A fiery collision between a pickup truck and passenger car at the Bell Crossing intersection on Highway 93 backed up traffic on the busy road Thursday morning.
The result could have been much worse without the quick action of a 17-year-old passerby who probably saved the life of one driver whose car ended up on fire.
The wreck — which put both drivers in a Missoula hospital with non-life-threatening injuries — was enough to start the ball rolling on a process that could eventually lead to changes in the way traffic is managed at the dangerous crossing.
The wreck happened shortly after 9 a.m.
The passenger car was traveling north on Highway 93 when a pickup truck traveling west on Bell Crossing pulled into its path.
Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Scott Bennett said the resulting crash caused the battery in the passenger car to make contract with sheet metal and begin arcing. The sparks caused the engine compartment to catch fire.
A 17-year-old who had stopped to assist the victims of the crash spotted the fire. Bennett said he grabbed a fire extinguisher from his vehicle and used it to keep the flames at bay long enough for driver of the car to escape.
“The car eventually was engulfed in flame,” Bennett said. “In effect, that 17-year-old saved the driver’s life. Thank goodness he had the common sense to utilize that fire extinguisher.”
Both drivers were wearing seat belts at the time of the accident, which also very likely saved their lives in the high-speed accident, Bennett said.
The intersection guarded only by a flashing light has been the scene of a number of accidents over the years.
“With the increased traffic that we’ve seen in the Bitterroot, there have been several accidents there,” Bennett said. “They are almost always bad crashes. Vehicles are traveling at highway speed and drivers coming off Bell Crossing have to cross three lanes of traffic to get to the other side.”
Montana Department of Transportation Missoula District’s traffic engineer, Glen Cameron, said he sent a request to the department’s safety division Thursday for a review of the intersection after hearing about the collision.
That basically starts a safety review process in motion, Cameron said.
Once the process officially gets underway, Cameron said the state will consider the intersection’s accident history and other criteria before making any decisions on what changes might be needed.
“It can be a lengthy process, but I have seen situations rise to the top. …People do need to remember that this is Montana,” he said. “It’s a great big state. We’re dealing with this everywhere. I get calls every day about lots of different intersections.”
Cameron said the state has not received a formal request from the county to take a look at the Bell Crossing intersection.
With the new Ravalli Electric Cooperative complex set to open this fall just west of Bell Crossing, Ravalli County Commissioner Chris Hoffman said there is a concern about increased traffic at the intersection.
“We have had discussions about the possibility of asking DOT about the intersection, but at the time we opted to hold off,” Hoffman said. “We have had several other projects in front of the DOT. … We probably will meet at some point and certainly will involve the cooperative and DOT.”
Ravalli Electric Co-op’s general manager, Mark Grotbo, said the cooperative plans to move into its new location around November. When its 35 employees, multiple contractors and consumers begin to access the site, Grotbo expect there to be 200 to 300 crossings daily at the intersection.
“Some of our clientele is older and their reaction times are less,” Grotbo said. “We don’t want to see anyone get hurt. … It is the last major crossing between the Eastside Highway and Highway 93 that doesn’t have a light. It already get quite a lot of traffic.”
Grotbo said the company has offered to help pay for a new traffic signal.
Victor Fire Chief Scott Hackett said his department has responded to multiple accidents at the intersection over the years.
“There’s just so much traffic anymore,” Hackett said. “It’s sometimes hard to find enough of a break to get across the road. With Ravalli Electric and the gravel pit that’s there, it’s going to mean more traffic. We’re going to have to talk to the state about it and hopefully get something changed.”