During my 12 years attending Burning Man, on several occasions burners traveling to or from Black Rock City along highway 447 between Wadsworth and Empire have been seriously injured and/or died in multiple-vehicle accidents and head-on collisions. Sadly, I have stood next a fellow burner’s body and witnessed rangers assist life flight paramedics load gravely injured patients into helicopters.
I believe the quickest method to shut down the event will be for some locals to die outside of BRC because of some idiot burner’s driving. This year I witnessed 3 extremely close calls all within only 30 minutes which could have involved multiple vehicles and unquestionably resulted in serious injuries or fatalities to burners and/or locals. This is only my story…undoubtedly there are others.
Sure, we all know two-lane highways are notoriously dangerous. However, the stretch between Wadsworth and Empire is especially dangerous during Burning Man and Exodus. Why? Please read on.
This year while traveling to Black Rock City, I witnessed a very close near-head-on collision. We were traveling northbound on 447 in an endless convoy of burners holding a steady 55 mph. All along the way since the Pyramid Lake overlook several drivers were jockeying for position like it was NASCAR. After they played a ridiculous round of 447 leap-frog (passing someone, only to be passed by them) most of the drivers began to settle down and drive a steady 55 mph. As any veteran burner will tell you, this is top speed on highway 447 during the main event. As we approached the town of Empire, I began to notice in my side mirror a new round of vehicles leapfrogging up the convoy. As we neared Empire, still a solid 10 miles out, behind me I witnessed a VW bus attempting to pass another vehicle already traveling 55 mph and was lagging out there in the passing lane for a solid minute or two! Eventually an oncoming local’s car approached from the north and the VW bus didn’t yield in time. The oncoming vehicle began to sharply brake and drive off the road onto the steep shoulder, dust began to fly, and the small commuter car began to lien hard to the right, almost rolling over to it’s right side. The VW bus finally passed and got over. As the oncoming local’s car reentered the road at speed it nearly lost control and drove head on into the convoy of burners!
Not a minute after the VW bus driver completed their idiotic pass they obliviously attempted to pass me while I was going a steady 55 and had another 20 cars ahead of me traveling the same speed! I was BEYOND livid. Minutes after the near head-on collision I saw 2 cars attempting to pass nearly 15 cars in the endless convoy also traveling a steady speed of 55 mph. At the last minute, a third car pulled out to pass and appeared to not see the cars passing, almost sideswiping the the lead car. Now there were 3 cars bumper to bumper passing 10 cars until the next open slot. Lunacy!!!
A few minutes after passing me and entering Empire the entire convoy came to an abrupt stop for 20-30 minutes due Gerlach running out of gas. When many drivers got out of their vehicles, I attempted to calmly speak with the VW bus driver and discovered she was completely oblivious to the local’s car almost driving off the road and colliding w/ the convoy. I attempted to speak with the VW bus passenger who had switched to the driver’s position and she said “Oh, but we’re AHEAD of you.” Maybe she already had her own words with the driver; I don’t know. Surely, this is not how I had hoped to begin my burn. Semi-regretfully I didn’t flag down the Highway Patrol officers that slowly drove by us.
After years of dealing with drivers like this I find myself loosing my tolerance for the idiot, selfish burners endangering others lives. It is my only serious complaint about Burning Man. When burners hit the pavement they turn off their brains and their courtesy. Highway 447 is not the 405 in LA, nor is it Oakland 880. As an extreme athlete and former professional driver, I can factually state SPEED KILLS. I have lost several friends and co-workers to vehicle collisions and extreme sports accidents. And it will do so most efficiently on skinny two-lane roads with convoys of tired burners driving overloaded oversized vehicles all in an oblivious hurry futilely attempting to get somewhere faster than the person in front of them.
Ultimately, passing on highway 447 will be the one of the more dangerous activities many of us participate in at Burning Man. Have you ever noticed when no one is passing everybody is chill? Then when one car passes, their “sheep gene” kicks in and all the drivers then want to pass. Bottomline….please don’t pass unless someone is going extremely slow (below 40 mph) for several miles and it is absolutely safe. Please do not pass while in large convoys of RVs unless they are averaging 40 mph or below and you absolutely must pass. If they are traveling 45-55 mph or faster, PLEASE DO NOT PASS. I know it will be difficult for you to turn off your sheep gene when everyone else is doing it. However, PLEASE REALIZE you will just get behind another huge convoy of vehicles and only save yourself a max of 5-15 minutes while endangering everyone’s life out there. If you do choose to pass. Please have your headlights on, look in your mirrors so you don’t collide with some who’s already passing. Please pass ONLY in the designated passing zones when it is safe and clear. Please DO NOT PASS in multiple car passing convoys; only one car at a time. The lead car may cut it too close and then the middle vehicles are stuck driving head on into oncoming traffic. Please DO NOT PASS when it’s cutting it close to oncoming traffic. Please be patient, try to enjoy the scenery and drive safe. Trying to save 5-15 minutes is not worth your life or someone else’s. Waiting for 4 hours for your fellow burners to get life-flighted out will not save you time. We are all trying to get to the same place. Please just chill and enjoy the journey!
Please consider my story an important gift by sharing it with your fellow burners. It could save their life, a neighbor’s, or a Gerlach local’s as well as help the BMorg avoid major lawsuits and BLM permit loss. Realistically, in most communities preventive steps only occur AFTER a tragic accident. Please don’t let it come to that. We build this amazing city every year and collectively we have the capacity and intellect to prevent this BEFORE another tragic accident occurs. If we don’t talk about this, I believe the perfect storm of vehicle accidents will be inevitable.
I would like to ask the burner community to discuss this with each other and hopefully we can come up with some positive solutions. Do you have any suggestions? What kind of close-calls have you experienced? Maybe you think it's safe to pass 10 cars at a time. Do you think highway 447 needs the speed limit to be lowered to 55 mph for the event? I'd like to hear your thoughts. Thank you!