This article has been updated to include a statement from a Google spokesperson.
GIRARD — Following a series of recent semi truck accidents on highway K-7 north of Girard, county officials are looking for solutions to the problem — but between the state agency responsible for maintaining the road, the truck drivers themselves, and possibly the navigation systems or phone apps they are using, it is difficult to say who bears the most responsibility for the wrecks.
South of Girard, K-7 has shoulder on either side of the road, but north of town the road narrows, with no shoulder and ditches on both sides, leaving “no room for error” for motorists and especially for truckers driving on the road, Crawford County Sheriff Danny Smith said this week.
At last Friday’s Crawford County Commission meeting, County Counselor Jim Emerson said he had recently discussed the problem with George Dockery, area engineer with the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT).
“I told him that we were interested in seeing if there was anything we could do regarding K-7,” Emerson said.
Dockery told him the governor’s office has now been told about the issue, which it was not previously aware of, Emerson said.
A $46 million expansion of K-7 from Girard to the county’s northern border, however, is already a project included in the state’s recently approved 10-year transportation program, Emerson said, and county officials stressed the importance of the project at a meeting with KDOT officials in Pittsburg last October. A $42 million expansion of the highway on the Bourbon County side of the county line is also included in the 10-year plan.
“I’m foreseeing, with the [US Highway] 69 project starting, a massive change in flow for 7, and that’s going to be for multiple years,” Crawford County Commissioner Bruce Blair said, “so the sooner the better.”
At lower levels of government, Emerson said, one of the most important things for agencies such as the Kansas Highway Patrol and the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office to do is to document the wrecks, which they have been doing.
“I’ve been compiling our own information because I sent something up to the state also, but so far we’ve had nine semis on their sides or rolled over,” Sheriff Smith said at Tuesday’s county commission meeting. “And that’s just this year.”
Truck accidents on K-7 have “been an issue ever since they made the enhancements down on south 7 Highway,” Smith said. “Essentially what’s really going on that we have seen and have got from some people from the state is that if you take your phone and you get the directions from Tulsa to Kansas City, it has them going through Girard. And so, you know, if you’re a trucker from not from this area and you’re traveling from south 7 up here and then you get north of Girard you’re like ‘Oh man, this is not a good spot to be.’ And obviously that’s what we’re finding out.”
Both trucking companies and KDOT are “trying to work on the GPS issue,” Emerson said last week.
Smith said that while there has luckily only been one truck accident involving injuries, and they were minor injuries, the dangerous stretch of highway is costing the county a significant amount of resources.
“I haven’t even compiled the man hours that it’s taken when the highway’s been shut down,” he said. “And we’ve had times up there where we’ve got deputies up there for six, seven, eight hours. You have traffic, you have firemen up there doing that. A lot of times we get KDOT and they get up there and do a really good job of blocking the highways for us also, but there’s just no room for error for the truckers once they get up there. If you have two of them that are passing each other, one moves over and drops a tire off, they’re either sucked in from the ditch or they over-correct and they roll, and 90 percent of the time that’s what happens, and that's what we’ve seen.”
Smith said his top concern is the safety of drivers traveling on the highway.
“If there’s something they can do at the state level to show that that’s a narrow highway so if they’re following the GPS it’s showing that it’s a narrower road so it would direct them, you know, a different way, I think that would take care of a big chunk of the issue,” he said.
If there’s something that can be done to keep GPS systems or navigation apps from directing people — especially truckers — from taking the route along K-7 north of Girard “that would be huge,” Smith said. “But essentially the only thing that’s really going to fix this is getting some enhancements on the north part too, because like I said, there is no room for error.”
Smith said truck traffic headed south on the dangerous stretch of K-7 is also a problem.
“I can tell you this, the last one that I went to, I went to the north side of the wreck and there was no less than 25 semis southbound out of Fort Scott in that area that we had to turn around,” he said. “And so the traffic, if you pay attention to it, it’s going both ways and a lot of it, that’s what they’re doing is they’re following their GPS.”
Getting GPS or navigation apps to send drivers on another route “would probably be the quickest fix” Smith said. “Like I said I did it on my phone just to see and sure as heck it brings you through Girard and catching 69 the other way, so if there’s some adjustment they can make, you know, with Google Maps or GPS or however they do that, I don’t know who that’s through,” it could provide a temporary solution to the problem.
Google said in a statement Thursday afternoon that semi truck drivers should not necessarily be using Google Maps.
"We've designed Google Maps for drivers of standard-sized vehicles, and don't currently include routing tailored to drivers of oversized vehicles," a Google spokesperson said in an email. "We encourage these drivers to use navigation tools designed specifically for their vehicle type. As always, users can send feedback to notify us of any inaccuracies in the map."