Washoe Valley driving risks questioned
RENO – Commuting between Reno and Carson City, Ann Slater thinks of Washoe Valley as “the Twilight Zone or hell, depending on the day.”
That’s because the scenic valley is prone to nasty weather – particularly wind gusts with the strength to topple big rigs.
“I can feel it blowing the car around. It’s spooky,” said Slater, 54. “I don’t drive next to trucks. I stay as far away from them as I can for that reason, that they might blow over.”
Nevada transportation officials have embarked on a new study into Washoe Valley wind and how traffic should be managed when gusts are strongest.
Among the questions being asked is whether the state should continue its current practice of diverting trucks and other high-profile vehicles west onto Old 395 when the newer freeway in the valley’s center is closed by high winds.
The issue is given added importance with the construction of the new Interstate 580 freeway linking Mount Rose Highway to Washoe Valley, which will face the same wind problems as the existing U.S. 395.
“I’m very concerned about wind issues,” said Thor Dyson, Nevada Department of Transportation district engineer. “Have we been doing business correctly? It’s basically totally relooking at ourselves.”
Some residents living along Old 395, also known as Bowers Mansion Road, question the logic of diverting truck traffic onto the two-lane road when the freeway is closed.
“The danger is just as bad, if not worse, on a two-lane road,” said area resident Cliff Low. “If there is a threshold at which there is a danger on the freeway, there is at least an equal if not greater danger there as well.”
Passenger cars have much less room to get out of the way of a truck on Old 395, Low said. And trucks could smash into homes that line the road.
“It’s a safety issue for the residents,” said Jane Countryman, a member of the West Washoe Valley Citizens Advisory Board. “We want the same standards on Old 395 as on the freeway.”
The point is not lost on Dyson. Since 1994, 28 high-profile vehicles have crashed in Washoe Valley during severe wind events, NDOT reported. Nineteen of those accidents occurred on the freeway, but nine happened along the alternate route.
“Trucks in recent years have been flipping there, too,” Dyson said. “In some cases, it may actually be more windy there.”
Consultants installed wind-measuring devices on Old 395 this winter and will use the data to supplement information obtained from a permanent weather station on the freeway. Public safety is the main concern behind NDOT’s new wind study, but there are other important issues in play, Dyson said.
When a particularly strong windstorm in February 2009 flipped trucks over along both roads, both were closed. That decision, he said, “caused a lot of consternation” within the trucking and building industries.
That’s because options are few. Eastlake Boulevard, which rings the east side of Washoe Valley, is county-owned and closed to big trucks. The only other choice is a roughly 100-mile loop back through Reno, Fernley and around to Carson City.
While local truckers generally obey closures, the cost of detours is sufficient that drivers for some national trucking companies would rather risk tickets costing up to $190 than take the long way around, said trooper Chuck Allen of the Nevada Highway Patrol.
Few truck drivers want to risk their vehicles and loads, their own safety or the safety of other motorists by driving in conditions too windy, said Paul Enos, chief executive officer of the Nevada Motor Transport Association.
In the end, “it’s incumbent on the driver to make sure they can safely navigate” through whatever conditions they face, Enos said.
That said, any policy by NDOT to close direct routes between Reno and Carson City to trucks during high-wind events comes with potential problems, Enos said.
“Anything that impacts the operation of trucks, where they can or cannot go, is serious,” Enos said. “There will absolutely be an economic impact. And ultimately, any economic impact does hit the consumer.”
Recommendations from the ongoing wind study could include changes, either up or down, with wind thresholds affecting high-profile traffic, Dyson said.
“You’ve got to keep goods and services moving,” NDOT spokesman Scott Magruder said. “But safety is the main issue.”