Nearly 10 months after Nevada Department of Transportation workers installed concrete dividers on Highway 50, officials continue to raise concerns that in emergency situations the barrier makes it virtually impassable.
A Sept. 16 accident in which an overturned tractor-trailer rig caused traffic to pile up for close to four hours and delayed response times for at least one ambulance, illustrated problematic side-effects to the barrier's installation, said Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini.
"I'm not against the barrier - it saves lives," he said "But traffic gets so backed up you can't get to the scene of the accident."
The truck driver was killed when his rig, filled with grapes and blueberries, flipped into the westbound lanes of the highway and ignited. The accident also put four motorcyclists and another driver in the hospital.
Considerations about the barrier's potential effects on traffic in the case of an accident or winter weather, were taken into account when it was being designed, said NDOT Assistant Chief Safety Engineer Kelly Anrig.
"It came down to sight distance," he said. Sight distance is a measure that helps engineers determine if drivers will have adequate stopping time after encountering an obstruction. "Where we put the break was the only straightaway that was long enough."
In its present state the highway has only one break, at the top of the hill, that would allow drivers to turn around or, in the case of an obstruction, allow emergency crews to divert traffic. This scenario, said Carson City Assistant Fire Chief Steve Mihelic, made it difficult for crews to respond.
"People were turning around and trying to go back against traffic," he said. "During the design process a number of officials were expressing concern about the number of breaks."
Problems could be compounded when winter ice and snow arrives, said Pierini.
"When people try to drive without the right equipment (like chains or snow tires) and figure out that they can't make it up any farther, they don't have anywhere to turn around," he said.
Pierini also points out that Highway 50 is one of the few roads that allows emergency crews to traverse between Lake Tahoe and the Carson area.
Bad weather on Mt. Rose Highway and Kingsbury Grade makes Highway 50 the only viable option for drivers and emergency personnel, he said.