Watford City Mayor Blames Car Crash Fatalities On The State

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Two teenagers from Watford City died this week after their car spun out of control on some ice and crashed into an oncoming semi. The crash was horrific; the deaths tragic. But the Mayor of Watford City has decided to turn their deaths into political capital, blaming the state for their deaths, and that’s unconscionable:

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — The deaths of two Watford City teenagers in a horrific crash has the city’s mayor calling for state officials to do more about traffic problems in the booming western Oil Patch.

“It makes me sick to think of children dying on our roads,” Brent Sanford told The Bismarck Tribune. “It’s a nightmare.” …

Sanford said state Department of Transportation officials have not acted quickly enough to keep up with a dramatic increase in traffic in the oil fields in recent years.

“We’ve got two-lane highways instead of four-lane, and 10,000 trucks going through here a day,” he said. “When are we going to believe this (oil activity) is here to stay?”

That’s an extremely unfair accusation. The sort of infrastructure expansion the mayor is talking about takes years to plan and execute due to requirements for competitive bidding and respect for local property owners. We don’t live in a dictatorship. Our governor cannot issue an edict to expand the road system and see it done.

If anything, state leaders have been moving too quickly throwing more money than is strictly necessary at infrastructure projects to inoculation themselves against this very sort of political opportunism.

And that’s what the mayor is engaging in. Political opportunism. This one accident, tragic as it is, doesn’t provide us any valid data with regard to our roads. We don’t know that a four-lane road would have saved their lives. We don’t know that they would have lived were fewer trucks on the road. This is an anecdote.

What we do know, based on actual data, is that North Dakota roads really aren’t any more dangerous now than they were prior to the oil boom. As we can see from the latest NDDOT crash report, in the context of the increase in the number of vehicles on the road we haven’t seen any significant increases in injuries or fatalities from crashes:

crashesinjuries

Politicizing this car crash is not only in poor taste, it’s not conducive to sound policy which should be set on data not anecdotes.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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  • camsaure

    Knee jerk politicians always make the outcome more bad laws, just to make themselves feel good.

    • SusanBeehler

      And jerks make comments telling people who die do to the failure to address the problem are doing so, so they can feel good, while their head is in the sand or snow bank or a computer screen. Deny it, problem solved?

      • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

        I don’t think it makes anyone a jerk to refuse to jump to the conclusion that this specific crash was the state’s fault.

        • SusanBeehler

          I didn’t say this specific crash, we do have a problem with accidents on this stretch of roads, if we don’t prove it. I was not addressing anyone I was addressing camsaure. The state does play a role in the problem, because they are not effectively helping address the problem.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            I’ll prove it in a post tomorrow, but I’m sure you’ll ignore it since it doesn’t fit the emotional narrative you’ve decided upon.

          • slackwarerobert

            Shouldn’t the state first look at who they give drivers licenses to. Maybe the problem is the standards are set to low for who can be behind the wheel. I am always shocked at how bad drivers are. I was driving 75 in a 30 zone, going around a blind corner. There was a car stopped dead in the lane, I tapped the brakes, locked the back wheels slid the car sideways around him, the moron behind me plowed right into the car even after I showed him what to do to avoid it. Control your car and there is no problem with what the roads are like.

      • camsaure

        I stand with my conclusion. I am thankful someone as “knee jerk” as you are susan is not in control of anything.

  • zipity

    While it’s true the infrastructure in western ND needs (and is in the process of being) improving, blaming this accident on the oil boom is as insane as the CNN anchor who wondered aloud if the meteor recently making a close pass to the earth was an indication of global warming.

    It is far more likely that these kids, being kids and all, were driving way too fast for the prevailing conditions.

    This guy should learn when to keep his mouth shut, lest he advertise his stupidity excessively

    • OldConserv2011

      Could very well have been the result of not adjusting for bad road conditions. But there is no doubt that truck traffic on 85 has increased exponentially primarily because of the oil industry. And to be fully transparent, I make my living (for most of my adult life) in the oil industry. And it is true that for decades, Hwy 85 has been and continues to be one of the most important north-south routes in the midwestern US. It should have been four laned years ago.

      • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

        I’m not so sure I agree. I know former Governor Ed Schafer made a big push to make 85 a four-lane back in the day, but I remember back when Williston was a ghost down in the early 00’s. It wasn’t until just recently that there was really a lot of need for it.

        You could argue both ways. What i’m not willing to do is hang these deaths around the necks of state officials when there’s perfectly logical positions from which to have argued against making 85 4-lane.

