Public provides call to action on I-5 barriers

An SUV cruising at 70 mph doesn’t seem like a fair opponent for a trio of penny-sized cable lines. But for I-5 medians through Marysville, these cords are the only defense against a vehicle veering toward oncoming traffic.

Residents seeking to protect drivers from deadly crossover accidents along I-5 expressed their concerns over that defense system Monday evening when state Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen hosted a meeting on the subject.

The gathering was a reciprocal success: The state provided the public with an understanding of median accidents and barriers, and citizens shared insight and anecdotes that reflected the rising concern about fatal accidents along this crowded stretch of freeway.

The public’s perceptions should help the Department of Transportation in its comprehensive investigation of statewide crossover accidents, scheduled to be completed by fall. After the review, the state plans to make any necessary changes to the barrier system, with cost taking a back seat to safety.

A cable barrier, when functioning properly, is the best tool to corral vehicles in the median. Concrete barriers and steel guardrails can cause serious damage upon impact and often deflect cars back into traffic. Cables, which cost less than the other options, have worked properly in the vast majority of cases, snaring more than 90 percent of the cars that go into the median along the 10-mile corridor through the Marysville area.

When they fail, however, the result can be tragic, which is unacceptable.

Cable barriers currently placed along Washington highways are crash-tested with a national standard of 62 mph, but vehicles often travel faster than that. They’re also built to hold a vehicle that weighs up to 4,400 pounds, but that’s not enough to stop many of today’s larger SUVs, which often exceed 6,000 pounds.

Cables have other problems, too. In some circumstances, vehicles can hop the 30-inch tall barriers. Small cars have been known to go through or under them, said state trooper Lance Ramsey, who heads the state’s Focus on Driving program. These facts led some at Monday’s meeting to call for a second cable barrier to maintain the safety of the lines but double the protection.

On a different front, the State Patrol has increased its presence in the corridor, seeking to prevent deadly accidents. Earlier this month, the speed limit was lowered from 70 to 60 mph along the stretch.

Now the ball is in the Department of Transportation’s court. The public has spoken to the magnitude of the problem, and has given the DOT a mandate to act. Tangible solutions must be found before the next tragedy crosses the line.

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