Two Washington State University students returning to Pullman from winter break died in car crashes over the weekend, prompting a discussion about road safety and the school’s response to hazardous weather.
Rachel Pomeroy, 20, of Snohomish, died in a head-on collision Sunday on state Highway 26 west of Washtucna in Adams County. Pomeroy was headed east toward Pullman.
The highway is commonly used to travel between Western Washington and Pullman and was busy over the weekend with students returning for classes.
A day earlier, WSU sophomore Dashiell Mortell, 19, died in a three-vehicle crash west of Cle Elum on Interstate 90. Three other occupants of the vehicle were injured.
Winter frequently brings hazardous driving conditions to Eastern Washington highways, and the two main roads used by students returning to the campus – highways 195 and 26 – are no exception. U.S. Highway 195 goes south from Spokane, and Highway 26 branches off I-90 near Vantage and heads east.
Both highways are mostly two-lane with no divider, and are often the site of crashes involving WSU students traveling to or from campus.
Last year, the number of crashes involving WSU students prompted then-interim WSU president Daniel Bernardo to declare road safety a top university priority. That led to meetings among university leaders, the Washington Department of Transportation and the Washington State Patrol.
We welcome any and all ideas on how to get students, faculty, and staff in and out of Pullman during the Winter Time in Eastern Washington— Kirk H Schulz (@WSU_Cougar_Pres) January 9, 2017
Some people criticized the university for holding classes on Monday considering the highway conditions over the weekend, but that decision is made based on local weather in Pullman, said Rob Strenge, assistant director of WSU News.
WSU President Kirk Schulz sought suggestions on Twitter for improving student safety during hazardous weather. He encouraged one person to contact him directly about missing class due to travel delays, tweeting, “I believe you will find our faculty very flexible.”
Schulz also met with staff from the university’s communications department Monday to come up with a plan for better alerting students about travel conditions, Strenge said.
“It’s an ongoing concern to the university,” Strenge said.
The university posts alerts about weather and other campus safety issues at alert.wsu.edu.
Sen. Michael Baumgartner, a WSU alumnus, said funding in the 2015 highway transportation package will improve the roads leading to Pullman. The package included funds to add seven passing lanes on U.S. 195, which are scheduled to be completed this year.
The package also included funding for passing lanes on Highway 26, but those aren’t scheduled to be completed until 2025. Baumgartner said he’s continuing to advocate for moving up that timeline.
Baumgartner said road improvements could help, but reducing the number of collisions also means educating students about driving in icy weather. Many are from Western Washington, where driving through snow and ice are not routine parts of winter.
“Sometimes we just get really, really bad driving conditions and you get tragic outcomes,” he said.
The Washington State Patrol said driving too fast for the road conditions was the likely cause of the crashes.
The crash involving students on I-90 was one in a series along an icy section in Kittitas County.
The fatality occurred after another crash and just before a third along the same stretch of freeway.
Over the weekend, there were 173 separate accidents along I-90 in Kittitas County.
Trooper Brian Moore, a WSP spokesman, said drivers were going too fast for conditions in virtually every accident.
He said responding troopers could only travel at speeds of 35 to 40 mph even though they were responding to emergencies.
“You can’t say there is a safe speed,” Moore said. “It was absolutely drivers not being careful.”
He said the number of accidents over the weekend in central Washington was “absolutely staggering.”
Trooper Jeff Sevigney in Spokane said speed limits are set for driving in ideal conditions, and a snow and ice storm creates conditions far from ideal.
Drivers often believe an all-wheel or four-wheel-drive vehicle offers greater safety, but that is a false sense of security, troopers said.
Control is challenging for any vehicle when snow and ice are covering the pavement, they said, and slowing down is the only solution.