In the past nine years highway 97 has seen 615 auto accidents, 16 of those were fatal. Already this year there have been six fatal auto accidents on highway 97 from Toppenish to Union Gap. The residents of Yakima County are left wondering, what if anything will be done to make this road a safer place to drive. As a Bellevue wrongful death attorney working in a Renton personal injury law firm, I know just how tragic it can be for family and friends to lose a loved one in a car accident. But the significant amount of auto accidents that have happened on this one road have me questioning who is really at fault; the state or the drivers?
Throughout Yakima County injury related crashes have actually declined in the past couple years, but highway 97 has seen a 37% increase in the same amount of time. So what makes hwy 97 so dangerous? The high crash rate is due to the increased amount of intersections for people to turn on and off hwy 97. Many drivers fail to fully stop before they try to merge onto the highway and fail to give enough stopping distance to have time to slow down when someone tries to turn off the road.
For the past 12 years the WSDOT has worked on numerous projects meant to improve the safety of the road, but they are only responsible to do so much. It is up to the drivers in the area to make the roads safer for everyone. Reckless driving comes in many forms, and not signaling or fully stopping can be just as dangerous as speeding. With the amount of trucks that cross over that road daily it becomes even more dangerous to cut people off and turn without signaling. Drivers fail to realize that trucks can’t stop as quickly as they can.
Washington State Patrol launched their Target Zero Program in 2010 that aims to reduce highway deaths to zero by the year 2030. Their strategy is to use law enforcement, education, engineering and emergency medical service to help reduce highway fatalities. WSP’s Lt. Terry Liebrecht explains, “South of the gap down to Toppenish is one of our specifically targeted areas, where we have an increased awareness of the problem that we’re dealing with.” Troopers are focusing on several factors such as speeding and driving while impaired that lead to fatal or injury related car accidents.
Some of these problems should be easy fixes, stopping at stop signs and lights and using your turn signal, these are things that we should all be doing anyways. But impaired driving is a serious issue in Yakima County and bringing those number down is something that WSP has been struggling with for years. To put things into perspective, a recent study shows that in King County 3 out of 100,000 people are killed every year in DUI related accidents. In Yakima County that number jumps to 9.
This past February, during a recent string of deadly crashes in Yakima County, 18-year-old Hannah Cordova was killed because a driver failed to stop at a red light. In March, 3 people were injured because 28-year-old Oscar Hernandez-Nieto drove right through a stop sign onto hwy 97. These auto accidents are almost an everyday occurrence on hwy 97 and it is up to the drivers to be more responsible. Residents like Phyllis Hooper, who live in the area, don’t like to drive down hwy 97 at night because it is too dangerous, but according to her the danger is due to the drivers, not the road itself.