En Route to Safer Roads in Alaska
Education, enforcement, and engineering pave the way
By Matt Jardin
Lance King | iStock

rive to Seward or Homer for a weekend summer getaway enough times, and as sure as you are to witness the gorgeous Alaska scenery along the way, you’ll inevitably run into an hours-long delay caused by a head-on collision. Hopefully you really enjoy the view, because once caught in the wait, chances are you’ll be staring at it for a while.

Traffic incidents such as these do not go unnoticed by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF). Every accident is analyzed and discussed with community leadership and law enforcement in an effort to minimize collisions that result in hospitalizations or fatalities.

The Three Es
For the DOT&PF central region—which is home to 460,000 Alaskans (65 percent of the state’s population) across the Municipality of Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Kenai Peninsula, Whittier, Dillingham, and Bethel—traffic safety begins with the three Es: education, enforcement, and engineering.

The first E, education, begins as a conversation between the DOT&PF and community leadership like the Anchorage Assembly or Palmer or Wasilla City Councils. Since they collect their own data on traffic patterns, local governments can provide the DOT&PF with its most accurate look at what traffic concerns most affect the people who have to live with them.

“We meet with communities and take suggestions,” says Scott Thomas, traffic and safety engineer for the DOT&PF central region. “It was in Bird or Indian where a resident suggested that we update the reflectors on Turnagain Arm. Now you’ll notice on all our guardrails in these corridors there are bright reflectors that show up at night. That was a suggestion that’s now a standard for us.”

Enforcement, the second E, is exactly what it sounds like: relying on local law enforcement officials to reinforce safe driving. This is especially helpful in mitigating traffic accidents during the time it takes for an engineering solution to go from conception to completion. For good measure, all incidents, from minor speeding infractions to major car crashes, are also reported to the DOT&PF, further increasing the pool of data it has available to improve safety down the road.

“Goal zero is we want safer roads for everybody—to stop fatalities, cut back on collisions, and decrease the number of serious injuries,” says Sergeant David Noll, Traffic Unit supervisor for the Anchorage Police Department (APD). “When [the DOT&PF] takes engineering or design or speed limit changes into effect—and they’re doing that based on data we provide them—we definitely see a change in collision patterns.”

“Absolutely everything we do has to be durable. Our state dollars that fund maintenance are so tight that we can’t decide to do a great idea that’s going to take a lot of time and resources to run because that wouldn’t get other important things done, like snow removal.”
Shannon McCarthy, Spokesperson, DOT&PF
A prime example of this relationship in action occurred after the approval of SB261. Passed in 2006 by the Alaska Legislature at the request of then-Governor Frank Murkowski, the bill tasked the DOT&PF with finding new education, enforcement, and engineering solutions to known traffic and infrastructure issues based on on-the-ground reporting from the APD, which resulted in the addition of new speed signs, speed stencils, rumble strips, reflectors, turn lanes, passing lanes, and more.
Corridors to Communities
All traffic in the DOT&PF central region is considered in one of two categories: rural and urban. The rural category includes what the DOT refers to as the four safety corridors: the Seward Highway on the Turnagain Arm, the Sterling Highway east of Soldotna, and the Parks Highway and Knik Goose Bay Road outbound from Wasilla.

Originally, all four of these two-lane highways were able to adequately accommodate traffic, from daily commuters to commercial drivers and anyone escaping town to fish, camp, or hike. However, with population growth over the years, traffic has drastically outgrown the safety corridors’ original capacities. For example, the Parks Highway between Wasilla and Big Lake carried 20,000 cars per day a decade ago, according to the DOT & PF, and will carry double that number a decade from now.

“When you have this type of congestion, people start to make choices that they normally wouldn’t,” says Shannon McCarthy, spokesperson for the DOT&PF central region. “Normally they might wait for a bigger gap before they make a turn. Then there’s speeding, distracted driving or, heaven forbid, someone who is intoxicated. A lot of things can happen.”

On these safety corridors, the primary objective is to minimize head-on and multi-vehicle collisions that immobilize traffic or result in fatalities or hospitalizations. The most consistent way to accomplish such a goal has been to widen two-lane highways to four lanes and construct a median down the center.

During the average turnaround of seven to ten years for major engineering solutions, the DOT&PF employs a variety of reliable short-term fixes, which include widening shoulders to increase visibility and pullover space, creating turn lanes to eliminate rear-end collisions, and laying down rumble strips to reduce run-off-the-road crashes, all of which have reduced fatal or hospitalizing collisions, according to the DOT&PF.

