A 22-year-old University of Alaska Fairbanks student who stopped his car along the George Parks Highway to help a snowmobiler with problems is dead as a result of one of the 49th state’s common dangers.
Forget Alaska’s ferocious grizzly bears; ignore the threat of hypothermia in the bitter cold; and consider for a minute the risk of a moment’s inattention around traffic.
In this case, Alaska State Troopers report, Sylvester Smith of Anchorage was struck and killed by a tanker truck shortly after dark on Monday near Anderson, a wide spot along the Parks Highway 75 miles south of Fairbanks, as he tried to help that snowmachine driver.
Troopers are still investigating what exactly happened. But what is clear is this: In, on, or along an Alaska Highway is a dangerous place to be unless you’re in a motor vehicle.
“…Analysis of data between 2005 and 2014 finds that fatalities among automobile occupants decreased by 23 percent, from 57 to 44,” the state’s 2017 Alaska Highway Safety Plan reports. “(But) pedestrian fatalities doubled, from seven in 2005 to 14 in 2014, while bicyclist deaths tripled from one in 2005 to three in 2014.”
One of the reasons for the increase should be obvious to anyone who walks or rides a bike along Alaska roadways and pays attention to the people in the motor vehicles going past.
State traffic analysts say that when they took a detailed look at motor-vehicle crashes in the time period from 2005 to 2012, they found more than 16,700 that involved “some form of driver inattention or distraction.”
That accounted for 23 percent of all crashes, they reported, and was far and away the leading cause of crashes.
Inattention or distraction is dangerous if you’re a driver in Alaska, but the same behavior can prove deadly if you are a vulnerable road user – a pedestrian, a cyclist, or someone who has simply decided to get out of the safety of your car for whatever reason.
Just two days before Christmas last year, 54-year-old Susan Voyles was headed from Anchorage home to Copper Center, a small community in Eastern Alaska, when a box flew out of her car.
She pulled over to the side of the Glenn Highway just west of the community of Glennallen and called Troopers to report she’d stopped in the early morning darkness to get out of her car to go looking for the missing box.
Not long after, troopers got a second call.
“At approximately 0216 hours,” a dispatch from the state agency later reported, “Troopers received a report from a motorist stating he struck a woman standing in the road with his vehicle at milepost 178 of the Glenn Highway.
“The driver identified himself as Andrey Ionashku, 24. Ionashku came upon a car stopped with its lights on in the opposite lane of travel. As he passed the vehicle, a person appeared in the roadway and he was unable to avoid striking her.”
Voyles died at the scene.
Ionashku, who grew up north of Glennallen in the community of Delta Junction and was once the state record-holder in the 3,200 meters, was cleared of any wrongdoing, but will have to live forever with the knowledge he killed someone.
National Traffic Highway Safety Administration data shows that Voyles died on one of the four deadliest days of the year on U.S. roads. The others are July 3 and 4, and Dec. 24.
The deadliest dates cluster around holidays when a lot of people travel to see friends and family, but the data also shows an increase in fatalities in the fall and early winter months when the days are short and, in northern areas, the roads are often slippery.
Per vehicle mile driven, the report says, “the monthly fatality rates steadily increase from the lowest points in February and March, then peak in the last quarter of the year.”
From year to year, the most dangerous month shifts around in a range from September to December, but collectively those are the months with the highest death rates per mile driven.
While the motor-vehicle fatality rates in the fourth quarter are only marginally above summer rates in the worst months, the report adds, “the average daily pedestrian fatalities were much higher during the cooler months.”
The Safety Resource Center noted pedestrian deaths set a national record last year with 5,997 dead. That’s almost 2,000 more than in 2009.
The Center’s conclusion was that all road users need to be more cautious:
“Distracted drivers are killing us,” the Center reported. “Motorists driving while they are distracted by their mobile devices is a well-documented issue. Drivers who text and drive have a substantially higher chance of being involved in traffic crashes and these traffic incidences are starting to affect pedestrians at an alarming rate.
“Everyone’s eyes are down looking at their phone instead of paying attention to the road and their immediate environment.”
But it’s not just the distracted drivers.
“Pedestrians (are) putting themselves at risk,” the Center said. “In recent years researchers have seen a steady increase in traffic related incidents involving pedestrian deaths caused by distracted walking. Instead of focusing on upcoming intersections and roadways, pedestrians are texting, listening to music, and playing mobile games like Pokemon means they are not paying attention to their environment.”
As the Smith and Voyles cases tragically illustrate, paying attention to the traffic around you when you are on foot near an Alaska roadway is a life and death matter.