It’s a deadly mystery.
Something is happening along I-5 north of Marysville that is causing cars and trucks to cut across the median separating the northbound and southbound lanes.
Michael O’Leary / The Herald
The cable barrier on the I-5 median south of Smokey Point is designed to prevent vehicles from crossing into oncoming traffic.
Too often, the vehicles are blasting through the 30-inch-high steel cable barriers the state Department of Transportation has installed to prevent head-on crashes.
People are dying. The cable barriers are being blamed.
Some people are so afraid they’ve begun avoiding I-5 just north of Marysville.
“I don’t want to be the one who ends up having a head-on collision from someone else coming across the freeway,” Vikki Paxton of Arlington said.
Concerns that the cable barriers north of Marysville aren’t always working appear to be justified, a computer analysis by The Herald found.
Accident data obtained from the state Department of Transportation show that from 1999 to 2004, 137 crashes were reported along the 10-mile stretch of cable barriers on I-5 north of Marysville.
Contrary to the perception that the cables aren’t working, state records show the cables snagged 91 percent of the cars that veered onto the median, preventing cross-over accidents.
A closer look shows significantly different performance along a three-mile section that stretches from just south of Smokey Point to milepost 208 near the Highway 530 interchange outside Arlington.
That’s where vehicles went over, under or through the cable barriers in seven of 35 accidents along the median, the analysis found. That means the barriers didn’t work in one out of five accidents. The rate is more than triple what the data suggest has occurred along the other seven miles of cabled highway examined, the Herald analysis found.
Across-the-median crashes in the problem area accounted for four of the seven fatalities along I-5 north of Marysville between 2000 and 2004, records show. Two high-profile accidents on the highway this year occurred outside the problem stretch of I-5.
State studies problem
State officials don’t dispute the results of The Herald’s analysis, which involved looking at data collected from 854 accidents.
“We noted that, too. We have the same data,” Transportation Department spokesman Travis Phelps said.
Dave McCormick, the department’s assistant regional administrator for maintenance and traffic operations, said the state isn’t sure what is happening.
Officials are concerned enough that they recently launched three studies that could lead to a different type of barrier in the median. They’ve started a statewide review of every accident where a car crossed onto the median. They’ve also launched a close examination of the design of the Marysville-area cable barriers, and are looking at alternatives, including concrete or steel guardrails.
They’re also looking into moving the existing cable barrier and adding a second – one on each side of the median instead of a single one that meanders down the middle.
The state is also researching the performance of cable barriers in other states, including North and South Carolina, where about 1,000 miles of roadway are separated by the steel strands, McCormick said.
Stopping accidents where vehicles cross the median is a statewide priority, but figuring out what is happening near Marysville has special significance, the engineer said.
“This particular area, there is a sense of urgency,” he said. “These are tragedies.”
The cables are as thick as a dime. Three cables are hooked to metal posts buried 21/2 feet in the ground. The top cable is 30 inches from the ground, low enough that it can be stepped over by most adults.
But the Marysville-area cable barrier isn’t uniformly placed in the median. At the south end, it closely parallels the northbound lanes, with the cables strung at a level higher than the roadway.
But along the problem three-mile stretch, the cable posts are at the bottom of a slope. In some areas, the top cable appears to be just a few inches above the grade of the road.
The I-5 median between the northbound and southbound lanes where the cables are strung also varies widely in width. In the narrowest sections, only about 40 feet separates oncoming traffic. That’s the minimum state standard, though 50 feet is preferred, to give the cables more room to work.
Lawsuits in the works
Attorneys for some of those who have died say they are preparing to sue the state.
Out-of-state experts have examined the cable barriers near Marysville and have raised questions about their placement in the median, said Mike Nelson, an attorney for the Holschen family of Bothell.
Megan “Marijke” Holschen, 18, died Dec. 15 when the family’s SUV was struck by a Ford Explorer that crossed the median despite the cables. The crash was within the three-mile area where The Herald found the highest concentration of cable-related problems.
Nelson said he is preparing a lawsuit that will question whether the state placed the barriers in a median that was too narrow and too steeply sloped for safety. He, too, is examining the crash data.
There are about 50 miles of cable barriers along Washington state highways. The 10-mile Marysville stretch is the longest.
Cable barriers are cheaper to install than concrete barriers or steel guardrails. Transportation officials are so convinced that cable barriers work that they are planning to spend $16 million to add 170 miles of cable barriers along state highways over the next four years.
Transportation Department engineer Richard Albin is a fan of the barriers, which act like giant rubber bands. They are designed to absorb the impact of a vehicle careening into the median, while preventing it from crossing into oncoming traffic or bouncing back into the roadway.
Cable barriers work on slopes or near the bottom of a ditch if the slope from the roadway is not too steep, Albin said. Tests show they are safer on slopes than fixed guardrails, he said.
Albin has compared the cost, benefits and crash damage associated with barriers made from stretched cables, concrete and steel guardrails. Given a choice in an accident, he said he would want his car to be caught by cables.
The engineer said he’s been puzzling for six months over what is happening around Marysville and the attention focused on cable barriers.
“I would definitely hope the buzz does not kill the program,” he said.
McCormick said he’s not sure why more vehicles are getting through the cables from milepost 205 to 208, but he said it could be because there’s more traffic coming on and off the freeway at a rest stop and the Highway 530 and 172nd Street NE exits.
“You’ve got slow traffic mixing with fast traffic,” he said.
The steeper the angle that a car hits the cable barrier, the more chance it has to plow through, McCormick said, adding that faster speeds also contribute.
He also said he suspects that the state’s accident data may not completely explain the circumstances of the crashes. That’s why engineers are now pulling paper records on every crash.
Growth a factor
State officials say that I-5 near Marysville is undergoing a transformation from a rural highway to a congested urban interstate. More growth – new outlet malls, big-box stores and housing developments – in the area means more traffic and more accidents.
To counteract the congestion, the state last week reduced the speed limit from Marysville north to the Smokey Point exit from 70 mph to 60 mph. The accident rate along that stretch of I-5 is actually lower than the state average, according to Transportation Department officials.
Although cable-related crashes are getting the most attention, nearly half the accidents on I-5 north of Marysville involved cars that rear-ended or sideswiped each other because the drivers were following too closely, speeding, or not paying attention, according to accident data.
Unsafe speeds and inattention are also big contributors to crashes that send vehicles onto the median. Police emphasized that the cable barriers aren’t to blame for bad driving.
“Back away from the barrier to the car to who is in charge of the car,” Washington State Patrol trooper Lance Ramsay said. “Why is the car pointing at the median in the first place?”
Ramsay said too many drivers are speeding and not paying attention to the road. Many reflexively steer toward the median when they suddenly are confronted by an obstruction, he said.
“People are way too relaxed. It’s intrinsic – jump in the car, put your hands on the wheel and go. They’re not thinking about what happens around them,” Ramsay said.
Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or firstname.lastname@example.org.