Truck accidents on highway K-7 north of Girard are a recurring problem, with another semi rollover in September bringing the total for the year to more than a dozen, but a long-term solution is likely still years away.
State and county officials have pointed to the narrowness of the section of road and its lack of a shoulder, along with truck drivers’ reliance on navigation apps that don’t take into account the width of the road or have inaccurate data about it in their databases, as causes for the repeated wrecks.
Wayne Gudmonson, Kansas Department of Transportation District 4 engineer, gave the Crawford County Commission an update on the issue this week at its Tuesday meeting, noting that after considering completely reconstructing the road, KDOT is now looking into the possibility of simply adding a shoulder to it and working on reducing the grade of the slopes beyond the shoulder.
"When we first brought K-7 up they talked about reconstructing it, and from Girard up to the county line it’s about 11 miles and it was going to cost $46 million, and then from the county line on up to 69 that’s about 10 miles and that was going to cost $42 million," Gudmonson said.
Even with a less ambitious project "to kind of rehab" the road rather than fully reconstructing it, though, Gudmonson said a contract for the work will likely not be awarded until September of 2022.
"Now that’s kind of the best scenario, you know," he said. "We’re not sure what the worst case scenario would be."
Asked by Commissioner Bruce Blair if truckers driving too fast on K-7 were a significant part of the problem, Sheriff Danny Smith said that was not the main issue.
"You know they could always be going too fast on that, but I mean even when we’re up there a lot of times we’re not seeing a whole lot of violations," Smith said. "It’s mostly the narrowness of the road and the grade, and there’s no room for error."
Gudmonson said he’d been in touch with KDOT’s traffic engineering department and asked them to do a speed study for the hazardous section of K-7, which they would be doing, but he didn’t expect it to fix the problem.
"I don’t personally see us changing the speed limit," he said.
As officials including Smith have previously noted, Gudmonson said a major factor contributing to 18-wheeler crashes on K-7 is that navigation apps like Google Maps or GPS systems send them on the route, which is not safe for vehicles their size. He said that some navigation systems list the road as being 24 feet wide, when it is actually narrower than that.
"So our traffic engineering department has been trying to get in touch — and that is a real challenge at some of those huge companies like that — trying to get in touch with somebody to get that data in that database of theirs changed, because the road is not that wide," Gudmonson said.
"And trying to find the right person to get that changed, I don’t know where to go to find that, and neither does traffic engineering, because they have been working on it pretty much tirelessly."
Earlier this year, in response to an inquiry from the Morning Sun, Google said its app is not designed for use by semi truck drivers.
"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."
Given the length of time until K-7 can be made physically safe for larger vehicles, though, Smith said Tuesday that getting navigation apps to change their route guidance would be the best short-term solution.
"If we’re looking at two years best, I think the number one thing that will make the biggest difference is getting that off the GPS," he said.
In 2020 alone, Smith said, there have been 13 or 14 wrecks involving semis on the stretch of K-7 between Girard and US 69 in Bourbon County.
"We’ve just been lucky that nobody’s got killed," Smith said. "And that’s what my biggest concern is, that somebody is going to get killed. That there’s going to be a passenger car or something like that that gets involved in this, and usually those aren’t good results."