Risky rescues have state pondering approach to drivers who ignore road closures

State issued 149 tickets last month for disregarding interstate blockades
Crews push their way through a massive snowdrift plugging an overpass at Indian Creek Service...
Crews push their way through a massive snowdrift plugging an overpass at Indian Creek Service Road under I-90 and near Kadoka.(State of South Dakota Highway Crew)
Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 5:30 PM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. (South Dakota Searchlight) - Hundreds of motorists drove around interstate blockades or ventured onto snowed-over highways during last month’s storms, diverting the energy of emergency responders to rescues that sometimes put those responders at risk.

That’s not uncommon during winter storms, according to Sec. Craig Price of the Department of Public Safety (DPS). But the intensity and duration of the two-part storm last month highlighted the difficulty for state troopers during severe weather, Price told the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

First responders worked non-stop to clear roadways and rescued a host of stranded motorists, he said, in one case working for hours to find an exposed corner of a drifted-over vehicle near Rosebud, then working hours more as V-plows got stuck clearing a path to the vehicle.

Price lauded the efforts of responders in that case, which saw the stranded couple transferred to Mission to recuperate.

The couple near Rosebud had gotten lost, Price said, but others placed themselves in peril by ignoring pleas from public safety officials to stay home.

The response from DPS is the same regardless, he said.

“When they get stuck and they call, we go and get them,” Price said.

The Highway Patrol alone had 33 rescues during the storm, he said, and other DPS first responders conducted many others. On more than one occasion, plow drivers attempting to rescue stranded drivers found themselves stuck and calling for more help.

The incidents have spurred discussions between Price and Department of Transportation Secretary Joel Jundt on how the agencies manage situations where drivers ignore road closure warnings could put the lives of rescue teams at risk.

Some state and local officials have begun to ask Price hard questions about those situations, like, “At what point do we say, ‘It’s too dangerous to go out and come get you?’”

It’s the second time in as many weeks that Price offered a rundown of emergency operations to lawmakers. He told the Joint Appropriations Committee similar stories last week.

On both occasions, lawmakers questioned if there might be a way to enforce closures more strictly. Intentionally driving around road closure signs is a class two misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Last month, Price said, the DPS issued 149 tickets for ignoring barricades.

During the transportation committee hearing, Rep. Arch Beal (R-Sioux Falls) told Price he’d personally pulled multiple drivers loose near his home and asked if there might be ways to further defer unsafe driving during storms.

“I went out there and thought, ‘If I had a ticket book, I could get some school funding,’” Beal said.

Some of the fees from criminal fines support public schools.

The trouble is with state roads, Price said. The DPS can close interstate on- and off-ramps, but doesn’t have “the ability to physically close those roads.”

The tickets issued last month were written for drivers who had driven on the interstate, he said.

Another complicating factor is the proliferation of GPS navigation technology. After the Wednesday hearing, Col. Rick Miller of the Highway Patrol said cell phones may tell drivers that the interstate is closed but suggest an alternate route that is even less safe.

“I think technology has pushed people to the side roads,” Miller said.

The DPS will continue rescuing motorists, Price said, but he and Sec. Jundt will review protocols for the next major storm.

“We have committed to taking a look at this because it was so highlighted by this winter storm,” Price said.

This article was produced by South Dakota Searchlight, which provides free news and commentary on critical issues facing the state at SouthDakotaSearchlight.Com.