Friday, December 5, 2014

So about all those crashes on the Tennessee-side of “The Dragon”…

By now, you’ve probably heard that Tennessee is joining its neighbor North Carolina in banning vehicles over 30 feet in length from traveling on a mountainous section of U.S. Highway 129 in Blount County along the western edge of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, a stretch known as “The Tail of the Dragon,” or in some instances, just “The Dragon.”

Enforcement is expected to start in January, once the state DOT installs signage to warn of the upcoming change. Fine amounts and other penalties are still being worked out.

There’s an illustrated photo of The Dragon’s many curves and switchbacks hanging in Land Line Editor-in-Chief Sandi Soendker’s office (which is pictured in the photo with this piece). Boasting 318 curves in 11 miles, the stretch is a magnet for motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts looking to put their performance machines to the ultimate test.

My favorite thing about the poster, though (besides the fire-breathing Dragon-Lady, obviously), are the names of some of the turns – Beginner’s End, The Pearly Gates, Wheelie Hell and the Crossroads of Time, just to name a few. The whole stretch kind of reminds me of a real-life “Wolf Creek Pass.” Talk about Hairpin County and Switchback City.

In an announcement on the agency’s website Tuesday, the Tennessee DOT said there were 204 crashes along that stretch of roadway from 2010 to 2012, “a critical number” according to the release. Six of those crashes were fatalities, but only one of them involved a tractor-trailer. The agency also said there were “a number of incidents involving large trucks.”

“Due to the curvy and narrow roadway, incidents involving tractor trailers usually block the highway for several hours and prevent travel for all motorists,” according to the release.

Other media reports were quick to carry stories about the DOT’s decision, touting that big trucks had long been “a bane of motorcycles and sports car enthusiasts.”

Here’s the rub though. Of those 204 crashes that occurred from 2010 to 2012, 167 of them (roughly 82 percent) involved motorcycles, not large trucks, according to DOT spokesman Mark Nagi.

In fact, the exact number of incidents involving large trucks – including the fatality crash mentioned earlier – is … four. Four total crashes involving large vehicles (or .02 percent of all crashes).

Now, it’s fair to point out that because of the narrow roads, the many curves, it’s very difficult to maneuver a tractor-trailer through The Dragon, particularly without said tractor-trailer taking up more than just one lane of traffic. And Nagi said when accidents do occur involving large trucks “the roadway is shut down for an extended period of time.”

“Due to the large number of curves and narrow lanes, it is a difficult roadway for vehicles to maneuver,” Nagi said in an email to Land Line. “Very often large trucks drift into the other lane, putting others at risk. In addition, accidents involving large trucks have shut down the roadway for hours, making it impossible for emergency personnel to get through.”

Fair enough. But if safety is the primary concern, why not ban motorcycles too? After all, they make up the overwhelming majority of the crashes. And the department’s own numbers show that, other than one tragic fatality, big trucks aren’t playing a substantial role in the number of motorcycle crashes?

It’s the state of Tennessee’s prerogative to ban large vehicles from tackling The Dragon, something that North Carolina has done for years now. But the suggestion or even implication that the ban will reduce the number of crashes on this famous stretch of roadway is one curve around which the data can’t hold the line.

Editor’s note: As a side note, in the summer of 2003, “Land Line Now” Host Mark Reddig was associate editor of Land Line. We were hearing so many stories about this stretch of road, Mark stepped up and accepted a special assignment to actually “drive the Dragon” to see what the big flap was. His story, “Beware the Dragon” has been an enduring favorite of Land Line readers ever since.