Simco Road offers drivers a shortcut — or a potential tragedy

Idaho State Police Trooper Daniel Brennan drove south on Elmore County’s Simco Road on a winter afternoon. A familiar, high-pitched whine came from inside the patrol car. The radar in the black Dodge Charger was telling Brennan that a northbound vehicle a few hundred yards ahead was speeding.

The speed limit was 55 mph. The vehicle, a blue Ford Explorer with Idaho plates, was going 69. Brennan let it pass but looked for a safe spot to turn around. Simco is a two-lane paved road with mostly empty desert on both sides for most of its 21 miles. This stretch, like most of the road, was straight. Brennan found an intersecting dirt road.

As he headed north, he turned on his car’s flashing lights, accelerated to 105 mph and caught up with the Explorer. The driver, a 27-year-old woman, pulled over. A few minutes later, Brennan’s front-seat printer spat out a $90 ticket, Brennan marked the dashcam video for evidence, and the woman went on her way.

Simco is a risky road. It offers a north-to-south shortcut from Interstate 84 at its northern end, 2 miles southeast of the Ada-Elmore county line, to Idaho 167 at its southern end, near Mountain Home Air Force Base and Grand View. Four drivers have died on it in the past three years, including two since Thanksgiving.

State data provided to the Idaho Statesman show that from 2007 through 2016, at least eight other accidents caused incapacitating injuries serious enough for ambulances or Life Flight helicopters to take victims to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, a trauma center. At least 12 accidents caused lesser but serious injuries. At least 16 involved minor or possible injuries, and at least 31 caused property damage without injuries.

Brennan and Elmore County Sheriff Mike Hollingshead say speed is the most common reason for Simco’s crashes. “They drive way too fast,” Brennan said.

When you drive Simco, it’s easy to see why. Except for its few patches of low hills, the road is generally straight and flat, with some small rises, as it descends the Snake River Plain gently from north to south. The views are big-sky vast. And there is rarely a police cruiser in sight.

State and county officials say they have no data to compare Simco’s accident rates to rates on other local roads, but Brennan said Simco has more than its share.

All that carnage raises a question: Can authorities do more to make it safer?

0110 simco curve sign
Simco Road provides a shortcut for drivers from Boise to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Grand View and C.J. Strike Reservoir. While curves on the road are marked, inattentive drivers traveling too fast can be surprised by them and lose control. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

A teen dies on Thanksgiving

Brennan was the first emergency responder on the scene of a crash last Thanksgiving Day that killed Talon G. Owens, a 17-year-old from Boise. Talon was driving his two younger sisters from their home in Southwest Boise to a relative’s house in Grand View for dinner.

Brennan’s crash report said Talon drove his 1998 Toyota convertible off the right shoulder near milepost 14, where Simco curves through low hills. He sped into a curve, drove off the right shoulder and overcorrected. The car rolled. Talon was ejected. He wasn’t wearing his seat belt. His sisters, Ciaira, 14, and Graicyn, 12, wore theirs. They survived.

Talon had drawn attention in 2016 after he stepped back from a suicide attempt at a Boise parking garage and spoke about it publicly. Some teens credited him with helping them combat their own thoughts of suicide.

In any crash, several factors may contribute. Results of toxicology testing on Talon’s body have yet to be released, so it is not known if drugs or alcohol were involved. His mother said he was not suicidal, and police have not suggested otherwise. Inexperience may have affected his judgment. He had obtained his driver’s license less than six months earlier. State police officers trained in crash reconstruction studied the skid marks left by his car and calculated his speed at 86 mph before it left the highway.

But speeding like that is not unusual on Simco Road for drivers of any age.

Simco Road Tableau Map JPG by Audrey 1-10-18 159995

An open road with few police

Drivers think they can safely exceed the 55 mph limit without getting caught, and they’re usually right. Most make the trip without incident.

“It looks like a straight shot,” said Talon’s mother, Tawnia Owens. “It’s easy to justify in your head: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m running late. There are no cops on this road.’ 

Brennan, who said he patrols Simco at least once a week, said speeding 15 to 20 mph over the limit is common.

Grand View residents cut 45 minutes off their drive to Boise when Simco was paved in 2004. The old road “was hot, dusty, terrible,” said Penny Meyers, administrator of the Mountain Home Highway District.

Most of the paving cost was paid by U.S. Ecology, the Boise hazardous- and radioactive-waste disposal company, and J.R. Simplot Co., the Boise agribusiness. They use the road regularly. U.S. Ecology offloads waste from rail cars on Union Pacific’s tracks, which cross Simco, and trucks it 35 miles south to its Grand View processing and disposal site. Dozens of semitrailer trucks carry cattle daily from Simplot’s Grand View feedlot to the new CS Beef Packers plant in Kuna.

The highway district named the road for Simplot after it built a building (since demolished) in the 1960s near the railroad tracks for blending pesticides. Today, about 1,500 vehicles a day use Simco, half of them trucks, Meyers said.

Treasure Valley sportsmen also zip down Simco to fish at C.J. Strike Reservoir. Airmen at Mountain Home Air Force Base, many riding in the Ada County Highway District’s Commuteride vans, go from the base to their apartments in Boise.

There are no grocery stores, no gas stations, no services. And no stop signs.

“It’s so flat out there you can see for miles,” Hollinshead said.

