Strange as it might sound, Utah’s ongoing drought may have contributed to the accident that involved 22 vehicles and killed eight people on Sunday near Kanosh.
A sandstorm reduced visibility on Interstate 15, causing a series of accidents as vehicles slowed or stopped and were struck from behind by other vehicles.
“For how dry Utah has been lately, it doesn’t surprise me that a storm like that is happening. Especially down that way,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Sam Webber, who works in the Salt Lake City office. “With the drought that we’ve been experiencing, all the soils are very loose and very dry.”
He pointed to the dry agricultural fields right next to I-15 where the accident occurred. And to a thunderstorm that “kind of fell apart” east of there. “There was likely an outflow from the collapsing storm across the field, which kicked up all the dust,” Webber said.
The nearest reading recorded a wind gust of 32 mph about the same time as the accident, “but we think it’s possible there were locally higher wind speeds. We just don’t know for sure, but we can kind of infer from the storm that fell apart to the east of that area.”
Localized winds combined with loose soil created deadly conditions on Sunday. Similar sandstorms will remain a possibility until there’s enough precipitation to keep the soil from blowing around, and there’s no indication that will happen anytime soon — 99.4% of the state is suffering through “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions. And dust storms that limit visibility have happened across the state, including in Salt Lake County, Webber said.
“The winds create little, localized dust storms. Especially in areas that are near agriculture,” Webber said. “There’s always the possibility, especially with this active monsoon that we’ve been having. They can come up quickly out of nowhere.”
“It stands to reason that this could happen again,” said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason. “If you have dry fields, down to the dirt here, and winds pick up, it’s definitely something that we’ll be monitoring. The hard thing is it’s tough to predict where this is going to happen.
“They were just driving through there at the wrong time. It’s just terrible.”
The obvious question is — what do drivers do if they’re caught in a dust storm?
“That’s the hard thing. There’s no hard and fast rule about what you should do,” said Gleason.
He pointed to advice posted by the Arizona Department of Transportation:
• Slow down and pull off the road immediately. Do not wait until poor visibility makes that difficult.
• Do not stop in a travel lane or in the emergency lane. Look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the roadway.
• Turn off all vehicle lights, including your emergency flashers. You do not want other vehicles approaching from behind to use your lights as a guide, possibly crashing into your parked vehicle.
• Set your emergency brake and take your foot off the brake to keep your brake lights from activating.
• Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelts buckled and wait for the storm to pass.
Sgt. Camron Roden of the Utah Highway Patrol agreed with most of that advice — get all the way off the highway, don’t park on the shoulder, and wait for the dust storm to pass. “That way you’re not chancing going through it, and you’re not getting stuck in the middle of it.”
Roden wasn’t sure about the Arizona admonition to turn off your lights. “That makes you less visible, so I can see some pros and cons with that. We want people who are coming up behind you to be able to see you.”
His primary point is that any time you encounter reduced visibility — because of fog, smoke, heavy rain or a dust storm — slow down.
“Speed, ultimately, is going to be one of the biggest things,” Roden said. “You’ve got to be able to safely maneuver around an emergency in front of you. And if you are involved in a crash at slower speeds, it won’t be as severe a crash.”