STURGIS, S.D. (KELO) — The big count is underway for the South Dakota Department of Transportation. 

Since 1990, the 50th edition of the Sturgis Rally, the SDDOT has been counting traffic on roads in the Black Hills and near Sturgis. Each year the data is collected and analyzed to help keep a tally on the amount of people attending the annual motorcycle rally. Data also helps traffic engineers decide where temporary stop lights are needed to keep the large amount of motorcycles and everyday traffic flowing. 

One of those traffic engineers is Jon Suomala, who met with KELOLAND News at one of the most northern traffic counters on Highway 79, just north of Bear Butte and the Full Throttle Saloon. 

Suomala described the SDDOT traffic counting process, which gets setup the Wednesday and Thursday before the official rally starts. This year, the rally runs from Aug. 6 to Aug. 15. 

“It’s a tube counter,” Suomala said as motorcycles rumbled louder than gusts of wind on a typical remote stretch of two-lane highway. “When a vehicle goes over it, it squashes the tube, it sends a puff of air to the controller which tells it that a vehicle crossed and counts it.” 

Below, you can view a slow-motion video of a motorcycle driving across the counter tubes, which look like black strips of wire across the road. 

For Suomala and the crew, setting up the traffic counters is a two-day process followed by stops by traffic technicians. Using laptop computers, traffic technicians connect to the counter and process the numbers daily. The counters record one vehicle for every two axles that hit the road tube.

Last year, the SDDOT counted traffic at 462,182 over 10 days, with the highest day being Monday with a total of 56,149 counted vehicles. The number was down only 7.5% from the 10-day total of 499,654 in 2019. 

“We use the numbers that we get just to get an idea of how the number of people attending the rally changes from year to year,” Suomala said. “We can kinda see some patterns and use that to determine what years we think will be higher attended rallies.” 

The Sturgis Rally grew to 10 days starting in 2017 but the SDDOT has been gathering data for 10 days around the rally since 2011. The record is 2015, which was also the 75th anniversary of the rally, when 747,032 vehicles were counted over a 10-day period. 

This year, data is still being collected, but no finalized numbers have been released. But Sturgis Rally officials have been anticipating crowds near the level of 2015 of 700,000.  

“Generally, what we’ve seen from traffic, we’re expecting numbers to be up,” Suomala said. 

A South Dakota Department of Transportation traffic counter on Highway 79, north of Sturgis.

Where are the traffic counters and where is road information available? 

Suomala said the SDDOT has 30 traffic counters spread out around Sturgis, but nine main ones measure traffic entering Sturgis. 

Four are used on the off-ramps of Interstate 90, while the other five are placed at the other five areas where traffic can enter Sturgis. You can see a full list below. Ft. Meade Way was added as a way into Sturgis in 2016. 

  • I-90 Exit 32 WB offramp
  • I-90 Exit 32 EB offramp 
  • I-90 Exit 30 EB offramp 
  • I-90 Exit 30 WB offramp 
  • US 14A EB SW of Exit 30 
  • SD 34 WB east of Buffalo Chip Campground 
  • SD 79 SB north of Bear Butte 
  • Vanocker Canyon Rd NB south of Exit 32 
  • Ft Meade Way 

Along with counting the number of vehicles attending the Sturgis Rally, the SDDOT provides updates on temporary road closures, construction areas and weather-related impacts at the SD511 website. 

“A lot of the things we do are for safety,” Suomala said, adding the DOT uses message boards to warn people about potentially hazardous conditions. “If there are crashes, we can put that message on as well and hopefully prevent secondary crashes from occurring.”