Urban Balancing Act
The second traffic category, urban traffic, has many more factors, accounting for not only driver-to-driver collisions but also collisions with pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and, to a lesser extent, moose (which, despite being a common concern among Alaska drivers, only factor into 5 percent of reported collisions, with 2 percent resulting in serious injury between 2013 to 2017).

For solutions to these urban traffic safety concerns, the DOT&PF has looked to the Lower 48 for inspiration. While many of the strategies employed nationally have proven to be effective, such as variable speed zones and zipper merging, not all would be a good fit in Alaska. Implementing those would require the DOT&PF to maintain a 24/7 operations center, which is not a viable option in Alaska. According to the department, durability is the operative word.

“Absolutely everything we do has to be durable,” says McCarthy. “Our state dollars that fund maintenance are so tight that we can’t decide to do a great idea that’s going to take a lot of time and resources to run because that wouldn’t get other important things done, like snow removal.”

But some ideas have been implemented. One urban traffic safety solution that made the jump from the Lower 48 led to reconstructing the intersection at Lake Otis Parkway and East Tudor Road in Anchorage to have a smaller box zone with pedestrian islands, which forces turning drivers to slow down and results in fewer pedestrian collisions. And just about a mile away, roundabouts off the Seward Highway onto Dowling Road have, according to the DOT & PF, reliably decreased traffic congestion.

More recently, the diverging diamond interchange on Muldoon Road has juggled north- and southbound lanes to minimize conflict points on the way to and from the busy Tikahtnu Commons shopping area while also reducing congestion on and off the Glenn Highway.

“We meet with communities and take suggestions… It was in Bird or Indian where a resident suggested that we update the reflectors on Turnagain Arm. Now you’ll notice on all our guardrails in these corridors there are bright reflectors that show up at night. That was a suggestion that’s now a standard for us.”
Scott Thomas
Traffic and Safety Engineer
All these solutions have been so successful at either reducing traffic collisions or providing valuable insights, according to the DOT & PF, that some of them are being expanded. The existing roundabouts at Seward Highway and Dowling will be widened to allow for more vehicle passthrough, and the smaller box zone template at East Tudor and Lake Otis will make its way west to Tudor and C Street.

West Tudor Road will also be the site for an upgraded safety solution: LED sidewalk lighting, which should double the visibility of the current sidewalk lighting without additional cost. The DOT & PF estimates the increased lighting can reduce pedestrian collisions by 25 percent, especially during the darkest months of fall and winter.

Driving Down Incidents
It’s certainly a challenge to continuously monitor and maintain traffic safety amidst constantly shifting vehicular trends, but the realities of data collection also have an effect on how quickly road-related solutions can be implemented. Data need to be collected over time and then analyzed and processed to provide responsible agencies with actionable information. Point of fact, much of the DOT&PF’s current traffic data is from 2013 to 2017.

This lag time can require a bit of anticipatory speculation on the part of engineers. But according to McCarthy, predicting human behavior is part of the job. Roadway engineers take great steps to ensure that all drivers—whether they’re not fully caffeinated, distracted by children in the back seat, or simply lost in thought—have the widest range of visibility and information to remain alert and safe.

While engineers anticipate the behavior of drivers, drivers generally react in the moment to road conditions they find unacceptable or inconvenient without much thought for why those conditions may exist. Communication with the public is essential as the DOT&PF works to manage expectations. For example, at a basic level, many drivers don’t know what agency—state, federal, or local government—is responsible for road maintenance. In actuality, the funding source can result in wildly different project stipulations, environmental considerations, and turnaround times.

“We integrate with other municipalities, boroughs, and service area districts, and their practices can be different,” says Wolfgang Junge, director for the DOT & PF central region. “You can build an expectation that the city will clear the sidewalk, but when you get to the DOT’s chunk of road, maybe it’s a different expectation. We try to coordinate as closely as we can, but in reality, the different types of streets bring with it a different set of methodologies. So managing public expectations is a challenge because most people don’t really see the difference.”

Despite these challenges, fatalities and hospitalizations caused by traffic collisions in Alaska are trending down overall, both in rural and urban categories. Looking ahead, with bids going out at the beginning of 2022 to convert the aforementioned safety corridors into four-lane divided highways, the DOT&PF is confident that it will soon hit an important milestone to bring Alaska collisions down to the national average.

“We’re having fewer crashes per driver per mile,” says Thomas, the central region engineer. “Our biggest goal is to hold this long-term trend and close in on the national average. We’ve come close a few times, but eventually we’ll beat it.”