After concerned members of a South Whidbey community created a petition, county engineers completed a traffic study and county commissioners held a lengthy public hearing, the speed limit on a section of Mutiny Bay Road will be dropped by 5 miles per hour.
In addition, the county commissioners committed to traffic-calming and pedestrian safety improvements on the road, as well as revising the speed limit in 14 months.
Of the wide range of issues that county commissioners deal with each year, the one that often draws the most attention is speed limits. Mutiny Bay Road was no exception.
Last year, residents who live along the road asked the county to reduce the speed limit on the stretch between Bush Point Road and Highway 525 from the current 50 mph to 35 mph.
At a commissioner meeting last week, seven residents spoke at the public hearing on the issue, strongly urging the commissioners to adopt a lower speed limit. They cited concerns about persistent speeders, pedestrian and biker safety, school bus stops, traffic accidents and wildlife and pet collisions.
“We are experiencing a frightful wave of construction where the heavy dump trucks speed over 50 miles per hour to meet their schedule,” said one resident.
Stacie Keller said there is an unsafe mix of school bus stops and unsafe drivers on the stretch of Mutiny Bay Road. She said a bus driver got flipped off by a hurried driver who was impatient to have to wait for students to get on the bus. She added that the shoulders are not wide enough for students who have to stand on the side of the road as cars zip by at 50 mph and faster.
Roger Caldwell stressed the popularity of the road among pedestrian and bicyclists and the frequency of speeding.
“It’s almost like a drag strip at times,” he said.
Public Works Director Bill Oakes said that a county traffic engineer conducted a study at two different locations on the road. The stretch of road is mostly straight and 11 feet wide, with 4-foot shoulders. In the two samples, the average daily traffic was 170 and 120 vehicles, which he said was relatively light.
Based on the traffic study, the traffic engineer recommended that the speed limit remain the same. Oakes said the county uses the longtime national methodology for determining speed, which sets speeds at the 85th percentile. That is the speed at or below which 85 percent of vehicles are observed to travel under normal conditions, according to the Institute of Transportation Engineers.
At an earlier meeting, the commissioners considered the engineer’s recommendation but felt the study justified a speed limit reduction to 45 mph. A public hearing was necessary before the change could be adopted.
While residents warned of accidents and lawsuits if the speed wasn’t lowered, Oakes stressed the importance of following the scientific data.
“There’s liability if we don’t follow the national standards in setting speed limits,” he said.
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson asked him about stories that were shared about how the road used to be 35 mph and was temporarily changed to 50 mph in 1981 while Highway 525 was being built, but then never changed back. Oakes said nothing could be found about that in the research. The section of road is categorized as an arterial, which has a default speed limit of 50 mph.
Oakes and the commissioners discussed other changes that could be made to increase the safety of the road. He said the width of the road could be reduced to nine or ten feet and the shoulders widened. As he explained, drivers tend to travel slower on narrower roads.
“This road is so straight it may not have a tremendous effect,” he warned, adding that it’s worth trying.
Oakes said there is one area where an advisory speed sign might be warranted. He also said that the speed monitoring signs — which tell drivers if they are traveling the speed limit — are most effective if they are mobile.
In the end, the commissioners adopted an ordinance that revises the speed limit to 45 mph on the section of road and expresses the board’s commitment to reviewing the speed limit and multimodal investments in January of 2022.