Dead Man's Curve

ACCIDENT SIGN 2_8066938In life, do you sometimes question decisions you made years ago? At the Iowa Department of Transportation, every day is a learning experience where we try to build on successes and learn from the less-than-successful projects of the past.

New technology and information that is available to highways designers today has significantly changed the way roadways are constructed. The problem is, roadways that were constructed 40 or 50 years ago are still being used, even though they are not always up to today’s design standards. Using data to target the highways and updates that would be most beneficial is the goal. This is the story of one of the highways where updates have saved lives.

As long as residents near the small central Iowa town of Randall can remember, a specific stretch of U.S 69 west of town has been known as “Dead Man’s Curve.” It didn’t get this nickname by chance.

This stretch is actually two curves on the highway, and since its construction, numerous traffic-related deaths have taken place on these curves. Because of safety updates, there has only been one fatality in this area since 2001, and 24 crashes with 21 injuries.

The history of Dead Man’s Curve

Prior to the construction of Interstate 35 just east Randall, U.S. 69 was the most direct route between Des Moines and Minneapolis, so it was a very busy roadway.

Back in 1931, when this stretch went from a country gravel road to a paved highway, it was built to the design standard of the day, one 9-foot-wide lane in each travel direction. At the time, there was a slight curb placed on the inside edge of the two curves in the road to help with drainage. The narrow lanes, curves and curbs proved over time to be less than ideal for safe travel.

In 1952, the roadway was widened from a span of 18 feet (two 9-foot lanes) to a width of 24 feet, allowing for 12-foot lanes for each direction of traffic. The drainage curb was also removed.

Steve Gent, with the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of Traffic and Safety, has been studying ways to further improve the safety of this area. He said, “In 2013, paved shoulders were added to each side of the roadway. Today, this section of road has many safety features, including centerline rumble strips, rumble strips placed in the paved shoulders, intersection lighting, curve warning signs, and chevrons around the curves.”












These changes to U.S. 69’s Dead Man’s Curve is just one example of how the Iowa DOT is focused on making highway travel as safe as possible, but changes to the highways can only go so far in saving lives.

Research shows more than 94 percent of highway fatalities are related to driver behavior. To increase awareness of dangerous driving habits, the Iowa DOT, along with our partners at the Iowa departments of Public Safety and Public Health, created the Zero Fatalities program.

Zero Fatalities is about changing the culture of driving in Iowa. As of Dec. 6, 2016, 2016, there have been 368 fatalities in Iowa, which is 48 more than in all of 2015. Roadway agencies can make our highways safer, car manufactures can make vehicles safer, but without changing the driving culture and getting those behind the wheel to focus on the task of driving, we will never get to the goal of Zero Fatalities Driving is a dangerous task which many people take for granted.

Are you taking the necessary precautions to protect yourself and those you are sharing the road with? Never get behind the wheel after you’ve been drinking or are impaired. If you need to get home, call a friend or use a taxi, Uber, or other ride service. Always buckle up. That seat belt could mean the difference between life and death. Put the cell phone down. Distracted driving is never a good idea. And always follow the rules of the road. If we all follow these simple steps we could go a long way to reducing the number of deaths on Iowa’s roads.

To view the Iowa Zero Fatalities 2015 statistics, visit

A firsthand account

Curtis Owenson

Curtis Owenson lived between the two curves near Randall his entire life and can recall dozens of crashes on Dead Man’s Curve. He even remembers when the first “Think” sign was placed along the road. “A man had been killed in a single-car crash,” he said. “He lost control and in those days, they didn’t have seat belts, so people were more vulnerable to getting hurt.”

ACCIDENT SIGN_8066936Back in the day, the State Auto and Casualty Underwriters of Des Moines placed signs along Iowa’s roadways indicating the location of each traffic-related fatality. Each sign, which read “X Marks the Spot,” represented one fatality. Many of these signs were placed throughout this area, and at some point, the signs were all placed together along one of the curves. “The insurance company placed the signs in an attempt to remind drivers how dangerous driving is and to be safe,” said Gent.

The second crash Owenson recalled involved three individuals being killed because their car was hit head-on by another vehicle. The driver of the second vehicle, who crossed the centerline, had been under the influence of alcohol, according to Owenson.

When Owenson was a bit older, two more women were killed in a single-vehicle crash. The women were unaware the road had a curve. They kept driving straight and drove directly off the road.

Another crash Owenson remembers was when a gentleman had lost control of his vehicle and was thrown from his car. The victim had recently made a bet with another man in a bar a few miles north of the area that he could make it to Des Moines in 30 minutes without putting gas in the car. He never made it.

 “I have never seen anyone killed on that road as a result of bad weather and road conditions,” Owenson said. “It was either alcohol or reckless driving.” Each of the crashes Owenson recalls likely would have been avoided if the drivers involved made different driving decisions, potentially saving the life of six people.

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