‘This could kill you in a second’

Some of those killed or injured had been drinking. State police say Olga I. Ferguson, 51, of Boise, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.308, nearly four times the legal limit, when she died Dec. 3. Ferguson was northbound in an Acura MDX shortly after 5 p.m. when she crossed the southbound lane and crashed into a semitrailer truck parked in a dirt lot adjoining Simco just south of I-84.

Kirk Robert Pruett, 32, of Boise, died July 25, 2015, when he failed to navigate a turn at a hill crest near milepost 17, near the road’s southern end. Deputies said he was driving too fast for conditions. His 2001 Pontiac rolled, and he was trapped. He wore a seat belt but was impaired by alcohol, according to the Idaho Transportation Department.

“I don’t believe our kids understand the power of what’s in front of their hands,” said Pruett’s father, Vance Pruett, of Glenns Ferry. “I really don’t believe they understand that this thing could kill you in a second.”

Chance McKeel, 47, of Mountain Home, had not been drinking when he died Feb. 17, 2015, about 7 miles south of I-84. McKeel turned right from a dirt road to go north on Simco, but he made a wide turn. In the predawn darkness, his 1997 Saturn SL crossed into the southbound lane and collided with a Meridian man’s van. McKeel was trapped. A school bus then collided with his Saturn. No one else was injured.

Brennan took a Statesman editor and photographer on a Simco ride-along in late December. Speeding drivers slowed when they saw his car from the opposite lane. Sometimes they sped up again after passing Brennan. His whining radar kept him informed. One transmitter scanned in front of his car and one behind. The radar can detect speeders as much as three-fourths of a mile away, he said.

Flashing lights on signs may help

Brennan thinks more unmarked police cars would help. He reasons that if people saw drivers pulled over by officers in unmarked cars, they would learn not to trust that unmarked cars are not police cars, and that would inhibit risk-taking.

Elmore County sheriff’s detectives use unmarked cars and sometimes pull over drivers, Hollinshead said. But patrol deputies drive marked cars, and Idaho law prohibits State Police from patrolling in unmarked ones.

Brennan also thinks Idaho’s speeding fines should be higher. Idaho fines drivers $90 for speeding up to 15 mph over the limit and $155 for speeding faster. “If you look at Oregon and Washington, their speeding tickets are hundreds of dollars,” he said.

Oregon’s traffic-ticket fines range from $60 to $2,000. Driving more than 30 mph over the limit has a presumptive fine of $435, though the fine could be as low as $220 or as high as $2,000.

Officers may arrest a driver speeding 30 mph or more above the speed limit for reckless driving, Brennan said. “You go to jail at that speed,” he said.

A sheriff's deputy clocked a 56-year-old driver at 108 mph the day after Christmas about three miles from Simco's southern terminus. The driver was wanted for failure to appear in court on drug charges, so he was arrested both for reckless driving and the warrant, the deputy's report said.

Posting more speed-limit signs could help too, Brennan said, and so could adding bright-orange flags to the yellow, diamond-shape signs indicating a curve ahead.

Meyers, the highway-district administrator, doesn’t think those last two ideas would help. “People just don’t pay attention” to signs and flags, she said.

Her district is applying for a state road-paving grant that would include money to pay for flashing lights on curves on the last 2.5 miles before Idaho 167. That segment is south of where Talon Owens crashed, but it is where Simco’s curves are most severe, Meyers said.

“The curves are the problem,” she said. “Something flashing, like a school crosswalk — those really get people’s attention.”

If the district wins the grant, the lights could go up later this year, she said.

The district already has secured a $40,000 federal grant to install roadside posts with reflective markers along Simco’s entire length. A contractor will install them within the next four months, Meyers said.

And it is seeking grants to repave segments of Simco because of cracking, rutting pavement. The 2004 paving did not meet modern road-construction and safety standards, Meyers said. Any new paving would require leveling some hills and increasing the radius of some curves to make them safer.

The program for the Dec. 2 funeral of Talon G. Owens, 17, of Boise, who died in a Thanksgiving Day crash on Simco Road.

‘Traumatic crash after traumatic crash’

Brennan, an ISP trooper for more than six years, got the call to go to Talon Owens’ crash just as he was leaving his home in Mountain Home to start his Thanksgiving Day shift.

The scene was grim. Brennan said he put emotions aside to focus on work: assessing Talon’s status, doing CPR until an ambulance arrived, speaking to witnesses, taking pictures, and summoning colleagues trained in crash reconstruction to take laser measurements.

“On scene, if you’re overwhelmed by emotion, you’ve got to tuck it away and forget about it for a while,” he said. “It’s after the fact that those things build up.

“It’s not just one traumatic crash. It’s traumatic crash after traumatic crash. It’s consistently happening.”

Tawnia Owens regrets letting Talon drive Simco without an adult along. She urges other parents not to make the same mistake.

“I should have never ever let him drive that road,” she said. “He’d never [driven] on a long-distance trip.”

At his funeral, she implored mourners to use seat belts.

Both state police and sheriff’s deputies patrol Simco Road, but there are just three state patrolmen, 17 patrol deputies and four detectives to provide round-the-clock law enforcement of all kinds for the entire county. Brennan said he is often called away from Simco to I-84. Simco accounts for only 4 percent of the Mountain Home Highway District’s 500 miles of roads.

Said Hollingshead: “We do the best we can.”

This story has been amended to include the Dec. 26 arrest of a speeding driver, based on information Elmore County provided Feb. 8 in response to a public-records request. David Staats: 208-377-6417, @DavidStaats