Jul 26, 2016

Wapiti speed limit too high, some locals complain

Tourists hustling to get to Yellowstone National Park might be enjoying the new 70 mph speed limit through the Wapiti area, but some locals are not.

At a public meeting last week, a few Wapiti residents urged the Wyoming Department of Transportation to consider dropping the speed limit along U.S. Highway 14/16/20 west of Cody back to 65 mph or lower.

Some locals say 70 mph is too fast for U.S. Highway 14/16/20 through Wapiti. Photo courtesy WYDOT
“The traffic in general isn’t going that much faster than it has, that I can see,” said Wayne Peterson of Wapiti. “But you’ve got the person that says, ‘The road is 70 miles an hour; I’ve got to go 70.’”

Peterson — who said he and his wife have been run off the road five times — was among a few people who argued the portion of U.S. Highway 14/16/20 is different, playing host to more distracted sightseers and large amounts of wildlife.

“There’s just too much distraction, so you need to lower that speed limit,” Wapiti resident Steve Haberland told WYDOT representatives. Citing some close calls, Haberland also suggested the department reduce the number of passing zones in the area.

WYDOT District Engineer Shelby Carlson said there’s been “a lot” of complaints and the department has already hired engineers with Morrison-Maierle to study whether the North Fork highway’s speed limit should be reduced.

However, Carlson warned the audience at the July 18 meeting that — even if the study finds a lower speed is warranted — the reduction may have a limited effect.

“Driver behavior is what needs to change,” she said. “Changing the speed limit sign doesn’t do that.”

Carlson said studies have generally shown that “people just continue to drive the speed they feel comfortable, despite what the speed-limit sign says.”

For example, she said WYDOT lowered the speed limit between Manderson and Worland and later found “the prevailing speed hadn’t changed.”

Similarly, in the case of the North Fork, “we haven’t seen any changes in terms of speed and driver behavior” since the increase to 70 mph, said WYDOT District Traffic Engineer Randy Merritt.

When the department surveyed speeds on the North Fork highway last year, it found people were driving about 68 mph near the Red Barn Store and over 70 mph everywhere else, Merritt said. A survey a few weeks ago found drivers going 70 mph near the Red Barn and generally within a couple mph of last year’s figures, he said.

“We haven’t seen any changes in terms of speed and driver behavior” with the new 70 mph limit, said WYDOT District Traffic Engineer Randy Merritt.

The Legislature raised the state’s default highway speed from 65 to 70 mph earlier this year, affecting nearly 400 miles of road across the Big Horn Basin.

Of the local complaints to WYDOT about the change, most have been about the North Fork area, Carlson said. However, she noted WYDOT can only set a lower speed limit if the decision is backed by an engineering study.

“So if their (the engineers’) conclusions are contrary to what I’m hearing today from folks, you’ll proceed with their recommendations and ignore what’s being said today?” asked Cody resident Doug Smith.

“That’s correct,” said Carlson. “We have to justify it (the speed) by an engineering study. That’s the way the statute and the law was written.”

The study will take public input into consideration, while also looking at crash data, the road’s conditions and other information, she said.

WYDOT officials said they’re continuing to try to make the North Fork highway safer with signs warning of wildlife and speed limit changes — and by warning of the dangers of driving drunk, with distractions or without a seat belt.

Additionally, the previously short-handed Wyoming Highway Patrol is now close to being fully staffed.

“You are going to see more law enforcement out on the road and that should help with some of this,” Carlson said.

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