Dust storms can whip up in a flash and have proved to be a serious danger to people traveling on Arizona highways, as unfortunately illustrated by the death of three people killed in a blinding storm last month on Interstate 10 near Picacho Peak.
It’s a precarious stretch of highway, as Star reporters Tom Beal and Joe Ferguson reported last Sunday, and the deadliest stretch of I-10 is two miles between Picacho Peak and Eloy. More than 50 crashes have happened there since 2000, killing at least eight people.
Dust storms are a fact of life in Arizona. The responsibility for protecting public safety is shared by government, which can act in a large-scale capacity with better storm detection and notification systems, and individuals who can choose caution over risk when driving.
State Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, was driving I-10 on Oct. 29 when a dust storm whipped up suddenly. Visibility was severely reduced and he stopped, as did some other drivers. He saw the shapes of tractor trailers continuing at high speed and heard the pileup of crashes across the median. He said he heard crashes before he heard squealing brakes.
Farley said he’s been contacted by experts offering suggestions, ideas and a willingness to help. He’s working with the Arizona Department of Transportation, he said, and is asking them to come up with a list of options and price tags with the goal of writing legislation to curb the dust storm danger.
That two-mile stretch, near mileposts 214 and 213, is particularly prone to dust storms because it’s fallow farmland, plowed but left for decades as farmers abandoned the area because of a lack of irrigation options. The land is essentially barren, and the silt left behind is easily picked up on the wind.
One problem is that drivers who aren’t familiar with Arizona weather conditions don’t know how to react when a dust storm arises. And, of course, some who know the dangers drive irresponsibly anyway. It’s the same false sense of invincibility that leads people to drive into running washes.
Some steps are being taken. ADOT is setting up monitoring sites along I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix to help detect dust storms and possibly help officials warn motorists via electronic signs or radio announcements. A similar system is already in place in eastern Arizona.
Tom Bradley, president of the Arizona Trucking Association industry trade group, said that installing permanent signs that tell drivers what to do — pull off the road, turn off your lights and keep your foot off the brakes — would help because many drivers, including truckers, don’t know what to do in a dust storm.
Federal regulations require interstate truck drivers to operate their vehicles safely in all conditions, and it’s up to the individual drivers to decide if the weather is dangerous enough to warrant stopping.
Clearly, these regulations aren’t top of mind when truck drivers, and we’ve seen them, continue at full speed when visibility is low because of dust or rain. Large trucks are especially dangerous because they need more time and distance to stop, and they can cause much more damage in a collision than a passenger car.
Farley said that he’s heard from meteorologists, engineers and botanists with ideas that include revegetation, better forecasting and weather warning systems and even walls.
None of these steps will be easy, nor cheap. But doing nothing is not an option. This is a proven danger to public safety, and while each of us has a responsibility to drive as safely as possible, a broader answer is required.
Farley is not willing to wait.
“We need a fast-moving process to match the fast-moving dust storms,” he said.
We support the sense of urgency — it’s too dangerous to let it continue.