Teton County law enforcement officers are ramping up their surveillance of stop signs at dangerous intersections and are warning drivers that those who fail to stop could face serious legal consequences.
Sheriff Keith VanSetten and County Attorney Joe Coble on Monday said drivers in this county have to become more accountable for their actions and have to take the rules of the road seriously.
Their comments were prompted by yet another two-vehicle, injury accident at the intersection of U.S. Highway 89 and Secondary Highways 431/565, caused by a southbound driver on Secondary Highway 431 who allegedly drove through the stop sign and crashed into a south-east bound vehicle in the intersection.
VanSetten said he plans to increase patrolling at the intersection and will be talking with Cascade County law officers about the south side of the intersection, which falls in Cascade County.
He said he considers a routine stop sign violation to occur when a driver slows to 2 mph or so, looks both ways, and rolls through a stop sign at a controlled intersection, earning a ticket. However, he said, when drivers blow through a stop sign at 25 mph to 40 mph, making no effort to slow, then they are going to face more serious charges.
Coble said drivers who make no effort to stop at stop signs will likely face charges such as negligent endangerment, a misdemeanor, or criminal endangerment, a felony, when a serious crash results.
“I can tell you that the charge, whenever appropriate, will be more serious than a simple stop sign violation, and we will aggressively pursue those cases,” he said. He said his office will also make sure that the insurance companies of drivers cited under these conditions are aware of the violations Ñ information that could cause their premium rates to rise.
VanSetten said the accident last Friday, which did not result in serious injuries, happened even with the Montana Department of Transportation’s safety improvements to the intersection, including larger signs and rumble strips on both secondary roads.
Coble said the message they want to send to drivers is that reckless disregard of stop signs will not be tolerated in this county — a county that is still stinging from a devastating accident at that intersection on March 19, 2011, that left a then-14-year-old Choteau girl with such severe brain damage that she is now confined to a nursing home, unable to feed herself, regulate her own body temperature or communicate with her family.
“It’s just not acceptable to take that chance,” Coble said of the possibility of another such wreck occurring. “We’re not going to allow it.”
He also reminded drivers that they have entered into a social contract with all the users of public roadways. Under that contract, drivers agree to obey the rules of the road so that they can trust other drivers and other drives can trust them. “If we don’t have that, we have chaos,” he said.
The wreck last Friday also prompted Fairfield resident Connie Anderson to renew her request to the Montana Department of Transportation for flashing red beacon lights to be mounted on the stop signs on the two secondary highways. A concerned citizen, Anderson launched a petition drive in March of 2011 to convince the MDT to make safety changes to the intersection.
She emailed the MDT on Monday saying, “There is no better time like the present to touch base on the project we discussed back in September 2011, regarding the flashing light at the intersection of U.S. Highway 89 and Secondary highways 431/565. I/we would like to know how things are coming? Also I wanted to let you know we had another accident at this intersection this past weekend. I don’t know the particulars of the accident, but it was a grim reminder of how dangerous this intersection is. Any information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.”
Prodded by Anderson’s efforts in 2011, the MDT did a traffic safety study at the intersections and installed bigger signs, raised higher so as not to obscure the view of the intersection and put the rumble strips in the secondary highways.
VanSetten said the accident on Nov. 2 occurred at about 3:40 p.m. under clear skies and dry road conditions. Two Teton County deputies along with the Montana Highway Patrol, Fairfield Rural Volunteer Fire Department and Fairfield ambulance crew responded.
VanSetten said the MHP is the lead investigative agency on the crash, but reports from his deputies show that a small passenger car, driven by Edward Entz of Fort Shaw, was traveling south on Secondary Highway 431 in Teton County. Entz’ pregnant wife was a passenger in his vehicle.
As he came to the intersection with U.S. Highway 89, VanSetten said, he allegedly looked both ways, saw no oncoming traffic and continued through the intersection at a rate of about 25 mph without coming to a stop at the stop sign.
In the intersection, he crashed into a small pickup truck driven by a Choteau teenager. The sheriff’s deputies closed the highway for a time while responders provided emergency aid. The ambulance transported two people to Benefis in Great Falls, where they were treated for minor injuries.
Coble said the teenager who was headed to Great Falls from Choteau avoided a more serious collision by her own defensive driving, slamming on her breaks seconds before the crash, which left both vehicles heavily damaged.
Coble said he has asked that no citations be issued yet, and plans to make the charging decision himself after reviewing investigative reports.
“For me, it was just so disappointing to find out that that had happened again, at a point where there has been more publicity put out to our public here than there may ever be again,” Coble said. “I don’t know who wouldn’t have gotten that message. To have someone once again just deliberately take that chance is saddening, disappointing and horrifying.”
The county attorney said he met with Della Yeager of Choteau about the accident on Saturday. Yeager’s daughter, Veronica Riphenburg, was the child so grievously injured in the March 2011 wreck. “She was just so shocked and frustrated, and angry and disappointed,” Coble said.
The driver who failed to yield at the stop sign in this intersection in March 2011, Michael A. Morris of Choteau was charged with felony criminal endangerment and pleaded “no contest” to the charge. At his sentencing hearing just two weeks ago, Judge Laurie McKinnon ordered him to pay more than $30,000 in restitution to victims in the accident, and placed him with the Montana Department of Corrections for seven years, with two years of that term suspended on conditions.