I remember driving to Pahrump for the first time nearly 23 years ago when it was still a two-lane highway known as the “Widow Maker,” so named for the amount of fatal crashes experienced along that stretch.
During the past two decades, the state widened the stretch of state Route 160 on the Pahrump side to four lanes with a wide median in the middle.
Now, approximately two decades later, work will begin soon on the 11 miles from the Red Rock turnoff into Mountain Springs. It has been exactly one year this month since the Nevada Department of Transportation held public hearings on the $30 million project that will widen the highway to four lanes, adding a median and shoulders, as well as bike lanes.
The changes have come too late for too many families, the latest being that of a 61-year-old Henderson man who was killed in a head-on collision on Sunday on that stretch of highway.
Patrick Denley was a passenger in a Ford Focus heading down the mountain towards Las Vegas when it was struck by a Pontiac Bonneville that had traveled into his lane to pass slower drivers.
I witness this same maneuver nearly every day I drive to and from work from my house in Henderson.
Monday night I was coming down the Vegas-side of the hump and I look up to see an SUV in what appeared to be my lane coming right at me. It was hard to tell because it was twilight and the other driver did not have his lights on. The driver merged back into his lane a good distance before we would have hit, but it is still a little unnerving. The uncertainty of these situations also causes me to slow down suddenly, which opens me up to getting hit from behind.
Another example came Tuesday morning on my drive into work. I was driving the westbound lane toward the hump when I got stuck behind a pickup truck loaded with a ladder and other handyman equipment. Needless to say, traffic was stacking up behind this vehicle. I was three vehicles back until two vehicles merged into the eastbound lane to pass. There was no traffic coming from the other direction at that moment so they passed with ease. That left me next behind the pickup.
Due to my familiarity with the road, I knew the route would expand to two westbound lanes up the mountain in nearly a mile. I also was aware I was closing in on the location where Sunday’s fatal crash happened. However, someone behind me wasn’t as patient.
A motorcyclist decided to pass not only myself, but the pickup in front of me in one move. The eastbound lane was not as clear as it had been for the other two passing vehicles, but the motorcyclist was able to pass us both seconds before reaching the oncoming traffic. It was one of those surreal, slow-motion moments.
Between Nov. 30, 2006 and Nov. 30, 2011, there have been 91 crashes between the Red Rock turn-off and where Denley died Sunday. There were another 189 the next 5 ½ miles up the mountain. According to the state, 109 were injury crashes with 148 injuries. There were 10 fatal crashes with 12 deaths.
No one should be led to believe that the four-lane highway will lead to zero crashes and zero fatalities. An astonishing 195 of the mentioned crashes were non-collision, ran-off-the-road type resulting in seven of the 12 deaths.
But fatal crashes like the one Sunday that took one life and sent two more to the hospital will surely decrease.
Arnold M. Knightly is the editor of the Pahrump Valley Times