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Fatality on Road to Burning Man Shuts Down Highway

Each year, the Burning Man festival draws tens of thousands of tourists to the Northern Nevada area. The festival is hosted in the Black Rock Desert, northeast of the cities of Reno and Sparks. Almost everyone who attends the week-long event travels by car, and many pass through the Reno area via Interstate 80. While traffic delays are not uncommon, they are seldom due to fatal car accidents.

Indeed, it is not unusual for the weekends preceding and following the festival to result in heavy traffic on the highways surround the Reno-Sparks and Lake Tahoe area. It is not unusual to find all lanes of traffic at a complete standstill. Many longtime residents of the region know to avoid eastbound traffic on the weekend prior to the festival and westbound traffic after it. The gridlock has its silver linings – “Burners” are a friendly bunch, and when traffic reaches a total choke point they often exit their vehicles to play, share, and build community. Unfortunately, this year’s circumstances were grim.

On Sunday the 24th of August, festival goers received notice that the road to Burning Man at State Route 447 and County Road 34 was closed while the Washoe County Sherriff’s Office investigated a fatal collision that occurred around noon. The victim of the crash was identified as Lonnie Richey, a 61-year-old resident of Carson City, Nevada. He was also found to have caused the accident. Preliminary investigations determined that Richey, who was driving a pickup southbound on a county road near State Route 447, crossed the yellow lines and struck an RV heading northbound. Two occupants of the RV were treated for minor injuries, but Richey was the only fatality that day. [1]

As a result of the accident, the road to Burning Man was shut down for hours on the Sunday, stranding many Burners at the airport or on roads nearby. Nearly 800 festival goers ended up spending the night at the Reno-Tahoe airport or in nearby hotels while they waited for the investigation to wrap up. Thankfully, the delay was only temporary, and most Burning Man attendees were able to make it to the desert in time for most of the festivities. [2]

Other Accidents at Burning Man

While deadly traffic accidents (as well as other motor vehicle accidents resulting in serious personal injuries) are a tragically common occurrence in Nevada, Burning Man has been home to a host of other more unusual accidents over the years. On August 27 of this year, a small plane leaving Burning Man crashed near the Reno-Stead airport. One passenger on-board the small plane was seriously injured. The other two passengers on the flight were also hospitalized with less severe injuries. The plane reportedly struck a fence near the airport. Details are sparse as to whether the plane was taking off or landing and what caused it to hit the fence. [3]

One of the most surprising and widely publicized accidents at Burning Man occurred last year on the last night of the festival. While thousands of festival attendees attended the ceremonial bonfire marking the conclusion of the festival, one man bypassed several layers of security to run head-first into the inferno. The victim was identified as 41-year-old Aaron Joel Mitchel, and he later died as a result of his burn injuries. According to friends at the festival, Mitchel had talked about “end of life,” but it wasn’t evident that he was depressed or suicidal. No autopsy was conducted (the cause of death was apparent), and not trace of drugs or alcohol was detected. [4]

Driving in Heavy Traffic

About 20,000 tourists travel through the Reno-Tahoe airport each year in order to attend the festival. Thousands more reach the festival by car, for a grand total of roughly 70,000 attendees each year. [5] This creates a dramatic increase in traffic density on what would otherwise be fairly quiet rural highways and dirt roads. These lonely highways and byways seldom witness car crashes outside of these unusually busy times of year.

Driving in heavy traffic can be dangerous for a number of reasons. When there are more drivers on the road, there are simply more cars that could potentially cause an accident. Cars are frequently accelerating and braking, and any driver who takes his or her attention off the road for even a second risks causing an accident. Drivers can also become frustrated and heated in high-traffic situations, increasing the likelihood of aggressive driving and road rage.

When driving in high-traffic situations, such as along the highway leaving Burning Man this week, follow a few tips to keep yourself and your passengers safe:

  • Keep a distance of several car lengths between your car and the vehicle in front of you. The more space you give yourself, the more reaction time you allow yourself if the car ahead brakes suddenly.
  • If you notice cars ahead of you braking, begin slowing down immediately but avoid braking suddenly if possible.
  • Avoid distractions in the car. Don’t adjust the radio while driving, and make sure your cell phone is out of reach. Many serious car accidents are caused by distracted driving.
  • Don’t drive aggressively or change lanes. If you’re having trouble keeping your composure, try some deep breathing exercises.
  • Always use your turn signals or “blinkers” when changing lanes.
  • Use your mirrors to monitor the areas around your car and check your blind spot frequently. [6]


[2] Ibid.





Image Credit:  Wikipedia Commons by  Kyle Harmon 

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