Driver charged in Sanish Fork highway explosion


    By Stephanie Schaerr

    Travis Stewart, the driver of a truck that exploded this summer after crashing on U.S. Highway 6 in Spanish Fork Canyon, was charged Tuesday with misdemeanor counts of causing a catastrophe, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. The explosion sent at least 20 people to the hospital, blew a 70-foot hole in the road, destroyed the truck and damaged nearby railroad tracks.

    Stewart, 30, of Rexburg, Idaho, was on the way from Spanish Fork to Oklahoma Aug. 10 when authorities say he took a turn too fast and the truck tipped over.

    But Utah”s stretch of U.S. Highway 6 is notorious across the nation as a road that takes no prisoners with its tight turns, close canyon walls and high travel speeds.

    In 2000, Reader”s Digest named the section of the national highway that runs through Spanish Fork Canyon one of the most dangerous roadways in the nation. Since then, the Utah Department of Transportation has taken measures to improve safety on the road, according to spokesman Nile Easton. He said the department has spent more than $100 million on improvements for the road, adding passing lanes and rumble strips, flattening curves and posting signs alerting drivers of upcoming passing lanes. He said these measures have decreased the yearly fatality rate on the road from the low teens to six or seven within recent years.

    Sgt. Brett Christensen, a Utah highway patrolman, said the highway patrol has placed more officers in the area to enforce the posted speed limits and to prevent aggressive driving.

    But people continue to die on Highway 6. The most recent death on the road occurred Friday when a 26-year-old man lost control of his Honda Civic around a left curve and hit a truck. The accident came just one day after a 55-year-old man ended up in the hospital after rolling his Mazda 626 on the highway in Spanish Fork Canyon.

    Stan Knapp, a sociology professor at BYU, said the highway needs more traffic lights in the canyon for cars entering the highway. His wife was involved in an accident there four years ago, and the intersection still has no traffic light.

    ?I sometimes wonder if they have to wait until somebody dies before they do anything about it,? he said.

    The Highway 6 Improvement Coalition, led by Kathy Justice, has been credited with raising awareness for the highway. Justice?s mother died on the highway in 1977.

    Sgt. Christensen said most of the accidents on U.S. Highway 6 are caused by excessive speeds around turns, unsafe passing and following too closely.

    ?It sounds trite, but it?s something we?ve been pounding the drum about for a long time now,? he said. ?The biggest thing [drivers] can do is slow down, not be so aggressive and not be in such a hurry.?

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