Representatives of the Alaskan trucking community plan to call for improved maintenance efforts along Dalton Highway, a harrowing route in the northeastern part of the state that became the site of a driver’s fatal crash Aug. 24.
The Dalton Highway, which is state Route 11, runs more than 400 miles from Fairbanks in central Alaska to the Prudhoe Bay, which toes the Arctic Ocean and contains a large oil field. It was along this route, just south of the oil field, that Joy Wiebe perished in a rollover crash when her 53-foot tanker slipped down an embankment. She was 50 years old and had driven a truck for 13 years.
In the wake of her passing, a group of truckers familiar with the route is planning to host a conference call to discuss road conditions and safety improvements. Randi Matheson, a pilot truck driver who knew Wiebe through work, said state department of transportation representatives will be invited to join the call. Pilot drivers act as escorts for trucks hauling large loads to ensure they reach their destinations safely.
Matheson identified real-time information on road closures and more delineators (reflective strips on the side of the road) as improvements that would benefit drivers on Dalton Highway. The route sometimes is obscured by thick fog, and reports indicate that visibility was poor on the night Wiebe died.
“Delineators are a huge thing,” Matheson said. “Sometimes that’s your only visibility of what’s going on up there. Sometimes [you] don’t see a truck until you see headlights 16 feet away.”
Alaska Department of Transportation spokesperson Meadow Bailey described Dalton Highway as challenging, although the agency has been leading maintenance projects on the route for the past couple of years. Bailey said the portion of Dalton Highway where Wiebe’s crash occurred was rebuilt in 2016, after flooding destroyed the road. She said the department also is working on a multiyear project to pave the 52 miles of highway leading to the oil field.
Dalton Highway. (Alaska Department of Transportation)
The route, which is paved in some parts and gravel in others, traverses grueling terrain and sometimes faces extreme weather conditions. It winds through the mountainous Atigun Pass and levels out to flat “Arctic desert” as it approaches Prudhoe Bay, according to Aves Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association.
The road gets particularly treacherous when it’s snowing and windy. Thompson said drivers tend to adopt an “all in this together” mentality when the wind blows so severely that the snow blurs the names of companies on the sides of trucks. According to Thompson, Dalton Highway is traversed mostly by tourists, hunters and trucks hauling oil, such as the one Wiebe drove. He said the route probably sees between 2,000 and 3,000 trucks a month.
“Maintenance is an important issue, especially in snow,” Thompson said. “The wind starts blowing and, if it’s snowing, it will shut down the road and sometimes those drifts are so hard you have to chisel the road open. It can be dangerous if you get stuck in a blow. The camaraderie of drivers is really extraordinary.”
Wiebe’s is the sixth deadly crash and the first fatality involving a truck driver on Dalton Highway since 2008, Bailey said. Bailey was familiar with Wiebe and said she always took time to thank ADOT’s maintenance staff for its efforts.
Wiebe was said to be the only female tank truck driver who operated in the Prudhoe Bay area. Matheson described her as “slow and steady,” and said she and her fellow drivers mourn Wiebe’s passing.
Women constitute just 6% of all truck drivers, according to the Women In Trucking Association.
“Joy Wiebe was another amazing woman who was both a pioneer and an icon who quietly did her job alongside her male peers,” WIT President Ellen Voie said Aug. 28. “We are so sorry to hear of the tragedy, and our thoughts go out to her family and friends.”