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Highway of havoc
The most dangerous stretch of U.S. Highway 101, from Kitchen-Dick Road to Shore Road, is precisely where the Washington State Department of Transportation will begin a two-year widening project in 2012.
From Jan. 1, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2010, 304 accidents happened in the four-mile stretch of highway from east of Kitchen-Dick Road to Shore Road, injuring 216 people and leaving eight dead, according to an analysis of DOT data.
East of Sequim, seven people were killed and 212 injured in 339 accidents during the same period over a nine-mile stretch east of Sequim, beginning at Simdars Road and ending at Diamond Point Road.
The decade of data shows accidents in the 17-mile stretch from Diamond Point to Shore roads hovering around 90 per year until 2008, when they declined for two years before spiking to 86 accidents in 2010.
Injuries and fatalities similarly took a dip before rising again in 2010.
WSDOT collision data from 2011 is not yet available.
Every day, tens of thousands of cars drive between Sequim and Port Angeles on the only highway serving the east end of Clallam County.
Steve Bennet, WSDOT traffic safety engineer, said traffic counts show 26,000 cars drive past Taylor Cutoff Road per day, decreasing to 18,000 per day to the west at Old Olympic Highway and 11,000 per day to the east at Diamond Point Road.
“The population isn’t huge, but it is the only way to get from here to there,” Bennet said.
As the main thoroughfare in the east end of the county, it sees its share of serious vehicle accidents, which in 2004 led the Washington State Patrol to formulate and implement a plan for action called the SR 101 Corridor Project.
Deaths provoke project
From Christmas Day 2003 to the end of January 2004, nine people died in car accidents on Highway 101 in Clallam and Jefferson counties. The state patrol and DOT met in February 2004 to review crash site analysis and traffic data, deciding to embark on a public awareness and law enforcement effort while reviewing options for engineering improvements, according to a state patrol report.
Though the public response was tremendous, five more deaths occurred on Highway 101 in March 2004.
The May 12, 2004, edition of the Sequim Gazette included four articles about four different serious collisions on Highway 101, two of which were fatal.
By the end of June 2004, a 32-mile length of highway from Laird’s Corner west of Port Angeles to Diamond Point Road east of Sequim was designated as the project area. The state patrol and DOT focused on enforcement, engineering and public education efforts for the next 2½ years, during which time fatal and disabling collisions declined 22 percent.
But the most common collision-causing violations, following too closely, failing to yield the right-of-way and speeding, continue to wreak havoc on drivers who have little choice but to travel the mostly two-lane highway between Diamond Point Road and Shore Road.
Causing a crash
In 2010, the two most common causes of car accidents on Highway 101 from Diamond Point Road to Shore Road were exceeding a reasonably safe speed and failing to yield the right-of-way, the latter happening frequently near the Kitchen-Dick Road intersection and the Carlsborg Road intersection.
“If you’re not granting right-of-way there (at the Carlsborg Road intersection), you’re probably running a red light,” Bennet said. “It’s pretty clear what the signal is ahead of you and the signal there has a lot of sight distance. It’s hard to know how to get those people to pay more attention.”
Turn lanes at the Kitchen-Dick Road intersection were installed to increase safety, but there always is driver error, he said.
“A lot of times I think people become a little too impatient and they go when they probably shouldn’t go,” he said.
On the stretch of highway near Barr Road, following too closely is a common cause of accidents, according to DOT data.
WSP Lt. Dan Hall said if drivers hit the vehicle in front of them, chances are they were following too closely or driving too fast.
Each month the state patrol reviews collision reports to identify areas that need extra enforcement, he said.
Two or more state troopers will work in a specified area enforcing driving laws, making sure people aren’t speeding or following too closely among other things, he said.
Hall said structural improvements to Highway 101 by the DOT are key to traffic safety.
Notable improvements to the east of Sequim include installing more guard rails near the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Center and a turn lane into both the 7 Cedars Casino and Longhouse Market & Deli, widening the bridge over Jimmy Come Lately Creek and widening a stretch of highway from two lanes to four between Blyn and the Miller Peninsula.
Rumble strips installed along the highway help keep people on the road when driving and awaken sleepy drivers. Drivers asleep at the wheel accounted for 20 accidents from Diamond Point Road to Palo Alto Road, including one fatal accident on April 27, 2007. The driver of a Department of Veterans Affairs van traveling west near Sequim Bay State Park fell asleep and hit a tree. He later died in the hospital.
To the west, expanding the highway from two lanes to four between Kitchen-Dick Road and Shore Road will help ease congestion and eliminate head-on accidents. Head-on accidents accounted for four of the 15 fatal accidents between Diamond Point Road and Shore Road from 2001 through 2010. The $84 million project is set to begin construction in late 2012.
“Whenever you separate traffic out, one direction from the other, it either cuts down or eliminates head-on accidents,” Bennet said. “When you do work like that you also flatten the side slopes of the roadway and clear some of the trees away from the road and that certainly makes it safer.”
Bennet said the DOT keeps track of accidents and makes safety improvements as it can. The four-mile stretch from Kitchen-Dick Road to Shore Road was identified as needing improvement.
“Certainly any deaths are not acceptable and I think the widening will go a long way in helping that situation,” he said.
Reach Amanda Winters at firstname.lastname@example.org.