The future of highway safety on the road which claimed four more lives in eight recent weeks
By Jack Reaney ASSOCIATE EDITOR
Gallatin County Commissioner Zach Brown grew up in Bozeman. His parents owned a couple businesses in Big Sky and, like nearly 9,000 drivers per day today, they often commuted U.S. Highway 191 through Gallatin Canyon for work. Brown’s father used to tell him that people drive like maniacs on that road, zigzagging to pass cars, something local drivers still see firsthand. The dangers of that highway are well-marked—just notice more than 100 white crosses along the way.
“He was always adamant that you would catch up to those [aggressive] cars at some point… You really weren’t saving time and it wasn’t worth doing anything aside from staying with flow of traffic,” Brown said.
He added, “[Many people] moved here to get away from the big city. Driving aggressively and being in a hurry is bringing the big city to a place that is not built for that.”
The site of four deadly crashes between mid-May and mid-July 2023, “the canyon” shows little mercy as the only road to Big Sky. It’s no simple path, following the twists and turns of the Gallatin River and often enclosed between abrupt edges and rock faces. Unpredictable in the winter and screaming fast in the summer, the road is both volatile and unavoidable—an everyday commute for much of Big Sky’s workforce and a must-drive route for visitors coming to Big Sky from Bozeman and West Yellowstone.
Brown, who served six years in the Montana Legislature before taking a seat in his home county in 2020, knows traffic has worsened with Big Sky’s explosive growth—a population that tripled between 2000 to 2020, per census data—but said Gallatin County doesn’t have meaningful funds to make significant improvements to the road. That’s under the jurisdiction of the Montana Department of Transportation.
He said the county is a bystander on big projects, potentially a cheerleader to help request speed limit changes, sponsor studies and apply for grants. He thinks some additional turn lanes, altered speed limits and improved signage could improve safety.
Those ideas are addressed in MDT’s 191 corridor study, completed in 2020, he said.
From that study, Brown said, “I was surprised how many fatalities have occurred… The fatality numbers over the last 20-30 years didn’t actually jump off the page the way I thought they would, based on the reputation of the road.”
During the 10-year study period from 2009 to 2018, the highway saw 1,077 total crashes between Four Corners and Beaver Creek (Big Sky School District). Only seven crashes were fatal and 27 others resulted in severe injury, according to the report (page 61).
In contrast, three motorists died in two months in 2023 within the same stretch of highway 191, and another died about nine miles south of Beaver Creek.
Dave Gates, district pre-construction engineer with MDT, is passionate about improving safety and even from his office in Butte, he’s aware of the challenges in Gallatin County.
“When I first started my job, I was tasked with figuring out something different than what we’ve been doing on 191,” Gates said. “ has taken a lot of my focus over the two years in my role… It’s been fun, but it takes time.”
Rather than cutting travel time from point A to B, MDT’s highway projects are going to focus on reducing collisions.
“Slow down, pay attention and avoid distraction… A lot of these accidents are related to driver behavior,” he said. Risky maneuvers, illegal passing and unnecessary tailgating included.
“But that doesn’t preclude MDT from needing to [make improvements],” he added.
Gates said signage upgrades are complicated and sometimes ineffective, and that MDT will need to control expectations around the topic of driver education.
“We’re open to thinking outside of the box to finding ways to move people safely,” he added.
Spreading dollars statewide
Gates said MDT hears concerns from the public about highway 191, and they are listening. But large-scale projects are funded by the Federal Highway Administration at 85 to 90%, and MDT is obligated to be “equitable statewide” with those federal dollars, he said. In addition, MDT needs to balance spending between basic road preservation and investing in capital improvements—like improving highway 191.
“In all of this, I just want to be transparent: At some level, we’re just trying to control expectations… There’s not enough money to go around [Montana] to address every single project with some technical solution,” Gates said. He added that statewide needs tend to outpace revenues about three-fold.
Potential improvement options outlined in the 191 corridor study were estimated in excess of $300 million, and that number will always be a moving target, he said. Comparatively, the sum of statewide needs outlined in similar MDT corridor studies is estimated in the billions.
Gates is excited that MDT recently hired HDR, an engineering firm that worked on a similar corridor in Colorado—think space constraints, sensitive wildlife and environment—for a feasibility study on recommendations made in the 191 corridor study, a process will help MDT identify the most effective solutions.
“There was a time when our department was the department of ‘no.’ We’re in a time with our leadership that’s trying to find a way to say, ‘yes,’” Gates said.
‘Safer than ever’
Sgt. Dan Haydon has been a Gallatin County Sheriff’s Sergeant in Big Sky for three years. He’s been working in Gallatin County since 2012 when he started as a deputy on the Big Sky night shift. A lot has changed since then.
According to MDT’s traffic counter at the Gallatin River bridge two miles north of Big Sky, average annual daily traffic nearly doubled between 2008 and 2022—daily drivers increased from 4,520 to 8,666 in that 15-year span.
“Anytime that you have a two-lane road in a windy mountain setting with that much traffic, you’re guaranteed to have traffic collisions,” Haydon told EBS. Those drivers are a mix of daily commuters, large construction vehicles and tourists in rental cars that have never driven on a road like 191 before, he added.
Like Commissioner Brown, Haydon believes safety is actually improving on a per-car basis.
“The number of serious accidents per vehicle traveled on the road is significantly less than it was in the past,” Haydon said. “But we have significantly more vehicles… Do we have more crashes, yes. But do we have more per vehicle? No. We just have more vehicles.”
He gives credit to MDT for making the road safer than ever.
Haydon said MDT has “put millions of dollars into that highway, improving its safety,” by adding turn lanes, guard rails, rumble strips and new signage, making the road “significantly safer than it used to be” between mile markers 48 and 69—Big Sky and the mouth of the canyon.
“Yes we’ve done those things, and we’ll continue to do those things,” MDT’s Gates said on that topic. He added, “One way to look at this is that if there was an easy solution, it would already be done.”
Haydon recognizes the road is far from perfect. He said we’re stuck with what geography gives us—we can’t build an extra lane where the Gallatin River is, and he doesn’t expect MDT to dig into the side of the canyon to add width. Gates agrees.
“I understand the public’s concern,” Haydon said. “We’ve had three very high-profile fatality accidents on 191 this year.”
Still, he believes that if drivers are following the speed limit, wearing a seatbelt and not driving under the influence of alcohol, almost any accident will be survivable.
While Haydon was on the phone with EBS on July 7, emergency vehicles were arriving on scene near mile marker 71 at highway 191’s fourth fatal accident in two months. A passenger vehicle veered into the northbound land and collided head-on with a semi-truck, according to Montana Highway Patrol. Bozeman resident Brent Fjeldheim, 50 years old and publisher of Bozeman City Lifestyle Magazine, was pronounced dead on the scene. His vehicle burst into flames after collision.
Traffic danger on U.S. Highway 191 is a significant challenge facing the Big Sky community and workforce, and beyond. The importance of safety education and infrastructure upgrades will only escalate as Big Sky continues to grow.
In the coming months, EBS will continue to hear perspectives and outline possible solutions with regards to safety of this Gallatin County thoroughfare.
Citizens concerned with their safety on U.S. Highway 191 can submit feedback in writing to the Montana Department of Transportation, Butte office, PO Box 3068, Butte, MT 59702, or through MDT’s online comment or suggestion form.