By Jenny Neyman
On the Kenai Peninsula, drivers are blessed and cursed with beautiful, rugged terrain.
Highway drivers are treated to scenic views as the roads wind along rivers and lakes, through valleys and in the shadow of mountains. But the very elements that led to the peninsula’s highways being nominated as National Scenic Byways also contribute to the high number of accidents along those roads each year, and to the Sterling Highway, from the Moose River confluence with the Kenai River to Mackey Lake Road, being recently designated as a Highway Safety Corridor with double traffic fines.
The peninsula’s terrain leads to some challenging driving conditions — sharp S curves in Cooper Landing, up-and-down mountain passes and narrow shoulders with lots of traffic turning on and off the road. In the summer, the peninsula draws increased traffic and, with it, trouble from some drivers slowing down to enjoy the view and others speeding up to get on with their fishing trip, camping excursion or whatever summertime activity is on their agenda. Tricky yet beautiful roads and a tendency toward unsafe habits can make the peninsula a dangerous place to drive — as a spate of serious and fatal traffic accidents this summer have shown.
“It’s a combination of dangerous behaviors and multiple accidents on the road,” said Alaska State Trooper Ryan Tennis, with the Soldotna E Detachment, explaining the reasoning behind the Sterling safety corridor designation.
Tennis said troopers frequently see unsafe driving behaviors on peninsula highways in the summer. The most common is passing.
“There’s lots of unsafe passing, of course,” he said. “Passing on double lines, passing on corners. The Cooper Landing area is just a tragic area for that. We get constant traffic complaints from there. … And on (Kalifornsky Beach Road), people use the turning lane as a passing lane. That’s very frustrating. That can cause accidents very frequently.”
The Sterling flats, at the base of the Kenai Mountains, are another spot for frequent unsafe passing, as is the stretch of the Sterling Highway between the top of the Fred Meyer hill leaving Soldotna and Robinson Loop Road toward Sterling, Tennis said.
“I think people just get antsy or want to get to their guided fishing trips, or there are tourists with motor homes going under the speed limit or at the speed limit,” Tennis said.
“We get so many tourists down here that drive so much under the speed limit it causes a problem because then people try to pass. We have the five-car rule, if they have five cars behind them they’re supposed to pull over, but that doesn’t happen too often.”
More often, drivers take risks trying to get around slower-moving traffic by passing in an unsafe spot, going too fast or trying to pass too many vehicles at once.
“When you pass, you’re supposed to be doing the speed limit. If they’re going 45 and you can pass safely doing 55, that’s great. No one does that, but you’re breaking the law going over the speed limit,” Tennis said.
It’s not just speeding and passing on the left that’s a problem. Because of the rural nature of the area, highways are the main thoroughfare, as well as the way to access many homes and side streets. So vehicles are constantly pulling onto the highway and slowing down or stopping to pull off it. When a vehicle slows or stops to turn left off the highway, traffic behind that car will sometimes pass it on the right. That’s illegal and highly dangerous, Tennis said. Troopers responded to a crash caused by that very scenario Sunday on the Sterling Highway near Longmere.
“People get antsy, they don’t have the patience to stop and just wait for the person to stop and turn off the road, they go around them and get hit, or hit other drivers or ATV drivers,” he said.
Failing to pay attention in general is a frequent cause of accidents, whether it’s drivers texting — which is a misdemeanor — not watching what’s going on around them or nodding off to sleep.
In the winter, the challenges change. With all the summer traffic gone, unsafe behavior decreases, but nature becomes more of a hurdle, Tennis said.
Winters on the Kenai bring a combination of wet and cold.
“Winter conditions vary so much here, and the roads can get so icy, like a freshly Zambonied ice surface,” Tennis said.
Grooves in the road from semi-truck traffic can pull vehicles with a narrower wheelbase to one side or another, which can cause cars to skid on ice. And moose are more of a problem in the winter.
Tennis said getting extra lights for your vehicle is a good idea for winter if you do a lot of driving. Otherwise, slow down upon seeing a moose on the side of the road. If it’s coming onto the road, stop and put your flashers on to warn other vehicles. Blink your lights on and off to warn oncoming traffic, but don’t flash your brights at them.
“People’s first reaction is irritation that someone is brighting you,” Tennis said.
And don’t honk at the moose.
“Sometimes it scares them onto the road. And if you’re going toward Nikiski, it doesn’t matter what you do, they’ll still stay by the road,” he said.
While drivers can’t control the unsafe behavior of others on the road, they can report speeding, unsafe passing, tailgating and other unlawful actions to law enforcement. Give the best description you can — make, model and color of the vehicle, license plate number, description of the driver and direction of travel.
“We get lots of calls about traffic complaints daily, and we have troopers in Girdwood and Cooper Landing and here, and we respond to those. It’s very important because they can cut down on fatal vehicle accidents where they are passing unsafely or driving unsafely, period,” Tennis said.
If the highways do notch another accident statistic, be cautious when coming up on an accident scene. If emergency responders are traveling with their lights on, pull to the side of the road and stop — no matter which direction you’re traveling. If you pass an accident site, slow down and pull over into the opposite lane, if possible, to give the responders and any victims plenty of room.
If any of these unsafe scenarios sound a little too familiar, remember:
“It’s not worth not making it to your destination,” Tennis said.