BISMARK, Ark. (KTHV) -- Two people died after a crash on Highway 7 last week, and the tragedy shook the community of Bismarck.
But the sadness people feel over those deaths is not new.
“You know, as long as I can remember, there’s been fatalities on Highway 7,” said Hot Spring County Judge Dennis Thornton. “Even as a young kid.”
Highway 7 spans nearly the entire height of Arkansas, running from the Louisiana border on the south to Lead Hill on the north. Part of it connects Hot Springs to Arkadelphia, so it is often busy with college students and vacationers. And on the north side of Bismarck, it is dangerous.
According to the Arkansas State Police, at least 15 people have died in eight separate crashes on the northern edge of Bismarck since 2009, a large amount in a town that has only one stoplight. Ten of those 15 deaths occurred in the evening, after the sun had set.
“It’s getting to be an extremely, very dangerous [place],” said Wayne Woodall.
Woodall’s home and business are roughly 250 yards apart, on either side of Highway 7 at the spot where most of the deadly collisions have occurred. He said eight of the victims were either friends or customers of his. He thinks there are several reasons why that section of highway is so deadly.
“The main part of the situation here is to make this highway safer,” he said. “And the only way you’re going to do it is to reduce the speed limit and do something about this blind hill.”
“It’s a very curvy, hilly road,” added Thornton, a Bismarck resident. “People are always in a hurry these days, so I’m sure that that poses as some problem.”
The “narrows,” as Thornton called the stretch of road, is a two-lane highway with several hills and sharp turns. There are a few places in which a road or driveway meets the highway just beyond the crest of a hill, making it nearly impossible for someone driving the 55 miles per hour speed limit to react safely.
There are also no lights beyond the edge of the unincorporated town, and most the lights that do exist belong to the homes and businesses along the side of the road. But while lighting might improve driver safety, Thornton said that might not be a realistic option.
“We all live within budgets,” he stated, “and whether you’re the county road crew or whether you’re with the state highway department.”
ARDoT controls Highway 7, so it would be the agency responsible for any improvements. Highway-grade light poles cost roughly $4,000 to install. ARDoT has more than 16,400 miles of highways and freeways to maintain, so putting lights on all the dark sections would cost billions of dollars.
But the crash that killed a local teacher and her husband, and later took the life of the other driver involved, has brought out a new desire in Bismarck to make Highway 7 safer.
“It has really affected our community,” Thornton said. “And I believe that the people are starting to stand up and say, hey, what are ways that we can come up with to potentially reduce the risk.”
Thornton said two residents called him with suggestions in the days after the most recent crash. One idea was to create a “safe speed zone” with lower speed limits and higher fines, like a school zone. The other was to put rumble strips in the center of the road, to hopefully stop some head-on collisions. Arkansas State Police investigators claim head-on crashes have killed nine people near Bismarck since 2012.
“If you’ve ever been driving down the roadway and drift to the right on a highway that has those,” Thornton explained, “it will wake you up pretty quick! So, I think that, potentially, that could be very inexpensive, and something that is very doable.”
What is not doable for the people of Bismarck is inaction. Woodall believes a light must be shined on the danger of the Highway 7 before someone else dies in front of his house.
“We’re not afraid, but we’re very, very, cautious,” he said.
Woodall believes the road would not take so many lives if drivers choose to slow down.
“The highway has become so dangerous here,” he said. “Our speed limits are too high.”
He said a Hot Spring County sheriff’s deputy catches speeders entering Bismarck frequently, including one driver that Woodall claimed was driving 80 MPH in a 45 MPH zone.
Thornton, who took office at the beginning of 2017, said he had not yet met with ARDoT officials about the issue, but hopes to do so in the future.
ARDoT representatives did not respond to a request from THV11 about whether there has been any discussion about safety improvements to Highway 7.