When it comes to car crashes in Pierce County it’s not what’s to blame but who. Spoiler: It’s us.

What’s the biggest reason for car crashes in Pierce County? People.

Over the past nine years there have been over 53,400 wrecks on state highways in Pierce County. The News Tribune dives into why we crash and where it happens most often.
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Over the past nine years there have been over 53,400 wrecks on state highways in Pierce County. The News Tribune dives into why we crash and where it happens most often.

This won’t surprise anyone who traverses state highways in Pierce County: When it comes to driving, some of us are jerks.

We tailgate. We speed. While doing either or both, our attention drifts, and we crash into each other.

The proof appears in nine years of crash data compiled by the state Department of Transportation, obtained and analyzed by The News Tribune. The numbers revealed 53,431 wrecks on 17 state highways within the county between 2009 and 2017 — almost 6,000 per year.

The analysis examined wrecks by cause, location and time of day, as well as highway type. Some findings are obvious. For instance, Interstate 5, by far the busiest highway in Pierce County, recorded the highest number of wrecks.

Other points are more surprising. Calculating wrecks as a percentage of volume reveals that state Route 7, aka Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, ranks first among local highways for crashes.

As for causes, one particular screw-up takes first prize: following too closely (you know who you are).

Washington State Patrol Trooper Briana Sacks, who covers the county’s highways every day, sees it over and over.

“A lot of people don’t watch their following distance. A lot of people are following too close,” she said during a recent ride-along interview.

The remedy? Counting. As she drove, Sacks recited a simple formula: Safe following distance equals one car length per second. The faster you go, the more car lengths you need.

The formula depends on landmarks and estimates of safe speed. It’s sometimes known as the four-second rule, meaning that drivers traveling faster than 50 miles per hour need about four seconds of distance to avoid a collision. The rule-of-thumb method involves picking a landmark along the road: a sign or a milepost, for example. After the car ahead passes the landmark, drivers should count the seconds before they reach the same spot.

Cruising westward along Route 512, Sacks ran through the ritual, looking to a car ahead of her.

“You want to stay typically about four seconds behind that vehicle,” she said. “Count ‘one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi.’ If traffic were to come to a stop, you’d have enough time.”

Where we crash

To find areas beyond I-5 where crashes are frequent, The News Tribune started with raw numbers and correlated them to traffic volumes. The second factor led to a new measurement: crashes per 1,000 daily vehicles per year, averaged over a 9-year span. Here’s a top-10 ranking based on that analysis:

  1. Route 7: 17.5 crashes per 1,000

  2. Route 161: 12.4 crashes per 1,000

  3. I-5: 10.8 crashes per 1,000

  4. Route 162: 6.7 crashes per 1,000

  5. Route 702: 5.9 crashes per 1,000

  6. Route 512: 4.9 crashes per 1,000

  7. Route 302: 4.9 crashes per 1,000

  8. Route 706: 4.6 crashes per 1,000

  9. Route 410: 3.7 crashes per 1,000

  10. Route 167: 3.5 crashes per 1,000

The lowest ranking highway on that list — it might be too much to call it “safest” — is Interstate 705, also known as the Tacoma Spur, a 1.5-mile stretch constructed in 1990. I-705 averaged 1.1 wrecks per 1,000 daily vehicles per year from 2009 to 2017.

Wrecks on State routes in Pierce County

From 2009–July 2018
Wreck totals include wrecks on interchanges as the interchange is assigned by WSDOT. For example, wrecks that occurred on the I-5/SR16 interchange are assigned to I-5.
Data from WSDOT

When we crash

We crash in the morning on the way to work. We crash in the evening on the way home.

It’s no surprise that crash frequency coincides with rush hour. The pattern repeats itself throughout the state’s numbers.

Generally speaking, evenings are worse, peaking between 3 and 7 p.m. That time frame accounts for 34 percent of all crashes, according to the state’s numbers.

While the timing is predictable, the state’s numbers reveal one oddity: Most local highways show similar crash peaks in the morning and the evening — but not I-5, the biggest of them all. There, the morning shows no particular peak on a graph of crashes, while numbers in the evening shoot up like a mountain.


Why would crashes occur more often in the evening rush hour on I-5, while staying relatively flat in the morning?

Claudia Bingham Baker, spokeswoman for DOT, answered with a rhetorical shrug:

“We don’t know.”

Why we crash

Two common crash causes rank just behind following too closely: speeding and inattention. Combined, those three factors account for 89 percent of local crashes.

Conversely, while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a law enforcement target and a constant subject of public service campaigns, it accounts for about 5 percent of crashes. The bigger numbers come from sober people with bad habits.

In other words, the culprit in most crashes is us.

“The vast majority of collisions are caused by human error — speed, inattention, following too closely, etc.,” Baker said.

Zooming in on highways with frequent crashes invited another question: Do crashes, causes and circumstances differ depending on highway types?

One aspect of the analysis grouped highways into four categories. The state does this already, using somewhat dry terms, such as “other freeway expressway” and “other principal arterial.” The News Tribune opted for simpler descriptions:

Freeways, such as Interstate 5 and Route 512.

Suburban highways, such as Route 161 and Route 7, which typically run through residential areas marked by traffic signals and intersections.

Rural highways, such as Route 302 on the Key Peninsula and Route 165 in East Pierce County.

Hybrid highways which include multiple features, such Route 167 and Route 509.

