Deadly accident highlights the dangers of snow play off Highway 180 in Flagstaff

By Michel Marizco
Published: Tuesday, February 8, 2022 - 4:46am
Updated: Tuesday, February 8, 2022 - 9:12am

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Kathy Perkins and Sean McNally
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Kathy Perkins and her son Sean McNally were concerned about people playing in the snow off Highway 180 even before a deadly crash in January 2022.

Kathy Perkins lives near Highway 180 where it winds its way north of Flagstaff in a picturesque landscape of forest that — after a good snow — is blanketed in brilliant white. She was on her way into town in late January.

"We were stopped in traffic, and I kept saying, ‘Something weird’s going on. There’s too much traffic in both directions,'" Perkins said. 

That’s when she saw the ambulance leaving the area. 

"There were emergency vehicles completely blocking the lane on the other side of the road there because the cars were parked there and they couldn’t get over to the side to help the victim," Perkins said. 

According to the Department of Public Safety, the victim in this case was an 11-year-old boy from Sinaloa, Mexico. At about 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon, the child and his family tried to run across Highway 180. Some members of the family stopped for an oncoming Jeep; the child did not. The 20-year-old driver of the Jeep remained on scene. 

It had snowed the night before, and Perkins expected the highway to be crowded. 

"It’s always been this way, but it seems to be getting worse," Perkins said.

Over New Year’s Day weekend, Coconino County sheriff’s deputies handed out nearly 100 tickets and towed five cars of people, all off this Highway 180 corridor. 

Following the child’s death, digital signs have gone up warning people to stay off the highway shoulder.

"But they’re in town, they’re not out here where it’s happening," Perkins argues.

Her son Sean McNally gestured to the parking lot where we’d met.

"On the weekends right after it snows, we’ll have the soft snow as opposed to this hard stuff, you’ll see a lot of people, they’ll park in the parking lots here and then double up where you’re actually supposed to drive," McNally said. 

When the lot fills up, traffic spills onto the highway. 

"Bumper to bumper. And you can’t see the people until they’re already in the road and then it’s just a danger to everybody," he said.

Flagstaff debris
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Broken sled debris litters the ground from Flagstaff's winter visitors, further frustrating local residents.

Flagstaff residents have long lived with the impacts of a tourism industry that is welcomed here. Volunteer groups have formed to clean up broken sled debris left behind. Trash that’s piled up. Trespassing by folks who spot an ideal hill that happens to be on someone’s property. 

County Supervisor Patrice Horstman says the county and the state have increased the signage that Perkins and McMally want to see more of.

You’ve probably noticed if you’ve gone down 180 all of the no parking signs, all of the no snow play signs. 

The county also opened a snow play area south of Flagstaff. Horstman says it’s also been a big draw.

"Maybe as a result of COVID — our land has just been loved. The vehicles going in for snow play have doubled from last year until this year," she said.

And she says, the same has happened to 180 leading into the Peaks.

"We’re trying to get the word out. Since this unfortunate tragedy, one of the things we’re also doing is we’re upping our use of electronic signage. And we’re now going to have six electronic signs that we will basically, once again enforce what the permanent signs say and that is: no snow play on 180 and no parking on that area of 180," Horstman said. 

San Francisco Peaks
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
A snow play area facing the San Francisco Peaks. Residents say this area fills up on snowy days and traffic quickly builds on the highway outside of it.

Officials have devised maps of other areas to play, a winter hotline for snow conditions and where to go. And those digital traffic signs to drive the point home.

Horstman wants city and county officials to come up with more snow play areas. And she’d like to see law enforcement handing out tickets directly to people parking on the highway rather than having them mailed out. 

"You and I both know that we can do as much education, we can do as much signing, we can have as many people there and we can have as much enforcement. It is up to each individual and their families to recreate responsibly," she said.

As for Perkins and her son McNally, they remain worried it will happen again.

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