill has passed Congress, and if signed by President Bush, another $3 million in federal funds will be earmarked for the highway.

Justice’s work is at the heart of all those saved lives. “Hooray for them,” says Miles at UDOT. “I know that the highway committee did a lot to raise public awareness of the road and the needs and problems of the road.”

Or, to put it more succinctly, “Thank God for her,” says volunteer Burt Collins, whose family lost another member to the highway since he began volunteering on the Highway 6 Improvement Committee. “I’m proud to be one of her helpers. I wish more people will stand up and say we won’t take no more.”

Justice’s past hard work and mourning the loss of her mother and friends were the things she pushed forward into action, uniting her with others. And, in the end, her effort joined her to the 12 people each year who won’t die in the course of traveling Highway 6.

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Bianca Dumas

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