Safety of Ogden Canyon Road focus of scrutiny in wake of deadly accident

A truck on state Route 39, also known as Ogden Canyon Road, just east of Ogden on Monday. The safety of travel on the road is focus of scrutiny after an accident on the narrow, twisting road killed 2 on Saturday.

A truck on state Route 39, also known as Ogden Canyon Road, just east of Ogden on Monday. The safety of travel on the road is focus of scrutiny after an accident on the narrow, twisting road killed 2 on Saturday. (Tim Vandenack, KSL.com)


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OGDEN — The deadly accident last Saturday on Ogden Canyon Road is sparking debate about the safety of the narrow, winding roadway and talk among some about limiting commercial traffic in the stretch between Ogden and Pineview Reservoir.

The dangers of traveling the 5-mile section of state Route 39, as it's formally known, have "increased exponentially" as traffic flow has edged up over the years, said Todd Caron, a Huntsville resident. He launched an online petition in the wake of the accident that killed Richard Hendrickson, chief executive officer of Lifetime Products, and his 16-year-old daughter, Sally, calling for restrictions on commercial traffic along S.R. 39, maintained by the state.

Weber County Commissioner Gage Froerer, who has traversed the section almost daily for decades, suggested state roads officials consider restrictions on the sorts of commercial vehicles that can use the roadway on weekends during the summer, when traffic flow is highest. Traffic particularly spikes on summer weekends and holidays, he said, as motorists travel between Ogden and Pineview and Causey reservoirs, camping areas and other draws of the Ogden Valley.

Saturday's accident occurred when a bulldozer somehow "broke free" of the eastbound tow truck hauling it as the driver negotiated a right-hand curve, landing on the westbound pickup in which Hendrickson and his daughter were traveling, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety. State officials released little new information as the probe into the matter continues. Three others in the Hendrickson vehicle, including the man's wife and two of his kids, survived.

"We are investigating what securement there was," Utah Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Cameron Roden said, referencing how the bulldozer was secured to the tow truck. "It appears whatever securement there was failed."

The deadly accident has prompted an outpouring of grief and support for surviving family members. In response, officials from Uintah, where Richard Hendrickson and his family lived, converted the large white "U" on the mountain above the city to an "H" for Hendrickson and affixed solar lights so it shines at night, said Michelle Mortensen, the Uintah city recorder. The "H" will probably remain until funeral services have been conducted for the man and his daughter.

Safety of Ogden Canyon Road has been a periodic focus of debate given the nature of the roadway. It traverses the narrow valley, paralleling the Ogden River and overshadowed on either side by steep mountains. But Mitch Shaw, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, which oversees maintenance of the roads, said S.R. 39, where the speed limit is 40 mph with some curves signed for 30 mph, is safe for travel.

"Like many of the state's canyon roads, there are spots where it's narrow and steep, and there are curves to navigate. But if motorists drive for the conditions they are in, follow the speed limit, etc., the road is safe," he said.

Once the Utah Highway Patrol inquiry into the accident is complete, he said, UDOT will conduct its own review of the crash to see if there are any sort of engineering changes the agency can implement to avoid a repeat. "But again, what that means exactly, we won't know until the (Utah Highway Patrol) investigation is complete and after we've conducted a thorough review," Shaw said.

At any rate, Utah couldn't implement an outright ban on truck travel along the road. "Because of state laws, trucks are unable to be completely restricted from the canyon," Shaw said.

Road signs warn motorists of the curvy, narrow section of S.R. 39 as they enter it from Ogden. Froerer, who lives in the Ogden Valley, said when he was a member of the Utah House in the early to mid-2010s, UDOT carried out a study of possible safety improvements of the section, determining the price tag at the time would have totaled perhaps $30 million to $40 million. Officials passed on comprehensive upgrades given the price and other road priorities, according to Froerer, though Shaw noted the roadway has been the focus of bridge and barrier improvements in recent years.

"There are no easy answers," Froerer said, noting the limits on upgrading the roadway due to the Ogden River and the steep inclines on either side of it. Comprehensive changes, he said, could entail expanding the roadway partway over the Ogden River or carving into the mountainside to create space for additional road sections.

Three primary routes connect to the Ogden Valley — S.R. 39, the North Ogden Canyon Road between North Ogden and Liberty and Trapper's Loop Road, or S.R. 167, connecting via I-84 and Mountain Green. Each has its drawbacks. The North Ogden Canyon Road is a narrow, winding road through mountainous terrain that features a steep drop-off on its southern side. Trapper's Loop Road has steep sections where trucks have sometimes experienced brake failure, said Huntsville Mayor Richard Sorensen.

S.R. 39 is "the least of the three evils," Sorensen said.

Caron, who launched the online petition, said he has seen large semis and other big trucks traversing the Ogden Canyon. He didn't spell out specific potential regulation changes, but said public safety, not just economics, has to be a big part of the equation of Ogden Valley road development. The petition — aimed at sparking debate on the issue and putting a focus on the roadway — had garnered nearly 1,600 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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