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ANCHORAGE - Clifford Dent is nearly broke because of his breakaway bolt system for highway sign and light posts. His ingenious fastening invention - able to hold up in hurricane-force winds but snap easily when hit by a vehicle - hasn't made him any money, even though the former Kenai resident thinks it has saved lives.
"It's been a blessing and a curse," said Dent, who has spent the last 15 years developing and marketing his product.
A laborer and businessman by trade, Dent came up with his bolt design while installing a highway sign under contract with the state years ago.
In 1987, he made the heat-treated steel bolt with a computer-milled, hourglass-shaped center designed to fail on impact.
"It was so simple people didn't think it would work," said Dent, who had no engineering background, just "Alaskan know-how."
He received U.S. and Canadian patents on the design in 1990 and got federal approval for the bolt in 1996, after spending "hundreds of thousands" on government crash tests.
Dent then sold his Peninsula Fence Co. and left Alaska to pitch his product to highway departments. The product is used in about 30 states, including Alaska, but not in sufficient quantity for him to earn a decent living, he said.
"I still got to eat to do this thing," Dent said. "This year was better than last. It all boils down to getting states to try it."
Trinity Industries Inc. of Dallas, Texas, is making the bolts and is helping Dent market them. Often he wonders if coming up with his Dent Breakaway Bolt has been worth it.
"I made a way better living with my fence company," Dent said in a telephone interview from New Mexico. "Plus I got to stay home. I've visited 42 states in the past two years. I'm tired of driving."
He's homesick, but selling the bolts from Alaska isn't practical.
Several states have reported that Dent's bolts have worked as intended in crashes, without injury to drivers. But at $15 each, most states take a pass. Dent is pinning his hopes on a federal rule that could require sign posts to use technology like his.
"There are millions of signs out there that need millions and millions of bolts," Dent said. "The rewards will be great, if I live that long."
Some 15 folks from Kenai invested in Dent's company in the mid-1990s. Travis Steinbeck figured the idea was a gold mine when he put money in Dent's invention. But he's having second thoughts now.
"I haven't seen a penny," Steinbeck said. "I would have been better off investing in Yahoo!"
Mark Hodgins, a former Alaska lawmaker now living in Oregon, said he knew there was risk in putting his money into the idea.
"Cliff made a better mousetrap," Hodgins said. But safer signs aren't a priority with states.
"Every dollar they would have to spend on the bolts, that's a dollar less for education or a school nurse or something," he said.