Help for ‘Highway of Death’

MONROE – Before people in the Skykomish Valley started calling U.S. 2 “the Highway of Death,” another nearby two-lane highway had the same nickname.

The 11-mile stretch of Highway 522 between Woodinville and Monroe used to be notorious for deadly crossover crashes.

But a simple safety project, completed about 12 years ago, has improved the situation. The number of head-on collisions on Highway 522 dropped after the state added divots in the center of the road to alert drivers when straying into the oncoming lane.

Now Skykomish Valley residents are hoping the same fix will make a difference on U.S. 2, as their neighbors and friends continue to die in crossover accidents on the two-lane highway.

The Legislature this year put $731,000 toward adding the divots onto U.S. 2. Engineers plan to start designing the project this summer and the work is expected to be completed by 2009.

People are still reeling from the death of Genevieve Jelinek, a longtime Sultan resident and a nurse who often tended the injured in U.S. 2 crashes.

Jelinek died on May 2 on the highway when the car she was driving crossed the centerline and slammed head-on into a flatbed truck. She was the 44th person killed in a crash on U.S. 2 in the last eight years, according to state accident data. Of those fatalities, 15 occurred in crossover crashes.

The cause of the crash is still under investigation. It doesn’t appear that alcohol, drugs or speeding played roles in Jelinek’s crash, Washington State Patrol trooper Kirk Rudeen said.

Rudeen said he used to investigate many crossover fatal crashes on Highway 522 when only painted lines divided its two lanes.

A series of safety projects on Highway 522 have changed the tide, state accident data shows.

In October 1995, the state Department of Transportation created a 50-inch-wide median space on the highway between Highway 9 and the Snohomish River bridge. Within that space, crews ground two rows of 16-inch-wide rumble strips – divots that cause vibrations when a car’s tires roll over them.

“That’s what we’d like to get for U.S. 2,” said Sultan Police Chief Fred Walser, who leads a grassroots group of local residents and officials committed to making U.S. 2 safer. “The key to me is a double row, not a single row, because what it does is it wakes up people.”

A comparison of state accident data before and after the Highway 522 project’s completion shows that the rumble strips helped reduce the number of crossover crashes almost by half.

The data shows that 17 crossover crashes occurred on that stretch of Highway 522 between January 1993 and September 1995.

After the project, nine crossover crashes occurred between January 1996 and September 1998 – a similar 33-month period.

When crashes occur, however, people still die. During the former period, one person died and six people were seriously injured in head-on collisions. During the latter period, one person died and two people were seriously hurt.

Since 1996, three people have died in crossover crashes on Highway 522 between Highway 9 and the Snohomish River bridge, according to the transportation department.

Highway 522 has received other safety improvements. Part of the road was widened to four lanes and divided by a median barrier. More improvements are on the way.

Meanwhile, the state plans to put down centerline rumble strips on a 41-mile stretch of U.S. 2 between Monroe and Stevens Pass.

The width of the U.S. 2 rumble strips will depend on how much space is available along the highway, said Mike Swires, a state traffic engineer.

“It’s a tradeoff with shoulder space out there,” Swires said. “It eliminates passing opportunities between (Monroe and Sultan). It could lead to drivers’ aggression.”

Part of U.S. 2 already has centerline rumble strips, though they are narrower than the ones on Highway 522.

In 2004, the state spent about $650,000 putting a single row of 12-inch-wide median rumble strips on U.S. 2 between Snohomish and Monroe.

During the two years before the project was completed, 17 crossover crashes occurred on the stretch of the highway. That went down to 10 during the two years after the project.

Rumble strips can’t be installed in some areas, said Meghan Soptich, spokeswoman for the transportation department. For example, crews don’t install them on bridges or overpasses because they could shorten the longevity of those structures.

Rumble strips alone won’t cure the highway’s problems, Walser said.

“It’s a small Band-Aid start to address the problem,” Walser said.

Preliminary findings in a $1.3 million study, expected out soon, show that overall improvement projects on U.S. 2 would cost more than $1 billion.

The state plans to spend about $17 million over the next two years on guardrail, intersection and slope stabilization projects on the highway, according to the transportation department.

Snohomish County has pledged $1.5 million to match funds for U.S. 2 projects.

Competition for federal money is fierce, said U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Meanwhile, drivers can do their part reducing accidents on U.S. 2, trooper Rudeen said.

“The bottom line is the driver,” he said. “Drivers are the ones that are operating cars.”

According to state accident data, the number of fatal crashes on U.S. 2 dropped to four in 2006 from seven in 2005 after troopers cracked down on speeders, drunks and aggressive drivers.

Drivers on the highway need to observe speed limits, wear seatbelts and turn on headlights all the time to alert oncoming traffic, Rudeen said.

“Focus on driving,” he said. “If we can get people to do that, we will have a significant impact on public safety.”

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or ynohara@heraldnet.com.

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