In the wake of car crashes that killed two students during Thanksgiving break, many at Washington State University have called for safety improvements on the two-lane highways that funnel travelers into Pullman.
Nearly 6,000 people have signed an online petition calling for additional lanes on State Route 26 and U.S. 195. And in a statement, WSU Interim President Daniel Bernardo urged drivers “to exercise extra caution in driving to and from Pullman on these dangerous roads.”
“Both Highway 26 and Highway 195 were constructed decades ago, when the overall population in the area as well as the student population at WSU was a fraction of what it is now,” Bernardo wrote. “While there have been upgrades, additional work is needed.”
The heightened concern follows head-on collisions that killed two WSU students and injured three other young adults.
On Nov. 20, Christine Hunter, a freshman from Spokane studying biochemistry, was driving a Volkswagen Beetle north on U.S. 195 near Rosalia when she drifted across the centerline and hit a southbound truck, according to the Washington State Patrol. Hunter, 18, died at the scene, and her passenger, 18-year-old Sidney Ritter of Spokane, was seriously injured. A passenger in the truck, Taylor Spence, 23, also was injured.
Then, on Nov. 22, WSU student Morgan Cope, 20, of Buckley, Washington, died when a pickup truck crossed the centerline of Route 26 and struck her car west of Colfax. The driver of the truck, 18-year-old Jason Wigen, of LaCrosse, Washington, was injured.
“It just seems like there’s a lot of students getting killed on those roads,” said Dorene Boyle, who started the petition at ThePetitionSite.com. Her daughter is a WSU senior who drives home to Yakima during school breaks.
Crews have nearly finished four repaving projects on U.S. 195 between Pullman and Spokane, and passing lane construction is scheduled to begin there in 2017. The state Department of Transportation also plans to add passing lanes on State Route 26, but that construction isn’t scheduled to begin until 2025.
“That’s a long time to wait,” Boyle said. “My goal is to get the timing of the construction moved up.”
Data from the state Traffic Safety Commission show that 3,262 people died on Washington roads from 2008 to 2014. In Whitman County, the death toll was 38, and 13 of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 25. Statewide, more than half of all traffic deaths resulted from crashes involving an impaired driver.
Al Gilson, a transportation department spokesman, cited a 2013 study that found “the vast majority” of collisions on U.S. 195 were caused by avoidable behaviors such as drinking and texting behind the wheel.
The Washington State Patrol said there was no indication that alcohol played a role in the crash that killed Hunter.
Gilson added that “the Legislature determines what types of projects get funded and when.” Earlier this year lawmakers passed a 16-year, $16 billion transportation package.
Shelly Baldwin, a spokeswoman for the Traffic Safety Commission, said while passing lanes could ease traffic on S.R. 26, they wouldn’t necessarily make the road safer. Other measures such as rumble strips – bumpy areas that send a noisy jolt when drivers drift over the centerline – have proved effective, she said.
“There’s lots of ideas about safety that don’t necessarily play out in the numbers,” she said. “The roads that are designed to let you travel faster and pass easier don’t actually give us all the safety benefits we’re looking for.”
The online petition is filled with comments from concerned students, parents and commuters. One comment reads, “Those roads are terrible and even worse in bad weather.” Another reads, “There are no good places to pass slower drivers and there are crazy drivers who pass regardless of safety, on blind curves and double yellow lines.”
Boyle said she hopes state officials will find a way to speed up construction.
“They say their hands are tied,” she said. “There’s many stories on my petition that I think they should see.”
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