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Deaths pile up on Pierce County highways as motorists drive faster and more dangerously

New Washington State Patrol troopers bow their heads during a prayer at the Patrol’s graduation ceremonies in the Capitol rotunda on April 26, 2017, in Olympia in Thurston County. In 2020, 28 people died in Thurston and Pierce counties, according to the WSP. In 2021, 38 people died – a nearly 36% increase.  (Associated Press)
New Washington State Patrol troopers bow their heads during a prayer at the Patrol’s graduation ceremonies in the Capitol rotunda on April 26, 2017, in Olympia in Thurston County. In 2020, 28 people died in Thurston and Pierce counties, according to the WSP. In 2021, 38 people died – a nearly 36% increase. (Associated Press)
By Craig Sailor (Tacoma) News Tribune

Eight people have died on state highways in Pierce County this year. It’s a pace that could eclipse the past two years.

In 2020, 28 people died in Pierce and Thurston counties, according to the Washington State Patrol. In 2021, 38 people died – a nearly 36% increase.

“This year, if this continues, we’re going to beat that quite a bit,” said WSP spokesperson Robert Reyer on Thursday.

There were five deaths just in the first 16 days of February.

What’s leading to the increase?

While some of this month’s wrecks have similar causes there is no discernible pattern. But, Reyer said, he’s noticed a change in drivers’ behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those common courtesies of using a blinker when moving or merging right in front of somebody, or not tailgating somebody else, or just driving in a respectful manner seem to have kind of gone away,” he said.

Reyer acknowledges he’s not a psychologist and doesn’t know what effect isolation has on people. But he’s noticed a change. Drivers are going faster and driving negligently, he said.

“People seem to care less about others, and also their own safety,” he said.

Reckless, negligent and just plain rude

When the early days of the pandemic cleared freeways it motivated speeders to turn them into personal race courses.

Reyer had noticed more aggressive, negligent and reckless driving even before COVID.

“We definitely noticed that people’s speeds have significantly increased and that their care for the safety of others around them has significantly decreased,” he said. “We have people going at 90 miles an hour, in somewhat heavy traffic”

Combine speed with unsafe lane changing and the violations can quickly add up. Negligent driving alone can be a $550 fine. Reckless driving? That will get you arrested, he said.

Tacoma drivers have been subjected to a reduced speed limit through the city on I-5 for years as state Department of Transportation contractors work on HOV lane construction. The reduced speed limit makes sense, Reyer said.

“What if a barrel rolls into the road? If you go 50, your braking distance will be much shorter than if you go 60,” he said.

Turn signals are ostensibly designed to warn other drivers about your intentions.

Reyer has been to more than one accident where two drivers simultaneously merged into the same lane because neither activated their turn signals.

“So, neither driver knows what the other guy is going to do and now they hit each other,” he said.

Distracted drivers

Beginning in the 1990s, cell phones allowed drivers to distract themselves simply by talking. Smart phones brought inattentive driving to a new level. The consequences can be tragic, Reyer said.

It might never be known why a work truck driver didn’t notice traffic was slowing in front of him Tuesday on I-5 before he slammed into the back of a semitruck, killing him. There’s evidence he tried to break and swerve in the last moments.

In May, a 78-year-old man was killed while changing a tire along I-5 in Tacoma when he was struck by a driver distracted by her smart phone.

Reyer said he’s surprised by the amount of people he sees staring at their phones as he pulls alongside them. He took notice just this week as he was driving to a collision on I-5.

“I just looked left and right. People holding their phones to the ears, texting, looking down,” he said. “I was in a fully marked big white police SUV with big light bars on the top, with push bars, with a big lightning bolt on the side of my car stating State Patrol. And I’m driving next to them for half a mile to a mile. They were oblivious.”

Diverting resources

Statewide, the WSP places an emphasis on impaired driving, distracted driving, speed and seat belt use, said WSP spokesperson Darren Wright.

“Those are going to be very important to us,” Wright said. “Because those are the biggest ones that directly affect people’s lives.”

After those priority items, it’s up to each district captain to allocate resources and emphasis where they see fit, he said.

It’s no secret WSP needs more troopers. Even before 74 commissioned officers left the force over Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate last fall, the recruitment campaign was in full swing.

A class of new troopers won’t come close to meeting the 240 trooper deficit, Wright said. All new hires, even if they’re experienced officers, must go through the WSP academy, he said.

Because of that trooper shortage, the WSP is less proactive and more reactive, Wright said. If you think you’ve seen less WSP patrol vehicles waiting for speeders to whiz by you’d be correct. Instead, he said, they’re responding to crashes and other calls.

“We have to make sure that we are reactive to everything that the citizens call for,” Wright said. “So, anytime there’s a call for service, we’re going to be there.”

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