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What's the holdup?
Usually, the first indication that something is wrong is the mile-long line of cars practically parked on the highway.
Somewhere, far ahead of the cars and trucks stretching over the crest of the next, barely visible hill is a car accident. That much is obvious from the burning flares along the fog line and the flashing lights at the horizon.
So the next question is, when does the traffic start moving again?
If this is the scene on Highway 525, it could be quite a while.
With just two lanes and several stretches that include no detours, the highway that links north to south on Whidbey Island is simply a mess when vehicles collide. Even if no one is injured, accident investigations by law enforcement can take a half-hour or -- if someone dies -- all day.
That is the way it has to be, says Washington State Patrol spokes-man Capt. Glenn Cramer. Because his agency is responsible for investigating all accidents on state highways, victims and vehicles have to stay in place until a trooper makes the scene. If an accident occurs near the Clinton ferry dock and the trooper on duty is in his Oak Harbor office, it could be upwards of an hour before things get moving again. The trooper will be there as soon as he can but most importantly, for the victims of an accident, he or she will show up.
"We're going to be there," Cramer said.
And they need to be. Cramer said the driving public expects and deserves proper accident investigations from law enforcement. The results of those investigations, he said, can lead to changes in road and signal design, and can alert the patrol to problem areas where speeding or other traffic infractions seem to be causing an unusual number of accidents.
The patrol does more accident investigations than any single agency in the state. Between October 2001 and April 2002, troopers investigated 25,250 automobile collisions in Washington. Cramer said the results of those investigations may be having an effect. Though the number of accidents for this period was higher than for the same period a year earlier, the state patrol saw a 3 percent decline in injury accidents over that time, as well as a 4 percent drop in fatalities.
While these numbers add up to a lot of traffic delays, other aspects of dealing with collisions can take more time. Rescue operations can keep traffic at a standstill on any road longer than it takes an investigator to determine which driver was at fault and why.
Island County Sheriff's Lieutenant Evan Tingstad, precinct commander for South Whidbey, said getting people injured in a collision out of their cars and to the hospital is the top priority for all emergency responders.
"That's very important to the victims in the accident," he said.
It is only after the ambulances leave the scene that law enforcement can turn more of its attention to the flow of traffic.
"We try to keep their inconvenience to a minimum," Tingstad said of the waiting drivers.
In Island County, the sheriff's office generally takes jurisdiction over accidents that occur on county roads, while the state patrol takes command of mishaps on state highways. On South Whidbey, Fire District 3 volunteers usually take on traffic control duties, though, according to district Chief Don Smith, traffic control responsibility ultimately lies with the county's public works and roads department.
The patrol will occasionally turn over investigations on state highways to local agencies for the sake of expediency when troopers are occupied with other duties. At the request of sheriff's offices and police departments, the patrol will assist in collision investigations outside its jurisdiction.
Matt Johnson / staff photo
Even minor accidents, like this one near the intersection of Highway 525 and Useless Bay Road last month, can clog traffic on the highway for more than a half hour as state patrol investigators drive from as far away as Oak Harbor.