It's been all over the news in the last few days:

The discovery of cracking damage at a 140-year-old reservoir dam in Garfield County has led officials to close a part of the highway.

The highway patrol is assisting in restricting access to Panguitch Lake in Southeast Utah.

Officials announced that the 17-mile closure went into effect around 9:30 p.m. on Monday on State Route 143, known locally as Panguitch Lake Road.

Water was found leaking in a joint located on an upper portion of the dam.

Officials say the damage is not severe enough to warrant evacuations, although high water is a concern.  Garfield County Sheriff's Office emergency personnel are stationed at the dam to monitor conditions.

An urgent warning has been sent out by the Sheriff's Office regarding the status of the Panguitch Lake dam. The monitoring has been raised to a Level 2 Emergency situation. While there is no immediate public threat, there are indications of potential dam failure."

It's still too early to tell what may ultimately happen to the dam at Panguitch Lake, but the similarities to what happened in Washington County in 1989 are eerie.

From the Washington County Historical Society's website:

"Ever since it's dedication, leakage in the dike at Quail Creek Reservoir was a problem. On December 31, 1988, those problems increased dramatically. Just after midnight, at 12:08 am on January 1, 1989, the Quail Creek Reservoir Dam collapsed and a 200-foot break occurred in the 1,820 foot long dike.

"More than 25,000 acre-feet of water was released into the Virgin River Channel as a 40-foot wall of water. That flood damaged 50 to 60 homes and 100 apartment units, forcing 1,500 people from their residences.

"Bridges, roads, farms, and other property were damaged and the reservoir was rendered useless for several months. The ensuing flood from the Quail Lake dike failure was one of the worst disasters in southern Utah history, causing more than $12 million in damage, yet, miraculously, no lives were lost."

Local celebrity and professional country singer Eric Dodge took to Facebook with his recollection of the dam break:

"This is not good. I’ll never forget when Quail Creek broke we lost almost all our stuff. The police came banging on our doors in the middle of the night and told us to head for higher ground and take only what we could carry. My parents brought the police scanner radio and we laid on blankets all night at our family friends house up on a hill and listened to the scanner. I hope the dam holds in Panguitch."

Like Dodge, we hope the dam does hold out and they can make the necessary repairs to help it last a long time.

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Confidently Merging Onto Freeways: Experts Give Tips For Utah Drivers

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I've seen a couple of angst-ridden posts online lately, people stress-writing about a recent experience in getting on the freeway.

I feel your pain.

I remember as a new driver a few years ago (OK, more than a few) the biggest stress I had was the thought of having to merge with full-speed drivers when trying to merge onto the fast-moving Interstate.

How fast should I be going? What if they don't see me? What if there's no room to merge? Who has the right of way?

All these questions popped into my young mind as the day approached in Driver's Ed to make that terrifying trip onto the freeway.

My friends didn't help much, offering up advice like, "Don't worry, they'll let you in," or "They'll see the Driver's Ed sign on your car and stay far away." One friend even counseled, "You probably won't die. Don't worry about it."

The day in question came and I was a nervous wreck. After a few minutes of driving, the instructor told me to head for the freeway onramp so we could do a little freeway driving. He then slipped off his shoes and went to sleep (it was early in the morning).

So it was me driving, a sleeping instructor and two equally nervous rookie drivers in the backseat.

I briefly considered skipping the freeway trip and just heading back to the school, but I had two stool-pigeons in the backseat and the fear of the instructor waking up, so I went for it.

As I attempted to make the merge from the onramp, I sped up to freeway speed (55, or so I thought), checked my mirrors, checked my blind spot and began to make the move.

But the first problem I ran into was this: It might have been 1982 and the speed limit was 55, but 55 was not freeway speed. Every other car (including those in the slow lane) was going much faster than that.

I also had the great fortune of having a police car right behind me, adding to the nervousness factor.

It all happened so fast, but I remember picking a gap in traffic, signaling and then going for it. At the same time, traffic began to slow ahead of me and the gap began to close quickly. The only thing I could think to do was stick the nose of the car in the gap and mutter a soft prayer that the huge truck approaching had good brakes.

A few horn blasts later (enough to wake up the Driver's Ed teacher), I was in the lane and there were no loud crashes. I had survived the great merge and would eventually get that coveted driver's license.

Maybe it was my own fault, but I wish I had known about these basic rules for merging before the harrowing experience. These were published recently by the St. George Police Department:

  • You should use the acceleration lane (on-ramp) to match your speed with the other vehicles before pulling onto the roadway.
  • Do not drive so slowly that you block traffic. Slow driving is not always safe driving.
  • If your speed is causing cars to stack up behind you, you are unsafe, discourteous and breaking the law.
  • Do not insist on the right-of-way
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Rising Concern: Fatal Wrong-Way Crashes Grip Utah Commuters

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Last year, we had a double-fatality in Southern Utah stemming from a wrong-way driver. Last month a woman was killed when a Utah Highway Patrol officer had to forcibly crash into the woman's vehicle to stop her wrong-way travel.

Last week, four people narrowly escaped serious injury when they had a major collision near the port of entry in Southern Utah after entering the freeway going the wrong direction.

