After the driving deaths of two Washington State University students this past November, some have debated whether the main roads in Whitman County or the drivers on them are more at fault. The numbers suggest the elements play a large role.
There were 508 collisions between Jan. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2015, along U.S. Highway 195 between Pullman and Spokane, according to crash data from a Daily News public records request to the Washington state Department of Transportation.
Ten of the collisions resulted in fatalities and a total of 13 deaths. Another 54 collisions (10.4 percent) caused serious or evident injuries.
Al Gilson, public information officer for WSDOT, said the highway is perfectly adequate and it has standard lane and shoulder widths. Gilson said he couldn’t pinpoint what causes accidents on the roadway, but he referenced a study by WSDOT that found driver behavior was the single-most common cause of collisions on the highway from 2005 to 2009.
According to that study, 31 out of the 39 fatal and serious injury crashes were caused by speeding, driving under the influence and aggressive or distracted driving. Of the other eight crashes, seven were caused by drivers crossing the center line.
The new data shows that for the 10 fatal and 10 serious injury accidents on that stretch from 2013 through 2015, the story was the same. Drivers were distracted, inattentive, driving too fast in the snow or driving aggressively. Three were asleep. One was drunk. Head-on collisions with other cars were the result nine times.
While the majority of the 2013-15 collisions occurred when the road surface was dry, 200 (39.4 percent) occurred when the roadway was wet, icy, slushy, snowy or was filled with standing water or dirt.
November through February averaged more than 18 accidents a month, while June through September averaged 10 or fewer.
“You always have to drive for the conditions, and reduced visibility is a condition,” Gilson said. “If you can’t see where you’re going, you shouldn’t be going that fast. These are driver behavior skills that have nothing to do with the road.”
Thanksgiving break appears to be one of the most dangerous times for travel along the highway. During the past three years, from the Friday the break begins to the following Sunday before classes begin, the roadway averaged about 11 collisions per year. Of the 32 total collisions, 17 took place in wet and icy conditions.
In total, 133 of the collisions (26.2 percent) during the three-year period involved drivers who exceeded a reasonable speed, and 122 of those occurred when the highway was wet, icy or snowy.
Jeff Sevigney, Washington State Patrol trooper and spokesman, said drivers often drive the speed limit even when the roadway is covered in snow, has standing water or is slick. Sevigney said drivers need to slow down in those instances, as traveling at the posted speed limit is no longer safe.
Sevigney said he has been with WSP for 19 years, and in his experience, drivers not paying attention is the No. 1 contributor to accidents.
“We take driving for granted these days,” he said. “We’re not always focused.”
Inattentive drivers were involved in 73 collisions between 2013 and 2015, making up 14.4 percent of all collisions on the highway.
WSP Sgt. Courtney Shawley, stationed out of Colfax, agrees with Sevigney and said drivers are more and more distracted by their personal technology.
“It takes them away from driving the car,” Shawley said.
He said he recently stopped a driver for speeding, but the driver was unaware he was breaking the law because he was on his cellphone.
Although driver behavior is often associated with the use of cellphones, less than 1 percent of the collisions on the highway from 2013-15 listed cellphones or other devices as distractions. The low number is likely a result of drivers not being honest.
“People don’t say ‘I’m on my phone, that’s why I crashed,’ ” Sevigney said, adding the department would have to seize and search cellphones to determine the cause of each collision.
Wildlife and animals are also involved in a significant portion of the collisions along the highway. Ninety-seven collisions (19.1 percent) involved vehicles striking animals, mostly deer, during the past three years.
“It is a factor of driving in rural eastern Washington that drivers always have to be aware of,” Gilson said. “It’s random. There is not a control factor that the DOT can apply to correct wildlife coming across the roadway.”
Two hotspots for collisions along Highway 195 are where the road turns into a four-lane highway in Spokane County and where motorists enter Colfax. Gilson said the areas are troublesome because there’s increased traffic and less room for error.
While additional passing lanes are scheduled to be added in 2017, only three improper passes were documented in the crash data for the three-year span.
The current lack of passing lanes, however, is exacerbated during WSU football weekends, when the stretch sees an average of 1.7 collisions per weekend.
“You have a solid line of cars as far as the eye can see, but there is always someone trying to pass,” Gilson said. “An unsafe pass can result in a horrendous collision and very little gain. Why do people do those kind of things? Those are driver behavior items we see and wonder what is the advantage.”
Overall, Gilson said, there are numerous factors leading to incidents along the highway, but many can be avoided if drivers would simply focus on driving and respect the elements.
“It’s a combination of a lot of factors. Driver behavior is controllable, a deer running out is not. We cannot guarantee a bare and dry roadway. Drivers have to be aware,” Gilson said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.