America’s deadliest highway?

A 30-mile stretch of Nevada’s Highway 50, from just east of Carson City to Silver Springs, has been the scene of more than 120 injury-causing accidents in the past 14 months, 15 of them fatal. In the same period, another eight people have died on Highway 95A, which intersects Highway 50 at Silver Springs.

For Lyon County, with its population just short of 37,000, the death of 22 people on county roads last year equates to a ratio of almost one fatality per 1,700 residents. It’s the deadliest stretch of road in the state and possibly the worst in the United States, law enforcement officials say.

But even though the area east of Dayton is the fastest-growing locale in the state, it will be at least another two years before any road widening is undertaken—and then it will likely improve only a six-mile stretch of highway. Some citizens have made official pleas to the Nevada Department of Transportation to get the road improved, but their requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Father Michael Dallmeier of St. Anne’s Church, just off Highway 50, is one such person.

Dallmeier has made at least a half-dozen trips to Yerington, the Lyon County seat, to plead his case for a traffic light to be installed at the entrance to his church. The church has more than 100 parishioners’ vehicles in the parking lot on Saturdays and Sundays, and all must enter from the highway.

“In the two years we have been here, we have had only one accident, and that was a minor one,” he says. “It is only a matter of time before there is as major accident involving one of my parishioners. Such is the nature of this road.”

Despite pleas from people like Father Dallmeier, state transportation officials have taken little action, except, for example, introducing “daytime headlight” restrictions on the two-lane section.

Even though daytime headlight laws aren’t the radical improvements some residents would like to see, they probably help. Fernley-based Nevada Highway Patrolman James Farmer says nationwide studies on the effects of using headlights on dangerous sections of national highways indicates that the procedure helps reduce head-on accidents.

“There is no doubt that this is a section of road where motorists clearly benefit from the use of headlights,” he says.

Farmer says the two most important contributing factors to accidents on Highway 50 are impatience and lack of attention. “The majority of motorists are fine, but there are some who are very impatient and others who either lack attention or are simply tired and drift across the road into on-coming traffic.”

Blair Harkleroad, a Carson City trooper who has been called to several fatal accidents in recent months, says that, although there is no quick fix for the problem, reducing the speed limit by 10 miles per hour and adding a set of traffic lights near Smith’s Food & Drugs supermarket, less than two miles east of Dayton, would alleviate the situation.

“Not only will it slow east-bound traffic down as they reduce from four to two lanes, but it will also help reduce the increasing number of accidents that are happening as a result of people entering and exiting the supermarket.”

Money woes

If there were money available to fix the problem, it would have been fixed a long time ago, say officials.

“We would like to have completed the four-lane section from Dayton all the way to Silver Springs by now, but it has not been possible because of the budgetary restraints,” says NDOT spokesman Scott McGruder.

He says the department has plans to start work on widening the road to four lanes from near Smith’s to a point six miles farther within the next two years, adding that transportation officials are closely monitoring the traffic flow along Highway 50. A recent car count near the supermarket indicated that more than 10,000 vehicles passed that spot each day, including more than 600 tractor-trailers.

A mile and a half farther down the road, the count is only a few hundred cars less, while the speed limit is 30 miles an hour faster and the road is narrower.

The situation, drastic now, is only going to get worse, and quickly.

Dennis Smith, an engineer with Western Engineering, a Carson City company associated with development projects in western Lyon County, says the expected growth is unprecedented.

“Dayton is now officially the fastest-growing area in this state,” says Smith. “Conservative estimates put growth in the Dayton area at 900 new homes a year for the next five years, but I believe it will be closer to 1,300 homes a year.”

He says the biggest project approved to date is a 4,800-home development on the north side of Highway 50 between Smith’s and Six Mile Canyon. Although a utility infrastructure is being put in place to cope with the growth, little is being done to alleviate the traffic problems.

“How often in recent times have we seen what should have been a minor fender-bender turn into a fatal accident?” he asks.