‘Devil’s Highway’: Navajos Grapple With One of Most Dangerous Roads in US
Twin ribbons of asphalt unfurl into the distance as Sammy Ahkeah heads south on U.S. 491.
For Ahkeah, who spent 36 years in law enforcement on the Navajo Nation, the recently widened, four-lane highway represents a safer future for a road that was paved with misfortune, superstition and death.
Previously known as U.S. 666, this north-south corridor on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo reservation earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous highways in the West. Frequent fatalities coupled with the highway’s unfortunate number branded a 70-mile section of this road with various nicknames, including “Devil’s Highway” and “Highway to Hell.”
Although the name has changed, memories remain, Ahkeah said. Crosses or other roadside memorials still trigger images of head-on collisions, drunken drivers and entire families who lost their lives along this route. “Most of the stuff you investigate stays with you,” said Ahkeah, now a commissioner for San Juan County, New Mexico. “I drive down that highway and there are road memorials. If I drive past them, see the memorials, it brings back those memories.”
The highway’s history stretches back to the 1500s when Navajos and other American Indians traveled the route. In the last century, the road has been overhauled several times, but even when a long, two-lane section was paved in 1928, the road never lost its trademark beauty or isolation.
“It is 96 miles in length, having no right-angle curves in the entire distance,” a project engineer wrote in 1928. He described the highway as “a seemingly endless stretch over the desert” with few habitations except “a lonely Indian hogan or an oil camp here and there along the way.”
Once paved, the highway linked the Four Corners area to major freight routes and railroads. It also served as the main corridor connecting Gallup, New Mexico, with communities on the Navajo Nation and a sprinkling of small towns in southern Colorado and Utah.
The additional traffic also brought increased danger, especially along the 70-mile, two-lane section between Shiprock and Tohatchi on the Navajo Nation. “That section of the road was one of the most dangerous to encounter,” Akheah said. “When I was a police officer, most of the accidents I responded to were on that road. When I was an investigator, most of the accidents I investigated were there.”
According to a New Mexico Department of Transportation report, the two-lane section of the road saw 38 traffic fatalities and more than 200 accidents with injuries between 1999 and 2002. Many of the accidents were head-on collisions, and 20 percent involved commercial trucks.
“Inattention was a big thing or trying to pass without enough room,” Ahkeah said. “The two-lane road was really terrible for that. It was isolated and dark, and there were accidents with speeding and with collisions with livestock.”
Before it was widened, fatality rates on that section of the highway were two-and-one-half times greater than the state average, the transportation department report found. Although most of the crashes can be attributed to driver behavior, road conditions and the 250 turnouts along the route, the highway had a bad reputation, transportation spokeswoman Delane Baros said.
“666 was and is considered, biblically, the mark of the beast,” she said. “The local public would always relate the crashes to the name.”
Since 2003 – the same year New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pledged to change the highway’s name – the transportation department has been working to widen the route from two lanes to four. But improvements have come in fits and starts, with construction taking place “as funding became available,”
Environmental planning began in 2003. Two new bridges were built in 2005. Additional lanes were constructed in stages beginning in 2009. But 12 years into the project, a 22-mile section of the road in McKinley County still needs to be widened to four lanes.
The transportation department this spring started the final phase, Baros said. The section is the last of 11 construction phases that came with a combined price tag topping $225 million.
Funding came from state allocations, bond sales and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The entire route is slated to be complete by late 2016 or early 2017.
For those who drive the road, it’s none too soon.
“When they made it into four lanes, the fatalities were really cut down,” Ahkeah said, “What they have done is really helpful. It’s a good investment for everyone. Money you can replace but human lives, you can’t.”
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