A fatal crash one week ago on the Parks Highway near Fairbanks is prompting safety concerns from some of its most frequent drivers, who say the area where it happened could use better state road maintenance.
Alaska State Troopers say Fairbanks resident David Yudin, 21, was headed south on the afternoon of Feb. 20 when his Volkswagen sedan lost control on a curve at Mile 345 of the highway. Yudin slid into the oncoming lane, was struck by a tanker tractor-trailer and died at the scene.
Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesperson Meadow Bailey says that workers have been trying to address conditions on the Parks near Ester Dome in the wake of the crash.
“It’s an area that we work on a lot,” Bailey said.
The hilly spot where Yudin died is just north of a turnoff for the monument honoring territorial governor George Parks, at Mile 344.2 of the highway. It’s a point truckers like Kent Meier with mail contractor LC Wilson know well, because it marks a divide in jurisdiction between two DOTPF road maintenance crews.
To the south of the Parks monument, roads are maintained by a Nenana-based DOTPF crew, which many drivers agree does good work. Meier says once trucks pass the monument, road conditions are fine all the way south to the Chulitna River.
Meier says getting past the Ester Dome area, which is maintained by a Fairbanks-based DOTPF crew also responsible for state roads throughout the city, is the hard part. He says that the highway’s 3.5-mile-long hill is neither “bladed” with a grader to break up ice, nor regularly sanded -- a difference drivers can feel beneath their vehicles.
“You can tell where Fairbanks (maintenance) ends,” Meier said.
Meier says conditions on the highway forced eight to 10 truckers to chain up their tires in order to leave Fairbanks Friday night, with the convoy only escorted south at 10 p.m. After Wednesday’s crash, however, he says DOTPF graders bladed the entire hill.
Trucker John Innes says he’s quite familiar with where last week’s fatal crash occurred.
“That corner's been hell for a couple of weeks now,” Innes said.
John Pike, another Parks Highway trucker, says traffic on the highway near Ester Dome isn’t just made up of trucks. The highway sees a mix of residential traffic, like cars and school buses, driving alongside commercial vehicles with single or double trailers hauling from 70,000 to 100,000 pounds of total weight.
Pike says that while the human toll of crashes near the dome is highlighted by Yudin’s death, it’s also exacted psychologically against the other drivers involved -- such as Michael Luper, the trucker who was uninjured after his vehicle struck Yudin’s car.
“He’s not going to walk away from this without scars,” Pike said. “This is a lot bigger than an accident.”
Horizon Lines trucker Gary Owens says he’s spoken with DOTPF officials about highway conditions near Ester Dome, but hasn’t seen much response.
“We keep telling them, ‘Yeah, sit on your hands until someone dies,’ and they just ignore us,” Owens said.
The situation also led Meier to visit DOTPF’s Fairbanks office on Presidents Day. It was closed, so he returned the following afternoon -- a day before Yudin died -- and met with two state officials to ask that something be done about conditions on the highway.
“One of them said, ‘I’ll have my boys pay more attention,’” Meier said.
Truckers continue to drive the Parks, despite what Innes calls “the anger, disgust and pain we all feel on a regular basis” about trying to improve its safety near the dome.
“I wish the powers that be would listen to us and at least try to do something to fix things,” Innes said.
Bailey with DOTPF says workers have received three complaints about the Ester Dome area of the Parks Highway in recent weeks, primarily calling for more sanding -- which crews have done in response.
DOTPF officials are also considering moving the boundary between the Fairbanks and Nenana crews farther north. She says that while the two crews work separately, they are under the same managers and share resources.
“We try to be limber when we can,” Bailey said.
Bailey says that although DOTPF works closely with the Alaska Trucking Association and responds to its areas of concern, Ester Dome hasn’t been officially mentioned by the organization.
“This isn’t one that they’ve brought to us,” Bailey said.
Alaska Trucking Association Executive Director Aves Thompson confirms the close ties between his organization and DOTPF, but says the group hasn’t heard about problems with the Ester Dome area of the Parks.
“I haven’t heard any complaints, and if I had I’d have passed them on to DOT,” Thompson said.
While troopers spokesperson Megan Peters calls Yudin’s death “a tragedy,” she confirms a trooper’s description of “average winter driving conditions” at the time of the crash. She says that drivers including Yudin -- whom troopers consider the driver at fault in the Feb. 20 crash, because his vehicle crossed the center line -- should slow down when roads look bad.
“With winter driving conditions in Alaska, the conditions are always changing and drivers are supposed to drive for the conditions,” Peters said. “The road’s only as safe as the people driving on it.”
Peters says troopers won’t have any indications on whether poor road conditions were a factor in the crash until a final report is completed in one or two months. She says as far as troopers are concerned, the maintenance issue is between the truckers and DOTPF.
Contact Chris Klint