A disturbing trend may be developing this year on state highways in Whatcom County, as the seven deadly crashes in the first five months of 2017 equal the number of fatalities from all of 2016.
On all roads across Whatcom County, there have been 10 deaths so far this year, compared with 12 in all of 2016. Statewide, there have been 156 traffic fatalities so far in 2017, compared with 511 in all of 2016, according to state Department of Transportation records. Ten years ago, in 2007, some 16 people died on Whatcom County roads and five years ago there were 10 fatalities.
Still, the sharp increase in local traffic deaths has drawn the attention of officials who study drivers and traffic, said Doug Dahl of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and author of the weekly Rules of the Road column for The Bellingham Herald.
I have seen some really crazy and scary things happen.
Ted Royal, Maple Falls
“It’s definitely concerning,” said Dahl, who is Northwest region manager of the panel’s Target Zero program. “The challenge is to understand it within the bigger picture.”
Five months of traffic fatalities is a “small data set,” Dahl said. “But remember that every data point is somebody’s personal crisis. I wouldn’t want to make a prediction to say that there’s a specific problem. The crashes have happened for a variety of reasons.”
May was a particularly brutal month for traffic deaths in Whatcom County, with five people killed in three crashes – including four on state highways. A driver died instantly when he sheared off the top of his pickup under a semitrailer; a pedestrian was killed in a hit-run, and three people died in a head-on Mother’s Day crash on Mount Baker Highway. That incident claimed the lives of a young father and his infant daughter, injured the mother and killed the driver who caused the wreck.
“How many people need to die on Mount Baker Highway before the speed limit is lowered?” asked Whatcom County resident Sydney Bergman in a May 17 post with comments about a Bellingham Herald story on the horrific Mother’s Day collision. “So many deaths could be avoided if they took it down to 45 mph.”
For much of its nearly 60-mile stretch, the speed limit on Mount Baker Highway is 55 mph.
Speed limits are typically higher on state highways – and many state highways are two-lane roads that link rural and urban areas, such as Mount Baker Highway, Valley Highway, Guide Meridian, Pole and Badger roads. More people are killed on interstates and state highways because highways and interstates carry more cars and people drive faster, Dahl said.
So many deaths could be avoided if they took it down to 45 mph.
Sydney Bergman, Whatcom County
“Trend or not, it’s a good wake-up call that we need to pay attention no matter how we drive,” Dahl said. “Nobody gets up in the morning and thinks, ‘Today is the day that I’m going to get into a crash.’ ”
In an effort to make Mount Baker Highway safer, the Washington State Department of Transportation plans to install a roundabout at the intersection with Highway 9 east of Deming in summer 2018, on a stretch of highway where several severe crashes have occurred.
“Plans and funding are set,” said WSDOT’s northern region spokeswoman Andrea Petrich. “We’re working to improve safety at that intersection.”
In addition, Petrich said the state recently installed about a mile of new guardrail on Mount Baker Highway, some at milepost 16 east of Deming and some between mileposts 31 and 47 near Glacier.
WSDOT figures show that since Jan. 1, 2012, there have been 39 reported crashes on Mount Baker Highway between Highway 9 and Mosquito Lake Road (milepost 14.6 - 16.85). Twenty of those crashes were with fixed objects such as guardrails and trees, Petrich said.
10 Fatal crashes in Whatcom County for the first five months of 2017
12Fatal crashes in Whatcom County for all of 2016
According to 2016 WSDOT figures, an average 9,700 vehicles traveled Mount Baker Highway daily at the Highway 9 roundabout in Nugents Corner, an increase of 1,100 vehicles since 2013. Traffic volume declines farther uphill toward Glacier, with 2,900 daily vehicles at Silver lake Road, up from 2,300 daily in 2013.
