Utah’s U.S. 6 transformed from a deathtrap into ‘as safe of a road as we have’

Back in 1996, Reader’s Digest and the BBC damningly proclaimed the winding, narrow U.S. 6 in central Utah as one of America’s deadliest highways. In the decade that followed, more than 150 people died there in more than 500 accidents that involved serious injuries.

But the Utah Transportation Commission celebrated Friday what it says has been years of quiet improvement since 2006, as the rate of crashes with serious injuries there dropped by 75% after a long series of safety projects.

That also came as traffic on the highway increased by about 50% in that time.

“That is as safe of a road as we have in the state of Utah now with all the improvements we’ve done,” said commission member Kevin Van Tassell, a former state senator. Before 2006, he said he remembers signs along the route pleading, “Gov. [Mike] Leavitt, please do away with our death trap.”

The route, mostly in Carbon County, is a major diagonal shortcut between the Wasatch Front and Moab or Denver.

The Utah Department of Transportation, in a report to the commission on projects in Carbon County in recent years, noted that it completed an environmental study about how to improve U.S. 6 in 2005. The next year it began a series of projects that would widen it in key locations, add passing lanes, eliminate some dangerous curves and add interchanges at busy crossroads.

UDOT completed 19 such projects costing $150 million since 2006 as money was available. It has two others in progress now with a combined $15.5 million price tag — relocating a port of entry that has created safety concerns with trucks entering and leaving, plus a new interchange in Price.

More projects are planned until the highway eventually will have multiple lanes in each direction for most of its length.

Kayde Roberts, a UDOT program manager, said the improvements have reduced the temptation for drivers to pass slower trucks in dangerous areas, which often led to catastrophe. For example, from Price south to Interstate 70, he said passing lanes are now available in each direction at least every six miles.

“Drivers can plan on a passing lane coming up, and they don’t get overanxious and make poor choices when trying to pass a lot of this truck traffic,” he said.

Roberts presented data that show the rate of fatal and serious-injury accidents on U.S. 6 decreased from just over 1.6 accidents per million vehicle miles traveled in 2006 to about 0.4 in 2018 — a 75% drop.

Serious and fatal accidents decreased there from 44 in 2005 to 20 in 2018. Meanwhile, traffic increased from about 30 million vehicle miles traveled there in 2005 to an estimated 45 million in 2019, up 50%.

“I see the data and it’s just like Christmas morning,” Roberts said. “We’re making a difference.”

“I just want to celebrate the moment,” said transportation commission member Natalie Gochnour, who is also director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

“This has been a real burden for the state to have had this road and have so many tragic things happen,” she said. “I just love that progress.”

Commission member James Evans noted he recently towed a boat along that stretch on a trip to Lake Powell. “I thought as I was driving about what a great improvement,” he said. “Traffic was able to flow with those passing lanes. … It really has made a big difference.”

Robert Stewart, UDOT’s director of construction, gave a personal example of how the changes have not only cut down on accidents but provided peace of mind for travelers and family members.

He said when his mother recently announced she was driving to Moab, “My reaction was, ‘Oh, no,’” because of the highway’s history as a deathtrap. But then he quickly corrected himself because of recent improvements, and thought “it’s not a big deal” anymore.