        • OldConserv2011

          I was a truck driver for quite a few years during the mid to late 80’s and on into the early 90’s. That was one of my primary routes between our stores in Texas, New Mexico and Williston. and even during the ghost town days of the late 90’s and early 00’s, it remained to be a primary route for oilfield equipment hauling. There just wasn’t as much as during the heydays. But everyone knew the potential was there for the industry to come roaring back to life. It was shortsighted not to continue efforts to get that road expanded. I’m not saying that Sanford is right in using this tragedy as leverage, but as I said, it’s often the tragedies that spur officials to action. Sad but true.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            That’s fair.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            I think what irks me more is the idea that the state has been sitting on its hands.

            Maybe before the boom, but not since. They are sending a lot of money out west, but it’s going to take a long time before it starts to have an impact.

            You can’t build roads over night.

  • Lianne

    No one wants to hear of a tragic death, no matter what the cause. But, this accident was caused by poor road conditions from the storm. This same scenerio could have happened in the years before the oil boom when semis were few and far between. Is that traffic irritating to the residents there? Yes, but that is not the cause of this accident.

    • SportsDoc

      You are missing the point, though. If this same accident happens on a 4 laned US 85, that vehicle most likely spins into the median and everyone walks away.

      • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

        You don’t know that. The car could have flipped. Lots of things could have happened.

        Which is my point. Let’s base the argument for western infrastructure on sound data, not emotional anecdotes.

        • Bubba

          If you are concerned with sound data, focus on the rate of traffic fatalities in specific areas rather than the state. If, for example, the total rate of fatalities (should also focus on number of crashes) in the Williston/ Watford City stretch per mile traveled has increased at a rate higher than the rest of the state, it might indicate that something needs to be done in and around Williston or Watford City. You must agree that, all things being equal, guard rails, extra lanes, and wide center medians do reduce the probability of traffic deaths in any instance. I am sure you would also agree that it is at best misleading to use traffic data for an entire state to explain away risks on a busy two lane stretch of highway without providing data specific to that particular stretch of road. I agree, let’s base our discussions of topics on sound data – hold yourself to that standard.

      • Lianne

        So no one dies on 4 lane highways? Everyone walks away from vehicles that spin into the median? Neither of those points are true. The cause of that particular accident was lack of care required due to the condition of the road. So to say a four lane would have prevented the accident or the deaths is wrong. 4 lane divided highways reduce the risk of death and injury.

        • SportsDoc

          Notice I used the words “most likely”. No absolutes there.

          • Lianne

            And I use the words “could have happened” :-)
            The sole cause is not increased traffic or semis on the road.

      • Roy_Bean

        Or, like at Jamestown last December 26, pickup spins out, crosses the median and six men were killed. Or maybe like in Minnesota where 4 NDSU students slid across the median and were killed.

  • OldConserv2011

    To be fair Rob, the people in western North Dakota have been trying for years to convince the state and the US highway department to four lane both highway 2 and highway 85. It took decades, but they finally got 2 done. Still nothing on 85. Yet for years, the state and the US highway departments have advertised 85 as a straight through highway from Canada down to Mexico. If it is such a key corridor, why hasn’t it been given the attention it needs? And it really is a key corridor now with the oil industry in high gear. Countless trucks are bringing pipe and supplies up from Texas to North Dakota and Canada via Hwy 85. I would argue that it is equally as important a product transportation corridor as will be the Keystone pipeline when (or if) it is ever completed.

    Yes, maybe a little opportunistic, but sadly that seems to be the only way to garner public officials’ attention.

  • The Fighting Czech

    A lot more money that is taken from the people in the Bakken, need to be left in the Bakken.
    Im always amused by so called conservatives who love to denounce government taking their money under the guise that government thinks it knows how to spend our money better then they do… Yet adamantly refuse to give THEIR slice of the pie back to the people who it was taken from. .

    • The fighting Czech

      correction, the government thinks it knows how to spend our money then WE do….

  • Thresherman

    Hwy 85 through Watford City is a friggin nightmare. Although the Mayor’s comments may have been in poor taste, I can understand the frustration that prompted it.

  • Ambulance Chaser

    From the linked report, page 27, the fatalities by county are listed. An average fatality for oil counties (as defined by ndenergy.org) per million VMT is double that of the rest of the state according to my calculations. Oil Counties = 0.01313, other counties = 0.00705.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      But the question is, what’s the trend? Did that rate pre-exist the oil boom?

      • SusanBeehler

        A trend is the only way to determine safety?

        • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

          Yes, Susan, there’s these things called “statistics.” It’s data that tells us how things really are.

          I know you’d rather feel things, but i’d rather think things. Based on facts.

          • dlao

            statistics are like a bikini, what they reveal is interesting, what they conceal is VITAL

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      This is a really good question, the 2010 crash report doesn’t have the VMT/accident data. I’m going to put in an open records request and see if I can get the data for the last decade.

      I suspect (but we’ll see) that the higher rates of accidents per VMT probably pre-existed the oil boom. Rural areas typically have higher accident/VMT rates, so I’m guessing they were always higher than the rest of the state.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      I just requested the info from the NDDOT. They should have it to me today or tomorrow.

