Little relief on the ‘murder mile’

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

MONROE — Spooked by hectic traffic, near misses and her father’s collision with a truck, Nancy Gunning scrutinizes drivers in her rearview mirror as she drives Highway 203 south of Monroe.

If they look angry or distracted by a cell phone, she pulls over rather than risk a crash as she slows to turn off the highway on her way home.

"I drive it every day, and I see more and more skid marks," she said.

A new report by the state Department of Transportation offers Gunning little hope of relief on a stretch of road locals have dubbed the "murder mile."

Transportation officials say dropping the speed limit won’t help things, though some, including Gunning, have called for a lower speed limit.

The things that would help most — lanes for drivers turning onto side roads — won’t happen for years, according to those officials.

Instead, they want residents to help come up with low-cost immediate solutions, though such changes may not produce dramatic results.

It’s a plan that leaves some city officials and residents unhappy and wishing the state would rethink its refusal to drop the speed limit.

"We’re not satisfied," Monroe City Councilman Tony Balk said.

State officials will explain their findings, and pitch the idea of a community task force at 6 p.m. June 21 at the Tualco Grange Hall, 18933 Tualco Road.

The Transportation Department took a close look at accidents on the highway at the request of the Monroe City Council after Gunning and others pressed the state to drop the speed limit and make the highway safer.

A study, however, found that many accidents weren’t tied to speeding, and that most people were already driving near the 55 mph speed limit, said Dawn McIntosh, the department’s traffic engineer in Snohomish County.

"We found other problems that are potentially contributing to the crashes," she said.

The main problem is a lack of turn lanes drivers can use to escape faster drivers as they wait to turn onto a side road, McIntosh said.

She noted that rear-end collisions accounted for slightly more than half the recorded accidents at intersections between 1994 and 1999. Such accidents have less to do with speed than people’s ability to move out of the way of traffic, she said.

To ease the problem, the department recommends adding turn lanes at three intersections along Highway 203.

But finding the money to do it may prove tough. The state doesn’t have money earmarked for the projects between 2001 and 2003. And none rank in the top 10 on lists of projects awaiting money by 2005. Generally, 10 of the projects get funding, McIntosh said.

"They would certainly be looked at and considered," she said. "But with all of the pressing needs, whether they would be the ones selected would be another story."

Both Gunning and Balk still weren’t convinced by the state’s arguments against lowering the speed limit. Both said they would like to see an intermediate speed limit just south of the city limits, so that driver’s don’t hit an abrupt shift from 55 to 25 mph.

Balk also questioned the department’s study, noting it didn’t appear to count an accident he knew of.

McIntosh said the department stopped creating transition zones at the Washington State Patrol’s request. The zones weren’t working well and were hard to enforce, she said. The state report doesn’t account for all accidents since 1997 because of problems with a new computer system used by the State Patrol to record accident information.

Likewise, people drive according to what feels safe to them, not the posted speed limit, she said. Lowering the speed limit would just make for more uneven speeds on the highway and prompt many people to disregard the lowered speeds, she said.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to

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