Wyoming remains the least-populated state in the nation, but the lowest population doesn't mean the lowest amount of traffic. And as traffic increases, some Wyomingites feel they’re less safe on the road.
It's easy for some regions of the state to feel overlooked regarding highway improvements. One of these areas that's becoming an increasing concern for local commuters is the stretch of U.S. Route 85 between Yoder and Torrington.
On Aug. 11, a pickup traveling on U.S. 85 struck a motorcycle head-on while attempting to pass another vehicle. The riders on the motorcycle, Colorado residents Leslie and Linda Thayer, died at the scene.
On Sept. 1, former Wyoming House Speaker Nels Smith and his wife Jeanette died on U.S. 85 north of Lingle when their vehicle crossed the center line and collided with another vehicle. The driver of the other vehicle, Alicia Rodriguez, also was killed.
As traffic increases, the two-lane highway stays the same, which many regular commuters on U.S. 85 say is made more dangerous because of its layout, which contributed to these and other crashes.
Close Calls On ‘The Gauntlet’
Jess Oaks travels Route 85 between Torrington and Yoder daily. After years of near-misses and dodging reckless drivers, she calls that daily drive "The Gauntlet."
"Every day I drive this road, I feel like I have a close call. If it isn't for the truckers running in groups, making others impatient, it's the out-of-staters that are driving over 85 mph," she told Cowboy State Daily.
Oaks said the road’s infrastructure multiplies the consequences of bad driving. Most of the 13-mile stretch is only two lanes despite the increasing traffic volume and a speed limit of 70 mph.
"People have absolutely zero respect for any driving rules,” Oaks said. “There have been cars flying by me that I know were going well over 85 mph. People don't use their headlights, pass when it clearly says not to, pass multiple cars, etc.
“There was a motorcycle that passed eight different vehicles one afternoon, and during that time, they spent at least 40% of the time in a (lane) clearly marked ‘no passing.’”
Michael McNamee, chairman of the Goshen County Commissioners, said he’s had his own harrowing experiences on Route 85. He once stopped to help a motorcyclist who had been in a crash who died, along with another person.
“I never feel safe on that road. I hate that road,” he told Cowboy State Daily.
McNamee has adapted to become the kind of driver he feels is necessary to stay safe on the stretch of U.S. 85 between Yoder and Torrington. But he also sees that he’s in the minority.
“I’ve learned to be a defensive driver on that stretch of highway,” he said. “I feel that’s what everybody needs to do, but the more I travel it, the more I see people don’t approach that highway in that way.”
Drivers usually slow down if they catch sight of a law enforcement officer waiting along the road, and the Wyoming Highway Patrol and Goshen County Sheriff's Office patrol the area. But Oaks feels they need to do more to deter speeding drivers, particularly those from out of state.
"I don't understand how so many people scrape by not following the rules right in front of police officers, sheriff's deputies and Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers on a daily basis,” Oaks said.
“I realize that they're short-staffed, just like the rest of us in the community. But that doesn't mean that our safety should come last. The lack of their involvement in this community really is putting us in harm's way," she said.
Numbers Aren't Adding Up
Mark Ayen, Wyoming Department of Transportation District 2 engineer, says the department is aware of the crashes and near-misses on U.S. 85, but nothing suggests the highway needs large-scale changes.
"It has not come up on our radar as becoming a severe hot spot for accidents. We have a couple of intersections that we have talked to the (Goshen County) commissioners about, but as far as the entire corridor, (we haven't) talked about needing passing lanes or anything like that," he said.
Ayen said WYDOT has addressed those intersections on a "spot basis" by changing signage. Anything beyond that would need to be justified by the statistics WYDOT already collects.
"We keep track of accidents (with) databases and a safety management system,” he said. “If that starts to flag that we have a concern, then it will pop up on our radar, and we would address it.”
According to WYDOT's State Transportation Improvement Program, the only projects planned for U.S. Route 85 between Yoder and Torrington are overlays scheduled for 2029. There are no plans for any major infrastructure changes like passing lanes.
Money Goes Where Traffic Flows
Wyoming State Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, also drives Route 85 regularly. While she has no direct control over making changes, she sees how traffic has increased and believes the region could use a more thorough review.
"Living in the community and traveling U.S. 85 on a consistent basis, it seems like traffic has increased. (But) the Legislature does not allocate funds concerning WYDOT and state highways. Allocation of resources and projects is the purview of the Transportation Commission appointed by the governor," Steinmetz said.
Ayen is anecdotally aware of traffic increases between Yoder and Torrington, but not to the degree that there are any capacity issues.
The time of year also matters when it comes to traffic volumes. Ayen and Steinmetz mentioned how the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has increased the number of motorcycles on the highway from late July to early August.
Steinmetz sees the region's growing prosperity as another contributor to increased traffic, but one that won't be relegated to a season.
"As local residents know, we always see a dramatic increase, especially in motorcycle traffic, during Sturgis,” she said. “Business growth in Yoder has also contributed to traffic on Hwy 85. It might be a good time for WYDOT to re-evaluate traffic flow and adjust resources accordingly.”
McNamee has observed an increase in traffic on all of Highway 85. But since it’s a state highway, there’s only so much the county can do to address its safety issues.
“There’s always concerns with safety on Highway 85 from Cheyenne to Newcastle,” he said. “The amount of traffic on a two-lane highway does create a lot of concern for people. Conversations have been had about it, but I hope people understand that’s a concern that needs to be presented to the state highway department and something they will need to address. “
For McNamee, U.S. 85 is an excellent example of a road that has seen some alterations and changes for the better, and its condition has never been a problem. But more significant improvements could go a long way to increase safety and save lives.
“I don’t know if that road is worthy of becoming a four-lane highway, but it should always be on the radar for additional improvements,” he said. “Because of its history and the tragic things that have happened on (‘The Gauntlet’), I hope they’re always looking for ways to improve it and make it safer.”
As a local resident and daily commuter, Oaks has her own ideas on how to improve U.S. 85.
"They put tons and tons of passing lanes through the southern end of Highway 85 in this area. They need to do that with the northern end of this area too," she said.
Oaks also hopes law enforcement officers will be more vigilant about stopping and ticketing speeding drivers. That way, more crashes and near-misses might be prevented.
Even if U.S. 85 between Yoder and Torrington starts seeing the numbers necessary to get on WYDOT's radar, it would be several years before any significant changes are made.
That's not soon enough for Oaks.
"It's pretty unfortunate that I now refer to Highway 85 as 'The Gauntlet,’” she said. “I feel much safer taking a dirt road. This highway desperately needs attention.”
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.