Crash shows that U.S. 2 fatalities haven’t let up

MONROE — A fiery crash claimed another life early Thursday morning on U.S. 2, and state officials say they don’t have the money to make substantial changes to the deadly highway anytime soon.

Fifty-one people have died on U.S. 2 between Snohomish and Stevens Pass since 1999, state accident data shows. Of those fatalities, 19 occurred in crossover collisions similar to Thursday’s.

A man driving a small pickup died after colliding with a Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy’s patrol car along U.S. 2 just west of Monroe. Investigators believe the pickup crossed the center line.

A deputy and a man in custody he was transporting were injured. The deputy was in stable condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle Thursday evening. His passenger was treated at an Everett hospital, then sent to jail.

U.S. 2, a heavily-traveled east-to-west corridor with two lanes, is one of the most dangerous highways in the region, said Fred Walser, who is chairman of the U.S. 2 Safety Coalition, a retired State Patrol trooper and former Sultan police chief.

The coalition has worked since 1997 to reduce deaths along the highway.

U.S. 2 has been designated a “traffic safety corridor” because of the high number of serious and fatal collisions on the stretch of road from Stevens Pass to Everett.

The only way to prevent cross-over collisions like Thursday’s is to build a multiple-lane highway divided by a concrete median divider, called a Jersey barrier, Walser said.

The length of the road and the poor economy make big fixes, such as adding multiple lanes, difficult, said Meghan Pembroke, a spokeswoman for the Washington state Department of Transportation.

“We can’t just fix one area and eliminate the problem,” she said.

U.S. 2 is a big concern for people in east Snohomish County, but many worthwhile projects across the state are competing for the same limited pot of money, Pembroke said.

In 2007, the state worked with local communities to develop a list of 56 projects to improve safety and reduce congestion on U.S. 2. The price tag for those projects would exceed $1 billion.

“It’s a big list, and it has a big price tag for all of it,” she said.

That wish list is a good blue print for legislators but the reality is there’s no cash, she said.

The state has made a number of targeted improvements, including adding 40 miles of rumble strips along the centerline and shoulders between Monroe and Stevens Pass. So far, those rumble strips, a line of divots ground into pavement, seem to be reducing collisions along that stretch of road, she said.

There were rumble strips along the section of highway where Thursday’s crash occurred.

In the 2008 the state Legislature also approved $10 million for U.S. 2 safety improvements between Monroe and Gold Bar. Those changes include building new turn lanes and closing crash-prone intersections at Fern Bluff Road and Sultan-Startup Road. That work is scheduled to begin in 2010.

A community-led project also has led to increased traffic safety patrols and education efforts to reduce collisions.

As part of that effort, electric signs now display the number days since a serious collision. The signs were reset to zero after Thursday morning’s crash.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner hadn’t released the pickup driver’s name late Thursday. The truck was registered to a Monroe man.

Detectives still are investigating what apparently caused the 1986 Nissan pickup to cross the centerline around 4 a.m. and crash head on into the deputy’s patrol car at the western intersection of Roosevelt Road and U.S. 2, Washington State Patrol trooper Keith Leary said.

The impact caused the patrol car to spin around and land in a ditch alongside the highway.

Flames consumed the pickup, and the driver died at the scene.

Firefighters had to cut the roofs off the vehicles to remove the victims.

The deputy was taken by helicopter to Harborview Medical Center, Leary said. The 22-year-old man he had arrested, was taken to a local hospital, Leary said.

The deputy, 35, has been with the sheriff’s office for three years. He has prior law enforcement work history, Leary said.

Detectives are asking anyone who may have seen a tan pickup driving eastbound along U.S. 2 early Thursday morning to call 360-658-2588.

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197, dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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