The three top causes — following too closely, speeding and inattention — still hover at the top in the above categories, but they shift. On rural highways, speeding jumps to the top of the list. Overall, Route 302 saw the most crashes in the 9-year period captured in the data — 24,955 — followed by Route 507, known locally as Spanaway-McKenna Highway.

“Oh yeah,” said Sacks. “Less cars, so people are gonna be going faster. Out there, you start to see different types of collisions: one car, horse; one car, cow; one car rollover because the road is narrow.”

On suburban highways, a new factor appears in fourth place as a frequent cause of crashes: failing to grant right of way to other vehicles. Crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists also are more common.

Sacks completed State Patrol field training on Route 7 and Route 161, known in Puyallup and South Hill as Meridian. The suburban highways present a different set of challenges for drivers.

“That’s when you start seeing the collisions in the center turn lanes, collisions through the intersections,” she said. “There are a lot of pedestrians walking through the roadway, people looking left and right at the businesses, looking at the cars they’re gonna buy.”

How we crash

Frequently, crashes cluster near interchanges: areas where drivers must make several moves in short order, such as changing lanes, merging and exiting. The state’s records reveal hot spots at several Pierce County interchanges.

One such spot is the junction of I-5 and Route 512 at Steele Street South, which counted 837 wrecks over the nine years of data.

Sacks described the problem in real time as she drove through the zone.

“Right here on 512 is gonna be an area where we get a lot of collisions,” she said. “Obviously a lot of traffic, and there’s also the traffic coming from Steele Street. They put in a traffic meter there, so vehicles have to stop before they get onto 512. There are things that you can do to help the situation, but it’s not always preventable.

“When people are leaving their lanes, sometimes their main focus is on that lane they’re heading towards, so they’re not watching the car in front of them. That’s where they rear-end the other vehicle. Or they’re not actually looking over their shoulder or looking in that side mirror to make sure that actually there is enough space to make a safe lane change. And that’s where they collide with the other vehicle.”

Are crashes increasing on 512? The numbers show a gradual uptick over time, though volumes have remained relatively steady, averaging about 107,000 vehicles per day at its busiest point. Most are clustered near the Steele Street end, but another smaller hot spot appear where the highway swoops down to the Puyallup Valley, intersecting with Route 161 and passing the South Hill Mall.

The worst spots

Navigating the afternoon rush hour, Sacks drove into the teeth of the traffic, heading north, surveying the inevitable crushing southbound jam from Fife to the Tacoma Dome.

“This is where we see probably about 70 percent of our collisions,” she said, passing the snarled web of exits and on-ramps that link I-5 to Routes 16, 7, 167 and I-705, where various construction projects have confounded drivers for much of the past decade.

Sacks recalled one recent incident in the construction zone. It involved a worker placing traffic cones in the roadway. He was struck by a Ford F250 and thrown into the air before landing again on the pavement.

“Luckily he survived,” Sacks said.

Even state troopers get confused by the ever-changing routes through the construction zone, Sacks said. Crews tell troopers in advance what the next change will look like, but it’s not the same as seeing it.

“They’re always moving cones in different areas,” Sacks said. “A lot of the time people aren’t paying attention to where those cones are because they’re used to what was there the day prior, and that’s where the collisions happen.”

Baker, the DOT spokeswoman, said the state doesn’t count construction as a “factor” in crashes, though she offered standard cautions to drivers contending with those distractions.

“By their nature, construction zones require motorists to pay extra attention to their driving,” she said in an emailed statement. “Roadway alignments can change, activities at the site can be a distraction, new roadway features or elements can be unexpected — every WSDOT construction or maintenance work zone is geared toward reducing surprises for motorists and giving them plenty of warning about what they will encounter as they drive through the site.”

As Sacks hit the inevitable southbound jam in Fife, she sighed audibly.

“Every day.”

She pulled off the freeway into a parking lot near the exit to South 54th Street, where another trooper was handling a recent incident: a freeway hit and run. She looked at a van crumpled in one corner, gathering details.

Not much to go on: a vague description of the other vehicle, no plate. It happens, she said — sometimes a fleeing driver doesn’t realize leaving the scene is illegal. Sometimes they do, especially if they have no insurance or an active arrest warrant.

She’s stopped speeders with creative excuses: A man roaring along at 95 told her he’d just bought the car and wanted to clean the dust out of it.

“That sticks in my mind.”

She’s seen teenagers glued to their phones and the steering wheel at the same time. One of her recent stops near Fife involved a driver so maddened by the traffic that he drove along the shoulder to bypass the other cars.

Sacks saw it, slid onto the shoulder herself and pulled the offender over. Along the way, she saw other drivers opening their windows and cheering.

How not to crash

How can drivers protect themselves?

Sacks, whose duties include giving traffic safety presentations at schools (she typically speaks before medical examiners show gruesome videos), said simple rules always apply.

Check both mirrors, she said. The rear-view and the side. Limit distractions. Don’t talk on the phone. Look at the road, not screens (the massive on-board screens in the new Teslas boggle her mind).

Drivers sometimes give themselves more credit for skill than they have, she said. Zipping in front of a semi without giving it enough room to stop is a common error.

What about old driver’s education advice — mirror, signal, head check — is that still good?

Still valid, she said.

One more thing: If you get pulled over by a state trooper, and you’re not on a state highway, don’t argue jurisdiction. Yes, Sacks has heard that one. It’s a no-go.

“All the time,” she said, smiling. “‘You can’t give me a ticket, you’re out of your jurisdiction.’ I say, ‘I don’t have one. I am the State Patrol.’”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT