Dust swirls around a multi-vehicle collision on Interstate 10 north of Picacho Peak on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. Image taken from video.

Courtesy KPNX-TV12

State agencies don't have a lot of ideas for reducing dust-storm accidents on Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix.

It's just a dusty place where, especially during the monsoon, high winds pop up unpredictably. The best we can do is just tell people to be careful out there.

That's the answer former Tucson car dealer Steve Christy got when he asked the director of the Arizona Department of Transportation more than a year ago if there wasn't more that could be done.

Christy had just been appointed to the State Transportation Board, and he was at a meeting in Casa Grande where, a month before, three people had been killed in a massive pileup during a dust storm.

Director John Halikowski told Christy that ADOT had been dealing with dust storms in the area since the '60s. They had tried message boards but, "They were difficult to see in storms and did not seem to reduce fatalities," minutes of that meeting show.

One year, two deaths and another summer of massive pileups later, Christy is renewing his call for a new approach.

"I don't know what the answer is. It just seems to me we ought to be able to do something," he said.

Unpredictable dust

It is not an easy issue. Some dust storms truly are unpredictable, but University of Arizona atmospheric scientists say we can do a better job of making pinpoint forecasts, linked to problem areas along Interstate 10. And scientists warn that the situation is worsening in our continuing drought.

New areas of blowing dust have popped up in the past two years, particularly along Interstate 40 between Flagstaff and Winslow.

An Oct. 4 weather system produced dust storms along I-10 from Picacho to Chandler, leading to four chain-reaction crashes and one fatality. It occurred on a day on which the National Weather Service had issued no warnings or advisories.

But the UA's department of atmospheric sciences had predicted winds up to 26.8 mph at Casa Grande Airport that day, said Mike Leuthold, systems administrator at the Atmospheric Research Institute. The recorded peak was 29 mph.

The UA system has 10 times the resolution of that used by the National Weather Service, said Eric Betterton, head of the department.

"Dust forecasting is tough," Betterton said, and needs to take into account many factors in addition to wind speed. "Did it rain yesterday? Is this planting season?"

All those things have an impact, Betterton said, but pinpoint forecasting is key.

The UA program, which is not an official forecast, is made available daily for anyone who would like to use it and could be customized for dust forecasting.

There's a problem with the pinpoint approach along the Tucson-to-Phoenix stretch of I-10, said Department of Public Safety Capt. Brian Preston. Dust can blow across the highway and obscure visibility just about anywhere "from the Pima County line to the Maricopa County line."

"Nature's litter box"

In between is Pinal County, the district Preston commands. It is, he said, "where dust is apparently created and distributed to all. It's nature's litter box."

He and his officers are aware of areas where dust storms occur routinely, but they have also seen them pop up in places that aren't notorious for accidents. "It might even be worse on Interstate 8," he said, but that stretch has a lighter traffic load and fewer accidents.

DPS and its highway patrol would be happy to participate in any program that might save lives, said Bart Graves, spokesman for the agency.

"We're all talking about this. We're totally in. Our officers see more deaths on a given day than most do, just being the nature of our job. If we can prevent them, we're all for it."

Knowing where the wind might blow and acting on that knowledge are two different things, however. Short of closing down the interstate, there is no surefire way of ensuring safety, said ADOT spokesman Dustin Krugel, and the department and DPS won't do that based on a forecast.

"In our world, you're damned if you do you're damned if you don't," said DPS spokesman Graves. "You're inconveniencing a lot of people, and there are not a lot of places you can take them off and reroute them."

Christy said he understands the argument, but notes that the interstate eventually closes down when dust causes accidents.

"A couple hours inconvenience," he said, "is nothing like a loss of life."

What's being done

ADOT has four electronic message boards along the Tucson-Phoenix stretch that can warn motorists of dust-storm potential or blowing dust ahead - one leaving Tucson at Cortaro Road, two on either side of the highway in Casa Grande and one leaving Phoenix at Warner Road.

On the day after the Oct. 4 crashes, they warned of possible blowing dust. But on Oct. 4, they weren't activated until the first wreck occurred, said Krugel.

The department is experimenting with more warnings and weather sensors along I-10 near the New Mexico line, where sustained winds blowing across dry lake beds and farm fields reduce visibility, particularly in spring.

In coordination with DPS, it escorts traffic at slower speeds and has detoured traffic onto state highways.

On I-40, the two agencies have developed a protocol for shutting down the interstate when sustained winds funnel dust across it north of an area called Tucker Flat Basin, west of Winslow. Spring winds cause most of those closures - five in 2009 and six in 2010.

Those are long-lasting storms, said Krugel - one in April 2010 lasted 20 hours.

The I-10 dust storms north of Tucson are often as quick to blow over as they are to develop, though dust can hamper rescue efforts for hours. In the October crash, the injured were transported by ambulance when low visibility made it impossible for helicopters to land.

At a Transportation Board meeting in Littlefield on Friday, ADOT "acknowledged the urgency and importance of the problem," said board member Christy.

He said state engineer Jennifer Toth reported that she is meeting with other agencies and land owners and looking into remedial soil treatments and possibly more warning signs.

"I'm going to keep the pressure on them," Christy said.

Avoid dust storms if you can; if you can't, here's what you should do

DPS Capt. Brian Preston has an easily followed recommendation for avoiding dust-storm crashes: Don't drive into the dust.

"Scan down the roadway. Look for what you're seeing and not seeing. Then don't go into it."

Preston was driving his family home from a visit to relatives in Cochise County recently along the stretch of Arizona 87 that connects the interstate to Coolidge. It was after dark and Preston realized he hadn't seen any taillights in front of him since he left the freeway.

"So I just stop. As I'm sitting there trying to figure it out, a car passes and pretty soon I can't see his taillights. There's a storm in front of me."

He waited it out.

You can do the same thing in daylight, he said. Visibility is usually pretty good on Arizona's highways. If you're not seeing cars, signs and overpasses up ahead, that should tell you something.

Preston has driven into dust storms in the line of duty and describes scenes where he had to keep a hand on the side of a truck to feel his way back to his patrol car.

"I know what dust is like," he said. "You might as well drive blindfolded."

He said most accidents occur when motorists knowingly drive into dust storms, thinking "they'll just pop out the other side quickly."

Once you're in the dust storm, your options are few.

If you can't get off the highway, you should turn your lights on and reduce your speed - and hope the vehicles behind you do the same.

If possible, pull off the highway as far as possible, turn off your lights and take your foot off the brake. You don't want vehicles behind you to think you are still in the travel lane.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158