It is, for all intents and purposes, a vehicular "perfect storm": no shoulders, blind curves, steep ditches and narrow traffic lanes.
It has been, and remains, a 25-mile stretch of road that is the setting for parents’ worst nightmares, semi and oversized cargo transport drivers' anguish and most anxious moments for first responders, who work the crashes and other emergencies with increasing frequency. It has been the scene of both death and destruction.
Welcome to Kansas Highway 383 North.
This dangerous stretch of highway that begins at its intersection with US-36 highway in northwest Kansas lacks hard-surfaced shoulders, as well as guardrails and reflective signs on curves. It has many series of hills with limited visibility, sharp dropoffs and high traffic volume that add up to dangerous driving for both commercial and domestic travelers.
Norton County EMS now uses alternate, longer routes for transporting patients to Kearney, Neb., because of the unsafe conditions. Local trucking companies have also been known to take the longer routes in inclement weather to avoid the wide-load and super-load traffic on K-383.
Additionally, many of the products managed through the logistical services at the Garden City Transloading Facility, as well as other agricultural and manufactured products from Finney County, are transported throughout the western half of Kansas. It is also the shortest route from Garden City to Omaha, Neb., and serves as a main artery for products to get to the southwest United States.
“With the continued flooding in Nebraska, over-the-road haulers were looking for a shortcut between Kansas I-70 and Nebraska I-80,” said Jeff Calloway, Almena fire chief and first responder. “Put that with huge overweight cargo similar to wind turbines and engines that are running about 16 feet wide, well, that doesn’t leave much margin for error along a highway that’s only 23 feet wide and has no hard- or soft-surfaced shoulders.”
Calloway said emergency vehicles have trouble passing motorists as there is no place for the traffic to pull over to make room for them. Whenever there is a crash, both sides of K-383 have to be shut down as firetrucks and ambulances have to park on the highway while working at the scene.
“With the continued increase in traffic, which I don’t ever see diminishing, we need the infrastructure to be expanded to include solid material shoulders and passing and turning lanes added that would help provide a much needed and safer environment to work when accidents and emergencies do happen,” Calloway said.
Brad Harding, owner/operator of New Look Paint & Body in Norton, says whenever he is called out on a tow truck assignment, whether it is a flat tire or a vehicle crash, he has to block a lane of traffic, restricting traffic flow to assist a motorist, because there is no shoulder for cars or the tow truck to be located out of the way of oncoming traffic.
“This is very uncomfortable and has always caused us to have safety concerns,” Harding said. “Widening this section of Highway 383 would go a long way to improve safety for motorists, accident victims and the response crews.”
Saving lives across the board
Loss of life is not new to this section of asphalt roadway.
On Oct. 7, 2008, a car driven by Northern Valley High School alumnus and college freshman Amanda Turman collided head-on with a school bus carrying 20 children to their respective schools that morning. Turman was killed in the crash, and the students were taken to a makeshift triage at the Long Island Community Center. The children suffered mostly bumps and bruises, and most of them were released to their parents.
Authorities believe Turman had pulled over a bit to accommodate the oncoming school bus when her vehicle’s tires caught the highway’s edge. She overcorrected, lost control and hit the school bus head-on.
“As a staff person at USD 212 at the time of that accident, I witnessed the impact it had on the students, other faculty members and entire families,” said Glenda Smith, of Long Island. “Today, I have grandchildren in school buses and the older grandkids in other vehicles who travels that route twice daily as does Kelvin and me. You worry and just hope and pray everyone is paying attention to the road and the oncoming traffic.”
Kelvin, who also drives a semi in his line of work, nodded in agreement. It doesn’t take much for a big truck to roll, he said.
“I have nowhere to go and neither does the other driver," he said. "And this is a daily occurrence for us and everyone else who lives along the highway.”
Since 2013, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation and Kansas Highway Patrol, there have been over 300 crashes on K-383 in Norton and Phillips counties. Of those, over 275 have resulted in property damage. There have been three fatalities.
According to KDOT Traffic Flow Maps from 2013-18, total traffic volume has increased 54.6% on K-383 from the US-36 highway junction to Almena and 62.7% from Almena to the Nebraska state line. During the same time period, heavy commercial traffic has increased 44.4% and 19.7%, respectively.
The volume of heavy commercial vehicles includes a dangerous and high percentage of special permitted wide-loads, oversized, overweight and super-load transportation. Meanwhile, traffic volumes across an adjacent section of US-36 have dropped over that same five years.
Current modernization plan
The modernization of K-383 in both Norton and Phillips counties is the last section to be updated.
Budget cuts and underfunding of highways for the past eight years has put any fixes off into the future. Under current planning, K-383 is not slated to begin undergoing upgrades until 2022, overtaking original plans to begin construction in 2018.
According to a report prepared by Mike Posson, executive director of Norton City/County Economic Development and Nick Poels, executive director of Phillips County Economic Development for the Kansas Legislative Research Department Joint Legislative Transportation Vision Task Force, the work needs to go beyond the cosmetic fixes first proposed for this stretch of highway.
The report encouraged widening the highway, reducing the curves, grading for better sight-distance, providing passing and turning lanes and possible access management with right-of-way acquisition.
Both Posson and Poels agree it is time to finish what has been started. The road, a primary corridor for trucking that connects two counties and two states, is the only section that has not been modernized.
For many, this hazardous last section that lacks the safe road basics of shoulders, guardrails, reflective signs on curves and has many series of hills with limited visibility and narrow lanes, it is really about the safety of future generations of grandchildren and motorists.
“As an administrator, transportation director, patron and parent of USD 212, I have been and continue to be concerned over the safety of our students when traveling on Highway 383,” said Marvin Gebhard, pre-K through eighth grade principal at Northern Valley schools. “It is past time to fix this highway.”