  • Anti-NCAA

    Plus, Rob, is since that is US Hwy 85 there are federal requirements to that road also. It’s not like the multiple repairs that went in north of Killdeer the past two years; this road has some US DOT considerations also.

    If the state government is a big ship to turn (slow to react) imagine what it’s like when you have to involve federal agencies to expect a quick turnaround?

  • Yogibare

    In some states the Highway officials will close the highway or route when there are hazards. If we demand perfect driving conditions in a climate such as ours, we will face “closures” when the State cannot guarantee a clean surface.

    The deaths of two or possibly three men is a tragedy, and it is happening too often. However, we cannot demand pristine conditions on our roadways at all times,nor can we expect that the State will four lane/divide every roadway that becomes busy and do it in a year or so. It’s not possible.

  • SusanBeehler

    There is a problem with the traffic and the state needs to address it, NOW! There is no excuse for not providing for funding of something so desperately needed. That road is a nightmare especially in the winter with all the big rig and all the out of state travelers who do not know how to drive on ice, than throw young drivers and it is DEADLY! The by pass on the 4 lanes going to Williston is a much needed improvement. Now lets get with it on 85.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      The state is addressing it, Susan, as the billions of dollars already appropriated attests.

      The thing is, building new roads takes a long, long time. There are state and federal regulations to contend with. Private property owners. Bidding processes.

      You can stamp your foot and demand “now” but it doesn’t really change anything.

      • camsaure

        I think she got used to stamping her feet and getting her way with her poor husband. Now she thinks she can do it with the state. Also it is liberals like herself that are responsible for all the “studies” that must be done before undertaking any new projects. Many times all the studies cost as much or more then the project itself.

  • cylde

    Have you considered that the mayor might be a moron for demanding immediate expensive highway expansion and not just another political opportunist. OK, he could be both.

    • kent

      Have you ever considered that you might be a moron for suggesting this is a new issue for him? The mayor is not a political opportunist, he tells it like he sees it. Rob Port is an opportunist that took a comment like this to get the attention of this blog. And don’t be so narrow, its more than roads. Its police, its school teachers, its services. All which cost money. Oh yeah, Watford, with a private/public partnership with some state money is going to get a new day care facility. Brent and the city of Watford is very proud of this facility coming on line. Its the managed growth that I talked about, nice housing, affordable housing that will be utilized by persons that will make western ND more habitable, but I am sure the blog will blast that since it had some state help.

      • Lianne

        The blog won’t blast it, I will. The state should not be in the business of providing affordable housing unless they are going to provide EVERYONE housing. And the same goes for day care. The state has gotten itself into a bind with all the red tape that goes into day care. THAT is what needs fixing.

  • kent

    If you know Brent or heard him talk about the issues in Watford City he has been asking for changes in many aspects of what is going on in Western ND for the past five years. Brent is without question one of the most outspoken advocates of managed, responsible growth that when the oil boom levels, western ND will be left with live able environment, versus an empty over leveraged waste land. What he said in regards to this accident is nothing new from him, but it gets attention because of the deaths of the two teenagers. So don’t criticize him for what he said, because he says it every day.

    • Lianne

      I guess you would be the one to tell us how effective he has been in his demands.
      I suppose he spoke out of frustration, but the truth is the road conditions required more careful driving than what was exhibited.

      • kent

        He didn’t say anything he hasn’t been saying. The fact that people are responding is what is different. Maybe this is a wake up call.

        • Lianne

          Or it is that he only believes in the state solving all the problems occurring in Watford City, not just the traffic.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      He deserves criticism fit what he said. It’s unfair to state leaders who are spending plenty of money in the west, and it’s inaccurate based on data. I’ll post more tomorrow, but crash rates in his county are pretty stagnant.

      Also, “managed growth”? Really? That’s exactly what we don’t need. Government managing the economy.

      • kent

        Have you ever spoken to Brent? What the state is spending versus what the needs are two different things. Minot is not Watford, the demands and needs are greater in Watford City. A recent study indicated 190 + million in local infrastructure to meets the needs to the projected growth to a population of 12,000. What has the state contributed this session? The last number I saw $7 million allocated. So Watford City and the rest of Mckenzie county is getting producing a large portion of the oil, generating the revenue and has to deal with the impacts but not getting the money to support.

        I didn’t say manage the economy, I said manage growth. You been to Williston? Do you want Minot to look like that? No, so instead of letting every RV, camper trailer get parked, Watford City has at least outlined what you as the developer need to do so you don’t have a mess like Williston. Again, unless you have been there and tried to business there you won’t understand what I am talking about.

  • slackwarerobert

    Why doesn’t he give us the name of the trooper who said these kids could drive a car? The road didn’t kill anyone, the state giving someone who can’t control the car a drivers license killed them.

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