Editorial: Slow down, mine employees

File Photo By Walt Mares

What is so hard about leaving early for work?

Column By Walt Mares

Walt Mares: Walt Mares has been in journalism since 1976 and has covered Greenlee County since 1983.

What do Greenlee and Graham counties have strongly in common? Careless drivers. They are on the road every day, usually around shift change, in the very early morning or early evening, when they on their way to and from the Morenci copper mine in Greenlee, the largest employer in either county.

So what is the root of the problem, not wanting to be late for work or unnecessarily rushing home as if responding to an emergency there when in fact there is no reason to rush?

Double yellow lines on the highway that mean “no passing is allowed” are simply ignored by many. The speed limit? Forget about it. To some, it means little or nothing. Many, but not all, drive the big pickup trucks in which the driver is the only occupant. Perhaps it is the vehicle’s size that gives the driver a sense of power – and a false sense of safety and perhaps even invulnerability.

However, it is not only those with oversize vehicles who pay little attention to traffic laws. There are plenty of medium-size or smaller cars who zip down the road well above the posted 65 miles per hour speed limit.

Pity the person who dares to obey the law and drives within the speed limit. We have one acquaintance who motors daily on U.S. 70 from Duncan to Safford in the afternoon. He does not work at the Morenci mine but does encounter shift change traffic when he approaches the State Route 70 intersection with U.S. 191, which carries most mine traffic going to or coming from the Morenci mine. He could travel on U.S. 70 but prefers to use U.S. 191.

Our friend is no timid character but his encounter with mine traffic tenses him up as he approaches the 191-70 intersection on his way home each afternoon.

He told us, “Going back into the Gila Valley at the end of the day, the traffic coming off 191 south onto U.S. 70 at the intersection east of Solomon is a hazard. Drivers entering Highway 70 west from 191 are supposed to yield the right-of-way to the westbound traffic on Highway 70. But they don’t. They don’t even slow down. I’m always watching nervously as I approach that intersection and I try to arrive at it in between the streams of vehicles coming down 191. That shouldn’t happen. They are supposed to slow down and yield.”

The morning traffic from Duncan to the Morenci mine can become a hell in itself. A short-term contractor driving each day from Duncan to Morenci described the morning commute he faces between 6:15 and 6:30 on State Route 75 out of Duncan.

He told us, “Almost every day I’ll have different vehicles riding my back bumper, flashing their brights into my mirror, honking their horns and making dangerous passes to get ahead of me. They’re all traveling way above the speed limit. Is it my fault that they don’t leave on time for your shift? Are they going to kill somebody out there one morning because they can’t get themselves organized to leave on time and drive safely? Where is law enforcement? This is almost a daily occurrence.”

One of the most dangerous violations occurring regularly involves school buses. We recall an incident in Safford in which a bus was stopped to pick up kids. Its red lights were flashing and the driver had the bright red and white sign that says “Stop” extended from the driver’s window. The bus was stopped alongside a 4-lane street. Some motorists switched to the furthest left lane, completely ignoring the bus’s flashing lights and stop sign.

Arizona law demands that all vehicles come to a complete stop, whether a vehicle is following or encountering a school bus when its lights are flashing. There are no exceptions. 

The Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc., Morenci mine is going great guns. Copper prices are up and so is production. Many of the mine’s employees live in Graham County as well as the many who are from Duncan, 35 miles from Morenci. 

The fact there is heavy mine traffic is based on the fact that the average daily traffic count in Clifton is around 6,000 vehicles. Vehicles have to travel through Clifton to reach Morenci, four miles distant. A vast majority of vehicles are tied to mine traffic.

It is not only FMI workers. With all of the construction and other activity at the mine, there are many contractors who make the round trip to Safford and Morenci. 

The fact employment at the mine is high and steady is very good news for Greenlee’s economy and even more so for Graham’s. There is a definite shortage of existing housing in Greenlee while Graham has far more housing available, but it is being pushed to the limit.

FMI and the contracting companies working at the mine put a strong emphasis on job safety. We ask that FMI and the contractor leadership go a step further. That is to hammer home to their employees the need for practicing safety on the road driving, especially when approaching school buses loading or unloading students. At times we see vehicles, usually pickup trucks, traveling through the Black Hills, with a company logo on the vehicle’s doors. It does not speak highly of the company when that vehicle speeds past another vehicle that is following the 65 mph speed limit.

It is a regular occurrence through a 10-mile section of U.S. 191 known as “The Stretch.” Perhaps a system can be established through which local law enforcement, including the Arizona Highway Patrol, the Graham and Greenlee sheriff’s offices and Clifton Police Department can notify mine officials and contractor supervisors that their employees are, in essence, driving carelessly and disregarding the law. They certainly compromising their safety and that of other motorists. Safety? All it takes is for a speeding vehicle’s tire to blow out to bring home that point.

To be fair, we point out that mine employees and contractors certainly are not the only motorists who disregard traffic laws. No doubt there are many ”civilians” who speed to work in Graham and Greenlee and who never have to cross the county line to reach work.  As we have pointed out,  disregard for school bus safety occurs in both counties. The offenders are probably late for work.

The hotel guest in Duncan may hit the nail on the head when he spoke of those headed to work at the mine leaving for work early enough to arrive at work on time.

We have a friend, a former U.S. Marine and world traveler, who lives in Thatcher. Her take on tardiness and speeding to arrive at work on time comes down to one word; “arrogance.” To her, it is simply a matter of going to bed on time to obtain a good night’s sleep and rising early enough to leave home with time to spare to arrive at work when one is supposed to. 

She points out, “It’s not like someone is being robbed or taken advantage of by showing up to work a few minutes early. That applies to any position and that certainly includes those working at the Morenci mine. With the good wages those people make, there is little or no reason to complain about arriving at work at least a few minutes early.”