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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published May 30 2013

Dalrymple column: Highway safety hot topic out west

WATFORD CITY, N.D. - I seriously considered phoning this assignment in.

I feared that driving from Williston to Watford City in heavy rain Thursday on a deadly stretch of Oil Patch highway to a news conference on road safety might make me another statistic.

But with 48 traffic fatalities so far this year – 12 of those in McKenzie County – there is no topic that deserves more news coverage in western North Dakota than highway safety.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation unveiled on Thursday its $878 million construction program for 2013, the largest in the state’s history.

For those of us who drive these Oil Patch roads daily, the projects are both welcome and a little scary.

Expanding U.S. Highway 85 to a four-lane highway between Williston and Watford City will make a huge difference in the daily lives of residents, some who now avoid that 45-mile stretch of road completely.

But it’s hard to imagine how construction crews will widen the road as 12,000 vehicles, mostly heavy trucks and diesel pickups, travel by daily.

“It’s going to be even more dangerous,” said Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford.

That’s why Grant Levi, the newly appointed director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, and other officials came to Watford City to emphasize safety.

Officials urged motorists to buckle up, reduce speeds, allow extra time and minimize distractions.

“People need to slow down, and people need to be patient,” Levi said.

Last year, the state had 257 crashes in work zones, resulting in two fatalities.

Sgt. Tom Iverson with the North Dakota Highway Patrol said during 700 hours of patrolling work zones in 2012, the most common violations were for speeding and following too closely.

The Highway Patrol will soon have three new troopers assigned to McKenzie County, which Sanford said will significantly improve driver behavior and safety.

New Town Mayor Dan Uran, who attended the news conference, said his area has lost four residents in the past two weeks to traffic fatalities.

Uran said he thinks many crashes are caused by drivers who should use more caution.

“I don’t think they’re respecting the fact that there’s all this traffic out there,” Uran said.

The Bismarck officials flew to Watford City on Thursday because they also held an event in Fargo. But Levi and others also spent time driving the northwestern North Dakota roads recently, which sent a strong signal to local officials.

“It’s demonstrating their focus on this area,” Sanford said.

Dalrymple is a Forum News Service reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. She can be reached at adalrymple@forumcomm.com or (701) 580-6890