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Highway 97 ‘an accident waiting to happen’

Staff Writer | August 23, 2020 1:20 AM

Jerrell Snell had been worried a vehicle could go off Highway 97 near Carlin Bay and strike his family’s RV.

So when it happened the evening of Aug. 13, he was both thankful and upset.

Thankful, there were no injuries.

“Thank God we were not on site and doubly blessed this didn’t happen at 2 a.m. on a weekend night, when our kids would have been sleeping,” Snell said.

“The driver is unharmed. All in all health-wise everyone is OK, thank God.”

Snell is upset because he had, in April, asked the Idaho Transportation Department about installing a guardrail along the highway in that location due to the drop-off and proximity to his family’s RV, and was denied. He said he offered to pay part of the costs.

“I expressed additional concern that if a car were to go off the road and hit our trailer, it could be tragic because the end of the trailer that would be hit would be where my two kids sleep,” he wrote to The Press.

He believes there should be more guardrails along Highway 97, as it is a roadway of twists and turns and steep hillsides.

“Not just to protect drivers from going over a cliff but the folks’ property and dwellings below the road on these cliffs,” Snell wrote. “We were very fortunate, in the grand scheme of things, the trailer means nothing and can be repaired or replaced, but the next accident may not be so lucky.”

Megan Sausser, ITD public information officer, said there are many factors that go into determining whether to install guardrails. One is space, and another is whether they would be protecting the public from a greater hazard than a guardrail could create.

The area where Snell wants a guardrail does not have sufficient space, she said, so putting one in would require widening, engineering and redesigning the road. That could easily cost several hundred thousand dollars, she said.

“Our goal is a safe highway. Any time there’s a request for a guardrail we are more than happy to look into it,” Sausser said. “Any crash is not what we want.”

The area where Snell’s RV was hit, between milepost 79.9 and 80.1, was accident-free from 2015 to 2019 and is on a straight stretch of Highway 97.

Sausser said the majority of Highway 97 does not have guardrails due to lack of space, as it’s already a narrow, two-lane road.

Drivers tend to shy away from guardrails and move more to the center of the road to avoid them. Putting one in where there is lack of space could create “an greater hazard to the general public.”

“The job of the guardrail is to bump them back on the road,” Sausser said.

The accident raised another disputed issue.

Sausser said ITD last year granted Snell an access permit from his property to Highway 97, but part of the permit’s requirement was that he could not disturb the right of way.

She said it appears the RV was illegally parked in the right of way, and that he did excavation work that affected the integrity of the slope off the highway’s edge near their RV.

That could lead to problems under heavy rainfall conditions, she said.

“We have to look at the road because it might be compromised,” Sausser said.

ITD notified Snell of the alleged permit violation. Sausser said the issue could be resolved if he repairs it.

Snell on Friday denied violating the permit and said he did not do any excavation work.

“I haven’t touched that dirt at all,” he said. “I have done nothing against what they asked us to do.”

Snell said he bought the property in October 2017. The former owner parked a camper at a lower spot on the property, but Snell said his RV was too big to navigate it to the lower location, so he had to park it at the higher spot.

The family goes there on weekends in the summer to get out on Lake Coeur d’Alene. Their boat is kept on a dock below.

“We’re not rich,” he said. “We want to make the most use of that property.”

Snell works in information technology and said he routinely analyzes what could go wrong.

“I assess everything I’m around,” he said.

Highway 97 next to his RV caught his attention. He said it would be “a rarity someone would go over the road right there, “but it’s a chance” so he asked ITD about the guardrail.

Snell, of Spokane, said the family planned to be at the property the weekend of the accident.

“Fortunately, no one was there,” he said. “That corner is where my son’s head would have been laying. It absolutely could have been tragic.”

Snell said they can’t use the property without the RV.

“Right now it’s just a scratch of dirt with a boat down below,” he said. “I think our summer is pretty much done.”

The 2019 RV was towed to a Spokane shop to determine the damage and if it can be repaired. The driver involved in the accident was cited, Snell said, and was also insured.

The Idaho State Police declined to release the accident report, saying it was still under investigation.

Snell said he hopes something good comes from the accident: That “everyone drives a little bit safer out there.”

“We need to look at the safety of our community,” he said.


Photo courtesy Jerrell Snell Highway 97 runs above the property owned by Jerrell Snell, where his RV was struck by a driver on Aug. 13.