Friday, Aug. 30, 2002 | 6:29 a.m.
WEEKEND EDITION: Sept. 1, 2002
Looping around two-thirds of the urban area in a great "C," the Las Vegas Beltway already is crowded on a recent Saturday morning with some of the tens of thousands of drivers who use the road daily.
Beginning in Henderson, people going to the Strip or to the airport hustle onto Interstate 215, the full highway portion of the beltway. The cars travel at a mix of speeds, most at or above the limit of 65 mph. A few people push the limit by 20 mph or more.
Some of those same drivers will continue at those speeds when they pass I-15 and the Decatur Boulevard exit. And those speeds are a key ingredient in disasters, because the beltway beyond those points is not designed to handle cars traveling at those speeds -- and the speeding drivers will very quickly encounter stopped traffic, stop signs and red lights.
Drivers failing to heed the rules of this road, along with the peculiar design of the beltway -- a patchwork of highway, frontage roads and arterial streets punctuated by various types of intersections -- have led to accidents becoming fatal tragedies at three times the national rate.
Drivers are racing from intersection to intersection, effectively turning tons of steel into guided missiles.
In cases universally attributed to bad driving, the road has become associated with fatal tragedies.
Perhaps the most notorious case involving the beltway was a March 2001 tragedy that killed two people and seriously injured a third. Karen Morris, a Henderson woman talking on her cell phone, was driving her sport-utility vehicle 20 mph above the 45-mph speed limit and weaving through traffic before she ran a red light at Durango Drive.
Eight months later, Morris pleaded guilty to three counts of reckless driving.
Another SUV at the same intersection killed Las Vegas residents Gary and Penelope Wakefield, both 60, in May 2000. Police at the time said the SUV driver traveling on the interstate appeared to be speeding and ran a red light, colliding with the Wakefields' car.
And Sandy Thompson, a Las Vegas Sun executive, was killed last month when an SUV driver careened into her car -- stopped for a red light at the Far Hills Avenue intersection -- at speeds estimated to be 20 to 25 mph over the speed limit.
Bad judgment by drivers is the ultimate cause of nearly all accidents on the beltway, say those who study traffic safety and who work on the road itself.
But some observers believe that the design of the road contributes to the speed of the drivers and therefore the lethality of crashes.
The problem is that the road looks and feels like an interstate freeway. But there is a deadly difference: Interstates have ramps designed to guide cars in and out of free-flowing traffic. But in fact two-thirds of the beltway is still essentially a county road, with stop signs and traffic lights interrupting traffic flow.
"People think of it as a freeway, but it isn't yet," said Clark County Commissioner Mary Kincaid-Chauncey, echoing nearly identical statements from across the spectrum. "It's important that they realize that it isn't."
Kincaid-Chauncey, like her colleagues on the commission, backs the "accelerated plan" that a decade ago dictated that the county would build a network of different road types instead of a full interstate highway, which would take another two decades to fund and build.
But the commissioner worries that the roadway has safety issues inherent in its design.
Erin Breen, a researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Transportation Research Center, agrees. She said people ignore the speed limits and warning signs. The danger is when those speeding drivers come up on the interchanges that dot two-thirds of the road.
"The biggest problem there is that people still drive on it like it's an interstate," Breen said. "The crashes that are happening are happening at a high rate of speed. That's the equation for a fatality right there."
All those looking at the beltway agree that drivers can make the road instantly safer by obeying the prominently posted speed limits.
But there are three other things that could help, engineers, police and safety experts agree:
All three approaches face the same limitation -- money. Both the county and state governments are cash-strapped. The Nevada Highway Patrol and Metro Police, which share jurisdiction for much of the beltway, say they are doing what they can to ticket speeding drivers, but lack the resources to do much more.
"Right now our manpower is very low," Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Alan Davidson, an agency spokesman, said. "We're trying to step up our enforcement, but we are going to so many wrecks a day that we cannot cover the roads we are assigned."
Building out to a full interstate is the goal of the Clark County Public Works Department, the Regional Transportation Commission and the Nevada Transportation Department, and there is hope that the work expanding the road could begin within a few years.
"It's been done the way it is because we didn't have the funding to do the full freeway all the way around," Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said. "The one thing that people can do to change that sooner is to vote yes on Question 10, so we can more rapidly turn the beltway into a 10-lane freeway."
Freeways are, traffic experts agree, the safest kind of roadway. The Question 10 referendum on the ballot this fall would provide $2.6 billion for mass transit and road improvements, mostly through increased sales taxes. Backers describe the measure, which will provide dollars for transportation over the next two decades, as a critical tool to beat traffic problems.
Public Works and the Regional Transportation Commission also are trying to secure federal funds for interstate construction. But even if the funding from both the referendum and federal government is approved, it would come in increments. That means the full 53-mile interstate would be completed in segments over a period of years.
Construction to build the road to a full interstate from Decatur to Rainbow boulevards will begin next year, Public Works spokesman Bobby Shelton said. But completing the entire road will require $1.6 billion and "at least several years" before the interstate work is completed,
The third option -- better signs, particularly addressed to the drivers approaching red lights at the intersections that dot the western and northern beltways -- could be the cheapest and easiest short-term fix.
Some additional warning signs are already in place.
The Morris incident -- and two other fatal wrecks at the same intersection -- prompted Clark County Commissioner Erin Kenny to demand a new warning to oncoming beltway drivers as they approach a stop light at Durango Drive.
Tropicana Avenue and Jones Boulevard received similar treatments. Since the flashing overhead warning lights were installed during the last year, all three intersections have been free of fatal accidents.
Breen believes the warning lights can save lives.
