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Deadly gamble: Crashes and deaths increase on US 93, highway to Las Vegas

US 93
Posted at 9:46 PM, May 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 11:19:33-04

WICKENBURG, AZ — The number of crashes and deaths is increasing on US 93, northwest of Wickenburg, where a fiery collision last month killed two people and injured five others, including a state trooper.

We found the drive on the 79-mile stretch from milepost 199 in Wickenburg to milepost 120 north of Wikieup can be a deadly gamble for drivers.

With approximately 10,000 cars a day and 248 accidents in 2019, the odds of a wreck are about 1 per every 15,000 cars. Watch an interactive map below showing these crashes as they occurred in 2019.

US 93 is the main travel route between Phoenix and Las Vegas. It is also the proposed route for Interstate 11.

According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, more than $500 million was spent in recent years to improve the highway, including upgrading portions from a two-lane to a four-lane, divided freeway. About 34 miles remain two-lane road.

A driver died Thursday morning in a head-on crash near milepost 179, a two-lane section of the road, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Troopers said a Honda passenger van was traveling northbound on US 93 when the van drifted left of center, into the southbound lane. The van's driver died after colliding with a semi-truck traveling southbound. The highway was closed for several hours during the investigation.

The ABC15 Investigators spent weeks analyzing crash data, asking about ADOT highway improvement projects, talking to first responders, and reaching out to families of the victims.

TROOPER-INVOLVED CRASH

On April 30, good Samaritans rescued Trooper Casey Rhinehart from his burning police cruiser near milepost 174.

“I could hear the screaming,” said Russell Christensen, who stopped to help.

Carolee Ervien’s car was one of four involved in the crash. She was uninjured and was the first person to reach Rhinehart.

“I was able to grab onto the top half of the door and pulled it open enough to where I got a hold of the trooper,” Ervien said.

“We were falling all over the place just trying to drag him and get him away,” Christensen added.

It was 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, and the crash was miles from even the smallest town. It’s a place where cell phones and police radios have little or no service.

“The good Samaritans had to drive away from the scene to make a phone call to let the DPS dispatchers know that they had a trooper that was down and needed help,” said Jeff Hawkins, president of the Arizona State Troopers Association.

Firefighters from Congress arrived to triage seven victims.

They've handled mass casualties on this highway before. Fire Chief Virgil Suitor acknowledges his firefighter/EMTs have to make life-and-death decisions.

“We start working on the severely injured patients - the ones that we know are going to make it - and that's all we can do,” Suitor said.

That night, Catherine Winegar, 43, of Tucson, and Alexis Wilson, 23, of Chandler, died. The trooper was airlifted to a trauma center and was released from the hospital several days later.

MOST DANGEROUS HIGHWAY IN AMERICA?

Memorial crosses dot the roadside of US 93 showing where people died in crashes over the years.

There have been 35 deaths in vehicle crashes on the highway from Wickenburg to Wikieup in the six-year period from 2015 to 2020, according to data from ADOT and DPS.

There were several years of declining fatalities in this area, then a sharp increase in 2020 when 9 people died.

The people who died include Valley UPS driver Arthur Perez in 2019, Veronica Wood, who never made it home to Goodyear in 2017, and brothers Jackson and Cameron Clark, ages 11 and 6, who were killed on a family road trip in 2020.

Congress's fire chief said there are too many impatient drivers and risky passing, especially on the two-lane section shown in red on the map below.

"I can tell you that most of our wrecks we go on after or within a mile of a passing zone," said Chief Suitor.

ADOT improvement projects have included widening most of the 200 miles of US 93, which highway officials said should improve safety. Additional improvement projects at the I-40 interchange in Kingman and the widening to four lanes through Wickenburg are scheduled for contract bidding in the fall.

First responders told ABC15 the wider, straighter highway led to faster speeds and that factored into different kinds of crashes.

"When it was two lanes, you know, it's more head-on collisions we were seeing, now it's rollovers," said Williamson Valley-Bagdad Fire District Battalion Chief Mike Love.

"Every road that we build or maintain is done to federal safety standards, and the vast majority of crashes are due to driver behavior," said ADOT spokesman Doug Nick.

ADOT crash data showed, between Wickenburg to Wikieup, there were 181 total crashes in 2015. The number grew nearly 40 percent in four years to 248 crashes in 2019. Track crashes on this stretch of US 93 from 2015-2019 in the map below.

"I think it's just more traffic," Suitor said. "It seems like it's getting worse."

Firefighter and ambulance response times also play a factor in the danger of the highway.

If you crash near an area called Nothing at milepost 148, the closest medical help is in Bagdad, where the Williamson Valley Fire District station is a nearly 30-minute drive down a winding, hilly state highway.

"In a perfect world, we've got ambulances that are within 10 minutes, no matter where you're at," said Deputy Chief Anthony Tunis with the Williamson Valley-Bagdad Fire District. "That's not realistic. This is rural Arizona."

The combination of fatalities and long average ambulance wait times led consumer website Value Penguin to name US 93 the most dangerous highway in the United States in 2018.

ENFORCEMENT ROADBLOCKS

After receiving the "most dangerous" moniker, US 93 continued to see an increase in crashes and a decrease in traffic law enforcement.

Criminal traffic charges and civil traffic tickets dropped significantly in the area in 2020, according to an ABC15 analysis of filings in the Bagdad-Yarnell Justice Court.

The court's rural Yavapai County jurisdiction includes most of the US 93 from Wickenburg to Wikieup, and historically, the bulk of tickets filed in court come from DPS troopers.

The court's criminal traffic cases dropped from 677 in 2018, to 475 in 2019, to 198 in 2020. Civil traffic filings were also down in 2020, with 960 tickets, compared to 1,602 tickets in 2019 and 1,485 tickets in 2018. It's unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role in the enforcement decrease, and traffic court filings trended up in early 2021.

Trooper staffing is so low in Wickenburg that there's usually just one trooper on patrol and, frequently, no troopers patrolling US 93 near Wickenburg after 1 a.m., according to Hawkins,

"It's not acceptable," Hawkins said. "We, as a state, need to provide better customer service. We need to take care of our citizens.

Hawkins is lobbying the state legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey for higher trooper pay to help with recruiting. Hawkins urged a 12 percent pay raise to help convince people to apply for one of the nearly 300 trooper vacancies. He's also pushing for upgrades to radio dispatch in the area, so first responders don't have communication dead spots.

"We'll find out when they released their budget whether or not they're concerned about our roadways in Arizona," Hawkins said.

DPS officials declined on-camera interviews. In an email, they said slowing down drivers on US 93 is a high priority and there was a target speed enforcement detail in March, a month before a vehicle hit Trooper Rhinehart

First responders are urging drivers to help lower the stakes by obeying the speed limit, waiting for passing lanes, and stopping if drowsy.

Got a news tip? Email ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius at Melissa.Blasius@abc15.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.