Dust swirls around a multivehicle collision on Interstate 10 north of Picacho Peak Tuesday afternoon.


State officials say that motorists - not a lack of safeguards - are to blame for dust-related crashes such as the multi-vehicle wrecks on Interstate 10 on Tuesday.

And there are no plans for state agencies to collaborate on strategies to reduce collisions related to dust storms.

"Dust storms don't kill people; highways don't kill people. Drivers kill people," said Bart Graves, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. "They panic and they do the wrong thing and something bad happens."

In instances where DPS receives advance warning of severe weather events, highways can be shut down or other measures can be put into place to avoid traffic accidents, Graves said.

In cases of unpredictable dust storms, Graves said, "there is virtually no way we can do that."

"This particular event was very, very localized," Ray McLeod, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, said of Tuesday's storm. "We had some winds in the area and had some high-level precipitation that enhanced those winds."

McLeod said it's hard to predict such isolated events.

"There are times when you can see in the data that it's very clear we're going to get high winds that day and we're going to have a high probability of dust storms," McLeod said. "This was a marginal case."

Graves said that DPS has no plans to implement new procedures in response to dust storms and that drivers need to exercise caution.

If drivers can't see the car in front of them, that's an indicator that they should slow down or get off the road, he said.

"There is no way that we can prevent people from making bad decisions when driving through a dust storm," Graves said.

In Tuesday's crashes on Interstate 10 near Picacho Peak, Casa Grande and Chandler, one man was killed and several other people were injured.

Warning signs

The Arizona Department of Transportation says dust-related accidents are a concern - but challenging to remedy.

"One of the things that we'll always want to examine is how fast we can find out about a storm like this so that we can warn drivers with our overhead message boards," said Doug Nintzel, an ADOT spokesman.

There are seven message boards along I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix that are used to display warnings about problems like severe weather or heavy traffic, he said.

During Tuesday's storm ADOT posted warnings that read: "Crash Ahead" and "Highway Closed," Nintzel said.

In August, ADOT installed weather-monitoring stations on I-10 near Bowie and San Simon, on the way to New Mexico - areas known for dust-related crashes, Nintzel said.

The project is part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In a study done between 2002-2007 in eastern Cochise County, reduced visibility from blowing sand, dust or snow was a factor in 31 out of 147 crashes.

The new weather monitoring stations are set up in three locations and track changes in wind speed. Cameras monitor when visibility is reduced, he said.

When a change in wind speed is noticed, ADOT can activate highway signs alerting drivers to listen to the highway radio system for instructions on how to handle dust storms, Nintzel said.

"We're trying to be proactive when it comes to dust storms, and we want to research a system like this because we think it holds a lot of potential," Nintzel said.

He said that the project will be studied for at least three years to determine its effectiveness.

Several years ago a warning system was in place on I-10 near Casa Grande, where flashing lights would be activated to warn drivers about problems such as dust storms on the highway, Nintzel said. He didn't know what years those were in service.

They were removed because they were manually controlled and proved to be ineffective, he said.

Feds stepping in

Experts say dust in the air near Picacho Peak comes from a variety of sources, including agricultural and construction sites and vacant lots.

Pinal County is in the process of receiving a non-attainment designation from the Environmental Protection Agency, which means that it is not meeting healthy standards for the amount of dust in the air.

For years, Pinal County has had high levels of particulate matter in the air, said Colleen McKaughan, associate director of the air division for the EPA Region 9, which oversees Arizona.

When the status change goes into effect, probably next month, the county and the state's department of environmental quality will have 18 months to come up with a plan to control dust from different sources, she said.

"They'll want to take a look at where most of the dust is coming from and they'll want to implement controls on those types of activities," McKaughan said.

She said the EPA has to approve the plan, which will then become federal law. The county then has six years to upgrade to attainment status.

Citations can be issued for "fugitive dust" that escapes from areas like agricultural and construction sites. However, it's hard to identify a single source that's to blame for dust storms, said Don Gabrielson, director of air quality for Pinal County.

Gabrielson said the the county has not issued any "reasonable precaution dust citations" specific to highways this year.

On StarNet: See more photos of the crash at azstarnet.com/gallery and go to azstarnet.com/video for a video of the dust storm and wreckage.

"One of the things that we'll always want to examine is how fast we can find out about a storm like this so that we can warn drivers with our overhead message boards."

Doug Nintzel, ADOT spokesman

Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at vcruz@azstarnet.com or 573-4224.