We’ll likely never know why Maple Falls resident Larry E. Fitzgerald drove across the centerline on Mount Baker Highway east of Highway 9 on the morning of May 14, killing 5-month-old Penelope Moyer and her father Phillip Moyer, also of Maple Falls. Fitzgerald was hospitalized following the wreck –he died two days later. Whatcom County Medical Examiner Dr. Gary Goldfogel said it was impossible to tell if Fitzgerald suffered a medical incident and Washington State Patrol investigators were unable to get a sample of his blood, because he went immediately into surgery.
Whatcom County District Court records show Fitzgerald had been cited at least nine times since 1990 on traffic violations, both criminal and non-criminal, for infractions that include speeding, tailgating, improper turning and negligent driving. In addition, he had been convicted or paid fines for driving with a suspended license, giving false information to an officer and driving without insurance or registration. The state patrol’s report blamed the crash on excessive speed.
A week later in the same area of Mount Baker Highway, Shawn Dale Noisey of Bellingham was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, vehicle theft, and other charges following a crash that seriously injured his passenger. State patrol investigators said he tried to pass several cars on a blind curve.
Trend or not, it’s a good wake-up call that we need to pay attention no matter how we drive.
Doug Dahl, traffic safety specialist
“Make the speed limit anything you’d like and there will always be people who go as fast as they please,” said Heidi Jo Postlewait of Bellingham in a social media post.
In posts on social media and in emails and phone calls, many readers of The Bellingham Herald expressed concern, anger and fear about drivers on Mount Baker Highway.
“I have driven that highway from Maple Falls to Bellingham every day from 1974 to 1977, and then from 1981 to now, and for the last 15 years, sometimes several times a day,” Ted Royal wrote in an email. “I have seen some really crazy and scary things happen.”
The Herald archives show a handful of high-profile crashes over the past 15 years, including several deadly wrecks, that focus attention on Mount Baker Highway.
The highway, also called state Route 542 or Highway 542, starts as Sunset Drive in Bellingham and goes 57 miles east to the sweeping Artist Point vista in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Its speed limit goes as high as 55 mph as it travels through the foothills and Cascades Mountains villages of Deming, Maple Falls and Glacier. It’s most heavily traveled during the winter ski season and the summer hiking months, when popular trails at the higher elevations are snow-free. Winter seems to show a greater number of crashes, according to firefighters and police officers who respond to emergencies in the area.
“On the weekends, it’s so highly traveled. It’s bumper to bumper in the morning and at night” in winter, when the road can be snow-covered and icy, said Chief Jerry DeBruin of Whatcom County Fire District 14, a mostly volunteer department that serves Sumas, Kendall and Welcome. He’s been a firefighter for three decades, and often drives the rural roads, including Mount Baker Highway.
We’re working to improve safety at that intersection.
Andrea Petrich, WSDOT
He’s seen more than his share of crashes and aggressive drivers.
“I’m surprised that it doesn’t happen more often,” DeBruin said. “I’ve seen so many close calls.”
DeBruin said he hopes state funds could become available to add more roundabouts on state highways, such as those on Mount Baker Highway between Bellingham and Deming. He said the ones on East Badger Road (SR 546) have made the road safer.
“It keeps traffic moving and it slows people down,” DeBruin said.
Another factor that keeps drivers safer is police presence, Dahl said.
“There’s some hard data that shows that law enforcement action saves lives,” he said.
Washington State Patrol Sgt. Kevin Leary said it’s no challenge for troopers to cite drivers for speeding and tailgating on Mount Baker Highway. The problem, he said, is lack of funds to assign a full-time trooper to the area.
“My heart breaks for every one of these crashes, because it affects people’s lives,” Leary said. “It’s a remote road. We know people speed in that area, but we don’t have the call volume to assign an officer. We try to get out there and work. When we do get out there, we do see speed involved and it’s very easy for us” to write tickets.
Leary urged drivers who see speeding and aggressive driving to call 911 and report the incident, hopefully with a license plate or other descriptive information. He said even if the driver isn’t caught, it gives officials an indication that more enforcement is needed.
“We need to hold our fellow drivers accountable,” Leary said.