Voices of Alaska: Road closures after traffic crashes a necessity

  • By Col. James Cockrell
  • Tuesday, August 18, 2015 1:27pm
  • Opinion
Col. James Cockrell

Col. James Cockrell

Recently, we Alaskans have experienced several tragic fatal traffic crashes on our highways around Southcentral Alaska, which forced the Alaska State Troopers (AST) to close the affected sections of the highway while we completed our investigations. It is the duty of AST to complete a thorough investigation to determine potential criminal and/or civil liability. There are specific protocols and procedures established to ensure each incident is properly investigated. AST is fully aware of the consequences when we need to close the highway for our investigation. Based upon the many calls and emails that we receive from the motoring public after a highway closure, I would like to address some of those concerns.

Members of AST constantly seek to professionally enforce the traffic laws and keep the motoring public safe. However, despite our best efforts, traffic crashes still occur, lives are lost, people are injured and millions of dollars in damages accumulate each year. In addition to the tragic loss of lives, a serious traffic crash on a major thoroughfare, like the Seward Highway, can result in many hours lost by travelers stuck in a long line of traffic, waiting for the road to reopen so they can complete their travel. AST completely empathizes with the frustration felt by the public when roadways are blocked for extended periods of time due to these collisions.

During the course of any given year, AST responds to an average of 40 fatal vehicle crashes throughout the state, not to mention thousands of additional crashes that result in injuries and/or damaged property. These crashes can produce results that range from a complete shut-down of all road surfaces due to collision debris and human injuries, to maintaining the flow of traffic and simply clearing vehicles off the road.

Troopers respond to these incidents and work diligently to document and clear the scene in a thorough, efficient and timely manner. This is accomplished through collision investigation and reconstruction training, technological advances in scene-processing equipment, and a coordinated approach to managing traffic crashes. While there is always room for improvement, AST is constantly looking at ways to make our roads safer by removing any obstacles that might slow the flow of traffic after a crash occurs.

Recent public inquiries received by AST make it apparent that a large number of motorists feel there is a lack of consideration from the troopers in regards to allowing traffic through while processing a crash scene. Contrary to this assumption, your troopers are keenly aware of each traffic stoppage and do everything in their power to open the road as quickly as possible. A crash investigation can often involve painting the road to identify the important crash indicators, taking photos, and clearing the road of debris.

When vehicle crashes occur, your troopers need to consider a number of factors, chief among them are the safety of everyone involved. This includes the crash victims, first responders, motorists, and potentially pedestrians. A coordinated effort from all the responding parties is required to ensure the crash is appropriately documented and investigated before the road can be reopened for normal use. Merely opening one lane of traffic doesn’t often work due to the high probability of a secondary crash (rubberneckers) or potential harm to your troopers working the scene.

One of AST’s primary goals is to prevent collisions before they occur. This can be accomplished to a certain degree through increased patrol enforcement efforts. However, despite our best efforts, AST is simply not able to significantly increase the number of dedicated patrol units on the highways at this time.

Alaska’s geography presents challenges that simply don’t exist in other parts of the country. If a crash happens in certain stretches of our highways, there is often no other way to route traffic around the crash. Usually these situations draw more attention as they usually occur during busy times of the day on high traffic roadways. Unfortunately, frustrated motorists often flood our dispatch centers voicing their displeasure about being stuck in traffic. This only diverts the dispatcher’s attention from answering higher-priority calls and assisting troopers working the crash scene.

In closing, I would ask each of you to please do your part while driving our highways: Drive defensively, wear your seatbelts, observe the posted speed limits and enjoy the best Alaska has to offer and its beautiful scenery. If you get caught in an unfortunate road closure, please remember that these tragic accidents involve someone’s family member or loved one. What seems like a long wait to you is nothing compared to the life-altering effects on the families of those directly involved. Thank you.

Col. James Cockrell is Director of the Division of Alaska State Troopers.

More in Opinion

Heidi Drygas, executive director of the 8,000-member Alaska State Employees Association, addresses a rally outside the Alaska State Capitol on Feb. 10, 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)
Let’s stop the ‘Neglect. Panic. Repeat.’ cycle of public service delivery

The payroll section is one of several state agencies in crisis

This photo shows Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jim Cockrell. (Courtesy photo / Office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy)
Strengthening Alaska through service: Join the Alaska State Troopers

The law enforcement positions within the Department of Public Safety fill a critical need within our community

A tabletop voting booth is seen next to a ballot box at the Kenai city clerk’s office on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, in Kenai, Alaska. (Peninsula Clarion file)
Opinion: Last call to voice your vote!

We will see you at the polls Oct. 3

LaDawn Druce asks Sen. Jesse Bjorkman a question during a town hall event on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Opinion: Addressing Kenai Peninsula’s education and public safety employee shortage

Many of our best and brightest educators take a hard and close look at the teacher’s retirement system in Alaska early in their careers and are stunned

Deven Mitchell, executive director of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation (Courtesy photo)
Opinion: Providing for generations of Alaskans

As a public endowment, the wealth of the Fund is the responsibility of every resident of the state

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney greet each other outside the chamber at the U.S. Capitol on April 5, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP file photo)
Opinion: Alaska’s senators and Mitt Romney

When newly elected Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, began his term five years… Continue reading

UAA Provost Denise Runge photographed outside the Administration and Humanities Building.
Opinion: UAA offers affordable and convenient pathways that prepare students for the next step

At UAA, we provide numerous academic programs designed to meet specific workforce needs

A line of voters runs out the door of the Diamond Ridge Voting Precinct at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center on Election Day, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, in Homer, Alaska. Chamber Executive Director Brad Anderson said he had never seen the amount of people coming through the polling place. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
How many ways can you vote?

Multiple ballot options available to voters

scales of justice (File photo)
Opinion: The Dubious Dunleavy Deal to use public dollars for personal legal costs

In 2019, these regulation changes were ultimately abandoned without public notice

A 2022 voter information pamphlet rests on a desk in the Peninsula Clarion offices on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Where to find voter pamphlets

Be educated about what you are voting on

Trustees and staff discuss management and investment of the Alaska Permanent Fund. (Courtesy Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation)
Providing Alaska-based opportunities for professional talent

Expanding our in-state presence by opening a satellite office in Anchorage has been part of the fund’s strategic plan for the past four years