"People get a little too comfortable. That's when they forget and do stupid things," she said. "Anytime that you call people's attention, kind of remind them, that can help."
Public Works' design on the flashing warning lights is the right one, she said. The light should be hanging overhead of the oncoming traffic. It should not flash all the time, but only when the driver needs to slow because the light will soon change or is already red.
"They have to have some kind of message to them -- prepare to stop when flashing," Breen said. "Otherwise people just learn to ignore them."
Clark County Public Works does not reject the idea of putting up additional warnings. But Shelton, Public Works spokesman, warned that every dollar that goes into signage will take money away from the agency's primary mandate, which is to build the stopgap road as quickly as possible.
The cost, compared to the price tag for construction of just the initial roadway, is minimal. The warning lights cost $30,000 per intersection, Shelton said. It would cost the county about $500,000 to put up the warnings throughout the part of the beltway already open.
"We may have to look at putting those lights up at every intersection," Shelton said. "If we are asked to look at that, then we would. Part of the problem, of course, would be to look at funding."
Public Works representatives insist they have built and continue to build a road that is up to federal and state standards and as safe as any road in the Las Vegas Valley. Accidents, they say, are due to bad driving, on the beltway or any other roads throughout the area.
But the agency will put more warnings in if the demand is there, Shelton said.
"There were three accidents in a short period of time (at Durango Drive)," Shelton said. "We were asked to do something and that's what we came up with.
"We didn't do it initially because we thought people would drive (according to) the rules of the road."
But the intersection with the most accidents -- 81 over the last five years -- has no warning light on the approach to the intersection. The state reports that the intersection at Rainbow Boulevard has had 28 wrecks with injuries, also the highest along the beltway. State officials say at least one person died in one of the crashes.
Shelton said his agency will respond with additional safety features at more intersections when directed by the county's political leadership. Most commissioners say the option should be explored.
"Public safety has to be the county's No. 1 priority in developing the beltway," Commission Chairman Dario Herrera said. "If those items help us improve the road's safety, we should give it very serious consideration."
Herrera said he will consider asking Public Works to study whether increased or more effective signs could have a positive impact.
Woodbury, Kenny and Commissioner Chip Maxfield, all of whom have portions of the beltway running through their districts, say they will support new signs if their Public Works staff agrees that they will help.
"This should be done based on what Public Works thinks makes for the best, safest roadway," Woodbury said. "They're the professionals. We're just politicians.
"If there are ways to make it safer, we definitely ought to try to do that."
Kincaid-Chauncey said the money needs to be found for improved warning systems.
"It's not easy, but it should be a priority," she said. "It has become a serious safety issue."
It is not easy to determine how safe the road is relative to other roads, in part because the beltway is a mix of different types of roads -- highway frontage, arterial street and full interstate.
Most of the accidents that result in fatalities have occurred at 13 intersections on the 23 miles of the roadway that are not yet built to full interstate specifications.
Transportation Department officials say that from March 1999, when the roadway first opened at Decatur, to April 2002, there were 339 accidents at the intersections between Decatur and Cheyenne. Of those, six resulted in one or more fatalities. A seventh, the one that killed Sandy Thompson, occurred three weeks ago.
But that fatality rate is about three times the national rate. The rate for accidents on the beltway, and specifically at intersections, is 18 fatalities per 1,000 accidents. The national rate is 6 fatalities per 1,000 accidents.
Ed Neumann, a UNLV professor of transportation engineering and human factors, agrees that speed is the killer. He also believes that the wide-open design of the road influences people to drive faster.
Consciously or not, the drivers are responding to visual cues that suggest they can speed as they would on a true interstate highway.
"The way the road is designed, you just automatically want to drive it faster," he said. "It is similar to a freeway, from the standpoint that intersections are spaced far apart, so one feels comfortable driving at a high speed. ... It feels like a freeway, but it isn't."
Speed, more than anything else, is what contributes to fatal accidents on the road, Neumann believes.
But speed, for commuters rushing to work, can also be a good thing. Speed is actually a goal of the road design, said Robert Herr, a Public Works design engineer.
"You could introduce curbs, narrower lanes, but that's something you do on a slower-speed residential street," he said. "We're trying to encourage efficient commuting. We're trying to create flat roadways so you can have speeds around 45 mph."
But the same design elements that provide for efficient commuting are also part of the problem, Breen said, because they can encourage speeding.
Some drivers are likely to go as fast as the fastest speed limits anywhere on the road, she said. That can be especially dangerous with trucks and sport utility vehicles speeding, since their greater weights demand longer braking distances.
Most of the non-interstate beltway is a 45-mph zone. Most people drive faster. They also speed through a long section on the western beltway, which includes overpasses at Charleston Boulevard and Sahara Avenue that do not interrupt the flow of beltway traffic, in a 55-mph zone.
As the beltway gets longer and busier, more accidents are inevitable. Tens of thousands of commuters are flocking onto the new road, which provides a key transportation corridor connecting the west and south sides of the urban area, from Summerlin to Henderson.
By the end of October, residents in the fast-growing northern parts of the valley will be able to use the beltway to connect from U.S. 95 to I-15 while avoiding the Spaghetti Bowl and downtown traffic.
The goal now is to have the full interstate operating along the entire length of the road by 2020. As new intersections come into play, there will be more opportunities for drivers to make fatal mistakes.
More and better signs may reduce -- but will not eliminate -- fatal collisions on the beltway, all agree.
"There's no engineering for ignorance," Breen said. "Anybody with half a brain in their head realizes that when they're driving at 60, 70 mph, they're putting your life in jeopardy."
"People have got to realize that it might take you five more minutes to get home, but you might save a life. Your life or someone else's."