Although wrong-way driving crashes are nowhere near the most common crashes, they are by far the most deadly.

According to the Utah Department of Transportation, 13 percent of all wrong-way crashes end with at least one fatality. That's nearly triple the rate of crashes involving leaving the roadway or impaired driving.

Some people on social media want to blame the freeway engineers.

  • "I have never seen a state with so many wrong way crashes. 30 years living near one of the busiest interstates in the country and I never saw a wrong way crash. I think UDOT may want to look at ramp signage in other states. I know where I came from if you looked in your rear view mirror getting off the ramp, you knew if you were going the other way, you were going the wrong way. Those huge do not enter signs in multiple spots on the off ramps were very noticeable along with huge one way arrow signs on the ramps and at the end of the ramp," said one commenter.
  • "There has to be a way to stop these people from entering from the wrong way. My suggestion would be to put in spike strips that would pop their tires therefore not allowing them to enter. Sounds harsh, but I would rather see them have to replace tires rather than take innocent lives." Also, see this link for why spike strips aren't used.
  • "So predictable. The State of Utah should hang their head in shame on this one. The lack of reflectorized signage, reflectorized road markings, overhead street lighting, and poor highway design all contributed to this horrible wreck. That area is so dark at night you can't see your hand in front of your face. The total lack of concern and planning on the part of UDOT is just plain sinful."

But others have come to the defense of the road makers.

  • "Unfortunately changing the roadways won't stop people from driving under the influence." (Note: the driver of the wrong-way crash has not been accused of impaired driving. The investigation will reveal more).
  • "No matter what the exit looks and built like you still drive on the same side of the road just like a road in town. And if you are coherent you would know if you were going south north west east."
  • "A little research on the subject would show it's on the rise nationwide with Texas and Florida leading with the most wrong way crashes."

To back up that last comment, information from the 2010s tells us that Utah had only 3.3 deaths per year (with 30 crashes) during that time from wrong-way crashes. In contrast, Texas had 67.7 deaths per year with 446 wrong-way crashes and Florida had 34.4 DPY with 226 crashes.

Unfortunately, Utah has already had six wrong-way related fatalities in 2024.

Interestingly, the AAA Foundation said its research showed the odds of being a wrong-way driver increased with 1. alcohol impairment; 2. older age, and 3. driving without a passenger.

Utah is being proactive in trying to stop these type of accidents.

This year, UDOT has installed 15 wrong-way driving detection systems around the state to help prevent wrong-way driving crashes.

UDOT began installing these systems in February 2023, and is in the process of installing eight more.

The new wrong-way driver detection and alert system consists of a detector unit, which includes a radar and high definition/infrared cameras, and a series of red “Wrong Way” warning signs equipped with solar-powered, high-intensity LED lights. When a wrong-way driver is detected by the radar or the cameras, the LED signs activate to alert the driver. If the vehicle continues going the wrong way, the system sends automated alerts to the UDOT Traffic Operations Center (TOC) and the Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) so the driver can be tracked and stopped as quickly as possible.

So what should you do if you encounter a wrong-way driver?

UHP Sgt. Cameron Roden told the Deseret News that if you see a wrong-way driver that you slow down as much as possible. “A lot of these crashes we are seeing happen toward the left-hand side of the road,” he said. “And so, if you see a wrong-way vehicle coming and can maneuver to the right, get over to the right and stop.”

“Each situation is so unique and independent,” Roden emphasized. “Some of these crashes are very violent and sudden.” Drivers sometimes do not have enough time to react due to this.

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Distracted Driving Awareness Month: Don't Let a Text End Your Life

Photo by melissa mjoen on Unsplash/Canva
Photo by melissa mjoen on Unsplash/Canva

April is Distracted Driving Awareness month, which is more relevant to Southern Utah than one might think. 

According to the St. George Police Department, distracted driving is what causes the most crashes in Southern Utah, and that goes for a good chunk of the United States as well. 

In an article from AAA Living, various statistics show the danger distracted driving poses to anyone willing to look away from the road while behind the wheel. 

The article uses information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to show how fast a distracted driver can their lives away. 

The article said, “According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), five distracted seconds at the speed of 55 mph is the same as driving the entire length of a football field with your eyes closed.” 

Distracted driving isn’t just texting and driving, it’s anything that takes your eyes off the road while you're actively controlling the vehicle. You could be eating, getting a bit too into the music you're listening to, turning your head to talk to your passengers, and even fiddling with the radio can be interpreted as distracted driving. 

The article said, “According to statistics from the NHTSA, nine people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured daily from distraction-related crashes in the United States. The NHTSA estimates that distracted driving killed 3,522 people in 2021, which is the most recent data available. These sobering statistics serve as a reminder that we can all do better at keeping our eyes on the road.” 

New information from the NHTSA stated 3,308 people lost their lives in 2022 as a result from distracted driving. While that is less than 2021’s numbers, that’s 3,308 too many. 

If you are out on the road and feel there is something other than driving that requires your attention, please pull over and find a safe place to accomplish your task before continuing. Your life is far too precious to end over something as superfluous as a text. 

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