Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Stop the carnage, slow the speed limit

Driving state Highway 75 between Hailey and Ketchum at night is worse than betting on a roulette wheel. Where the elk stops, nobody knows.

Drivers aware of the threat from big game slow down, peer intently into the dark and try to discern the flash of an eye or the glint of a hoof to give them warning that elk are wandering near the highway. They hope one of the big animals will not suddenly decide to cross the road and collide with their speeding car. Or, that the impatient driver tailgating them will not smash into their trunk.

The cost of collisions between vehicles and elk is high—and may be fatal to both passengers and the elk. Residents and visitors should welcome scrutiny of the highway by the Idaho Transportation Department, which is considering reducing night speed limits on the highway to give drivers more time to react and elk a better chance to survive.

The department is looking at installing sensing devices able to trigger lower speed limits that would be displayed on lighted signs along the stretches of highway that border Peregrine Ranch and the entrance to East Fork where elk live year-round.

A Wood River High School applied physics class recently studied the issue and concluded that drivers operating vehicles at 55 mph don’t have time to stop when an elk appears suddenly. Students concluded that at 40 mph drivers do have the time necessary to avoid a collision. Good job, class.

The ITD should heed the students’ findings. Last year, the lower limit might have prevented some of the 33 collisions with deer, elk and moose. Not only would a lower limit save lives, it would reduce the time, cost and aggravation that comes with crushed fenders and smashed windshields. It would also save many from the emotional toll of hitting and killing a magnificent living creature.

Wood River Valley residents generally like wildlife. We glory in the sight of big game herds. We excitedly tell friends about the moose or the bear that passed through our backyards or that we saw near a trail. We are transfixed at the sight of a doe and its spotted fawn.

To continue to enjoy this wild kingdom, we must figure out ways to co-exist with wildlife. While the big lighted signs now used along the highway warn drivers they are entering a wildlife zone, they are not enough. Luckily, better technology exists and we should welcome it.

To force drivers to reduce speed at night—with or without game sensors—is little enough to ask to preserve the valley’s wild heritage. A few minutes more on the drive between Hailey and Ketchum is little enough to pay to decrease highway carnage and to make the valley safer for man and beast.

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