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Legislators look for Seward Highway traffic safety solutions

This summer's string of deaths on the Seward highway had state legislators talking Tuesday about what's being done to help keep Alaska drivers alive.

"The public tolerance for traffic fatalities is declining at a greater rate than the manner in which we are creating safety," said Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras, who chaired a joint hearing Tuesday of the House judiciary and transportation committees.

Ramras was interested in creating more "no passing" zones, which he called an inexpensive fix to help.

State Department of Transportation officials at the hearing said they'd look into it. But state highway safety coordinator Ron Martindale said the solid yellow lines can have the effect of creating "discontent" among drivers who ignore them and take risks. Martindale also said passing has nothing to do with the vast majority of accidents on the Seward Highway.

"More often than not it's not about passing, it's about some kind of distraction (that causes) someone to cross the center line," he said.

DOT officials said they will be installing "rumble strips" in the center lane and shoulder of the highway. The strips are designed to help keep drivers in their lanes. The Transportation Department also plans to install reflective markers on curves and to do improvements on various parts of the highway, although they told the legislators that some of the projects await funding.

There are more state trooper cars patrolling the highway this summer than in past years, and trooper officials told legislators at Tuesday's hearing that a positive step is that their problem of too many vacant positions has been solved.

The hearing also took up the issue of slow vehicles causing traffic to back up, leading frustrated drivers to attempt questionable passing maneuvers. It's against Alaska law to hold up five or more vehicles, and Martindale said DOT is looking for low-cost spots to build more turnouts.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan brought up the possibility of a minimum speed limit, something that's done in other states. The DOT officials said they'd look into it.

Officials said that, statewide, the number of fatal crashes could actually be down this year. There have been 38 so far this year. That compares with 56 throughout all of 2008 and 75 fatal crashes in 2007.

But the Seward Highway has been particularly deadly this summer. So far, eight people have died on the highway since May -- two of those deaths took place in Anchorage. The rest were killed on the road between Potter Marsh and Turnagain Pass

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

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