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A dangerous intersection

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story by Emily Stifler | photo by Taylor Anderson
In 2001, Big Sky resident Ruby Delzer was waiting
to turn left into the Bighorn shopping center
when she was rear-ended by a semi truck.
“Three cars went around me, but the truck driver
said he never saw me,” Delzer said. She was in
the hospital for three days and in therapy for two and-
a-half years.

Delzer was just north of the intersection of the
Big Sky Spur Road (MT 64), and U.S. Highway
191, waiting to turn. The northbound traffic, just
beyond the light, doesn’t have a turning lane, and
the speed limit is 55 mph.

Although this intersection was part of a $14.5
million improvement project that lasted from
2006 to 2010, it’s still a dangerous spot.

“We were told we were going to get a left hand
turn lane, but it never materialized,” said Sean
McCarthy of Big Sky Business Services (formerly
Mail and More). The lack of a turn lane was one
of the main reasons he moved his business from
the Bighorn center to the Town Center.

On the east side of 191, also north of the light,
longtime homeowner Faith Malpeli complains the
widening of the road that came with the improvement
project made her house dangerous to access.
To exit her driveway, Malpeli says she now has to
back out onto the highway.

The Montana Department of Transportation
(MDT) doesn’t maintain records documenting
the number of residential properties that access
federal highways by backing onto the highway,
said Jeff Ebert, a spokesperson for the Department.
Consequently the MDT couldn’t answer
Malpeli’s question.

“I had to move out,” Malpeli said. “I’d lived in my
home for 24 years, but somebody was going to get
killed – either a friend, tourist or an unsuspecting
motorist not realizing the dangers on this section
of the highway.

“I don’t understand how the [MDT] allowed this
to happen. I feel there was a huge mistake when
the construction took place in this area,” Malpeli
said. “Where [else] does a citizen back out
of their home onto a Montana highway?”

The intersection itself is also a problem, even
with the new traffic light. Robin Brower-
McBride is one of several who have pulled onto
191 from Big Sky under a green light this summer
and was almost hit by oncoming traffic.

“I looked left halfway through the intersection,
and a tanker truck had blasted through the
light,” Brower-McBride said. “He just barely
missed the back end of my car.” The semi had
also missed clipping the front of the car behind
her, she said.

“One would think those driving this leg on
a regular basis would be used to the light,”
Brower-McBride said. “However, cell phones
are finally coming back into service along that
stretch, and phones can sometimes distract
drivers away from the road.”

She’s seen the same thing happen twice recently.
Once, a semi came through the red light
“with his horn on the whole time. Presumably
he couldn’t stop,” she said. The second time, a
truck “blew the light and was midway through
the intersection before coming to a complete
stop. There was traffic stalled in all directions.”

Whether they’re headed south, north, or coming
out of the entrance of Big Sky, people are
picking up their speed when they see a green
light at the entrance to Big Sky, Malpeli says.

“Under ice and snow conditions it can get scary,
especially when someone at the last minute can’t
figure out what lane to be in, or if at the last minute
they decide to turn,” Malpeli added.

MDT isn’t aware of near misses at the intersection,
said Ebert from MDT. The Montana Highway
Patrol database also doesn’t contain information
on near-misses.

The traffic light and the road widening was part
of an improvement project that looked at “the
entire corridor from a safety and operational
aspect,” Ebert said. “At the Big Sky Spur Road
intersection with U.S. 191, we were having right
angle crashes, which are high severity.”

“We find that the number of crashes at traffic
signals don’t necessarily go down just because
you install one,” Ebert said. “Instead, the severity
of the crash goes down. You don’t have people
making bad decisions about pulling out in front
of vehicles because they’ve been sitting there
waiting. That’s what the original intent of the
signal project was.”

Mile 48 crash data
Crash data from the Montana Highway
Patrol for US 191 between mile 47.9 and
mile 48.0 (the intersection of 191 and
MT 64) shows that while the number of
crashes hasn’t changed since the improvement,
the severity of the crashes
has reduced.

Since the traffic signal was added at the
intersection of US 191 and MT 64 (Big Sky
Spur Road) in Nov., 2006, there is record
of six crashes (from Nov. 2, 2006 through
Dec. 31, 2010). Of these, two were right
angle, two were rear end, one was a
sideswipe opposite direction, and one
was a single vehicle run off the road.
Four of the six occurred on snow, slush
or ice covered roads. No injuries were
reported in any of these crashes.

Prior to the signal activation (from Aug.
1, 2002 to Oct. 31, 2006), six crashes were
recorded. Of these six, four were right
angle, one was a rear end, and one was
a sideswipe opposite direction. Four of
the six crashes occurred on snow, slush
or ice covered roads. An incapacitating
injury and a possible injury were recorded
in these six crashes.

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