News

Passing cars on right is a chronic South End safety issue

A driver traveling south on Highway 525 Saturday passes a vehicle stopped to turn at Thompson Road, while the car directly in front is returning to the roadway after also passing on the right. - Spencer Webster
A driver traveling south on Highway 525 Saturday passes a vehicle stopped to turn at Thompson Road, while the car directly in front is returning to the roadway after also passing on the right.
— image credit: Spencer Webster

Langley resident Jennifer Sand had stopped on southbound Highway 525, flicked on her turn signal on and was getting set to turn left onto Thompson Road.

It was early April 2003, and she will never forget how her life changed in an instant when an inattentive driver struck her from behind and sent her careening into oncoming traffic.

Both cars were totaled and four years later, the South Whidbey High School teacher still suffers from chronic back pain. She is now on disability and recently decided to take a year off from work.

“It has impacted my life completely and totally,” Sand said.

Sand’s rear-end collision accident on Highway 525 was not a rare event, either.

From 2002 through 2006, a total of 68 accidents were reported from Bush Point Road to Midvale Road, with 28 of those, or 41 percent, resulting from rear-end collisions, according to state Department of Transportation records.

At Thompson Road alone, there were eight accidents involving someone stopped on the roadway.

Adding to the dangerous mix of turning off the highway where there are no dedicated turn lanes are impatient drivers who choose to drive around the stopped vehicles. Not only does it put pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers at risk, it’s also against the law.

And it’s also a common sight on Highway 525.

State Trooper Tim Yzaguirre, a three-year veteran of the Washington State Patrol, was headed south Saturday morning on Highway 525 and looking for a vantage point to spot passing-on-the-right violators.

Seconds before he reached the intersection where Thompson Road meets the highway, a car stopped to turn left onto the road. Not one but three cars passed on the right, crossing the fog line.

The trooper gave chase. His goal, to give all three violators tickets. The engine in his Interceptor raced.

“Often times, the person behind the person that is passing on the shoulder doesn’t know the person is passing, and so will strike the waiting vehicle. They don’t have any warning,” Yzaguirre said.

With lights flashing and sirens wailing, he caught up to two of the three offenders and issued each a $124 ticket.

One of the drivers admitted to Yzaguirre that he knew what he had done was wrong. The other driver, a woman from Seattle, had no clue.

The trooper asked each driver the same question: “Would you have done that if I were turning left?”

One driver said he wouldn’t have passed the trooper’s patrol car on the right. The Seattle driver, though, said she did not see anything wrong with the illegal move, Yzaguirre recalled.

Yzaguirre and fellow police officers on Whidbey Island are working to educate drivers that passing on the right is illegal. The hope is it will help reduce the accident rate at South End’s intersections with Highway 525.

“We try to take these measures before they get into a bad wreck,” he said.

“I want them to drive away thinking ‘Gosh, you know, I shouldn’t have done that; that was a mistake.’ And hopefully they will tell their friends.

“You hope to educate five people by writing one ticket,” he said.

Engineering is the third portion of what Island County Sheriff Mark Brown calls the three Es: engineering, education and enforcement. And he sees that while he and fellow officers are stepping up the pressure of education and enforcement to put the brakes on bad driving, roadway improvements are behind the times.

“Clearly, what is needed at that intersection is a left-turn channel. If you have a turn channel, that person gets out of the way; the flow continues,” Brown said.

“Turn channels never get put in when they should, always after the fact,” he added. “When 30 people get killed at an intersection, then you get left-turn lanes because DOT is looking at these statistics. Engineering is behind the curve because of taxes and will never be ahead.”

Sand wants left hand turn lanes as well, because traffic is not slowing down, she said.

“Dedicated turn lanes and or lights would help,” she said.

“I personally prefer the dedicated turn lanes because then you don’t have that problem where people try to pass around you on the shoulder like they always do. I see it all the time,” Sand said.

Thomas Beard, a Thompson Road resident, agreed that there’s a vital need for dedicated left-turn lanes.

“Traffic is steadily getting worse and infrastructure is not changing to keep up with it,” Beard said.

“Ultimately, I think it will be the biggest problem that Island County has, in terms of the amount of traffic,” he said.

Left-hand turn lanes are on the state’s agenda.

The problem, though, is that the state Department of Transportation is hindered by the lack of funding.

“Left-turn lanes are the appropriate mitigation to prevent those rear-end accidents that we see on two-way rural roadways, like we see on Highway 525,” said Dina Swires, a traffic engineer with the DOT’s Mount Baker region, and a South End resident.

“We have done an extensive job to scope or to investigate what it would take to put a left-turn lane at Thompson Road. Our state crews are constrained by state law that we can’t do work that exceeds $60,000, because then DOT crews are taking work from contractors, so that has been a challenge for us,” she said.

Until turn lanes are installed, drivers must use caution when approaching local intersections with Highway 525 that are notorious for pass-on-the-right lawbreakers; Bush Point, Cameron, Double Bluff, Thompson, Coles and Midvale roads.

Beard has witnessed accidents on the highway for more than 15 years and now travels down to Marshview and turns back around to get onto Thompson Road, or moves over toward the fog line so that people have to stop.

“I have been nearly hit at least half a dozen times, where you see people locking up their brakes when they see me stopped,” he said.

“The person initially behind me went around without even slowing down and the next person all-of-a-sudden sees what is in front of him and then it is too late to stop.”

The root cause of the danger is not the three Es or lack of left-hand turn lanes, said Yzaguirre, but a distinct lack of patience.

“Inattention and lack of patience are the common problems. People don’t want to stop and wait and be patient for another 15 seconds,” Yzaguirre said.

“People are following too close, people passing on the shoulder, it is very common,” he said.

“Fifteen seconds is not going to make a difference — and now you’re going to wait five more minutes because I am going to write you a ticket,” the State Trooper added.

Sheriff Brown said he understands the temptation to pass on the right when people are trying to catch the next ferry, but the dangers remain high.

“People should not set their schedule by that ferry. It is an extremely high temptation to go around that car thinking you can do it safely and still make your ferry,” he said.

Accidents caused by inattentive driving or passing on the right have another cost beyond those who may be involved in a rear-end accident; the impact on emergency workers.

“Anyone that has been in an accident or cleaned one up, it is something

you never forget,” said Mike Helland, a Fire District 3 commissioner.

“People have never been more distracted driving, whether it is trying to read instructions, talk on the cell phone, put make-up on, read the newspaper. I’ve seen it all. Driving is a huge responsibility and people don’t take it seriously enough any more,” he said. “And consequently, a lot of people are injured every year.”

Spencer Webster can be reached at 221-5300 or at swebster@southwhidbeyrecord.com

Community Events, April 2014

Add an Event
We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the latest Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Apr 16 edition online now. Browse the archives.