A decorated “X marks the spot” road fatality reminder — Someone died here doing exactly what you’re doing now — pokes up along state Highway 44 about 50 feet from the entrance to Falling Rock Road.
Turn onto Falling Rock Road, and two signs prohibit campfires and off-road vehicles. Farther up the dirt path, more signs advise “No fireworks.”
One more sign is needed: “Use caution! Since 1985, at least nine people have died here from falls.”
Might that tighten the grip of a parent’s hand? Awaken a photographer focused only on flowing Rapid Creek far below? Remind someone with impaired balance that a stumble across these spectacular jagged, rocky ledges might be the final trip?
Sunday’s tragic fall of 6-year-old Pierre girl Sadie Whitetwin at Falling Rock, just west of Rapid City, should be met with more than prayers and condolences, more than additional lamentations from Forest Service officials over potential liability issues. The well-worn path to the cliff’s edge is on public land in the Black Hills National Forest, which has long resisted adding safety features.
One trek through a pile of Falling Rock Journal news clippings uncovers numerous instances of fatal falls, serious non-fatal falls and news stories or editorials explaining why little or nothing should be done. A Forest Service spokesman said Monday that officials “won't be able to provide a statement at this time," but ample arguments for doing nothing have been included in past reports. It’s time we reconsider.
One argument states the high number of fatal accidents at Falling Rock occurs not because it’s more dangerous than other Black Hills locations but because it’s easily accessible and more frequently visited. Actually, that’s an explanation for why it is more dangerous, why so many people die there. Easy access to the site invites more children, more inexperienced hikers. It’s why more eyes would fall upon a cautionary sign.
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A second argument: If signs were posted to advise the public about the danger at Falling Rock, the federal government could then become liable for accidents on federal land not marked as dangerous. If that’s true, how do highway departments get away with their signs: Dangerous curve ahead? Blind intersection? Falling rock?
Nobody wants a sign posted every 15 feet along every dangerous cliff. Nobody wants a fence enclosing every precipice. And nobody wants a “Dangerous intersection” sign at every crossing. They might, however, want a warning sign near the one intersection where crashes have killed someone, on average, every four years.
Might a warning sign be vandalized? Sure. Aren’t others? But how much does a sign cost? Compare that with the cost of recovering a body. Compare it with the value of a single child.
Cliffs, like highways, are inherently dangerous. People must assume responsibility for risk whenever they venture upon either. In both cases, personal responsibility plays the largest role in individual safety. But that’s not to say people cannot be provided a little help, given a small reminder or even a bit of historical context — nine deaths in 35 years.
Locals know about the dangers, but in this case we have a child from Pierre. Had the family asked longtime residents: Is there a place in the Black Hills where people continually fall to their deaths, most of us would respond, “Oh yeah, Falling Rock. Bunches of them over the years. Everybody who lives here knows it.”
What if a sign were erected to offer that warning?
Will a sign prevent all fatal or serious falls? No. Accidents happen, and laws cannot prevent people from doing foolish things. But at the current rate, we can expect another serious fall within two years, with a fatal fall two years later. Most falls occur in April, May and June.
Should we just sit by, do absolutely nothing, and look forward to tragedies around 2023, 2027, 2031, 2035 ...?