In the years before the new Narrows bridge forever changed the commute, rush hour was a daily misery. Worse, when a nasty accident blocked the bridge deck it meant panicked phone calls, grinding teeth and a lot of cursing.
The recipe is the same everywhere – take one traffic chokepoint, add a blocking collision, and the result is miles of backup, flaring tempers and imploding schedules. This effect can domino into huge financial implications for drivers, their workplace and local businesses.
Such an event occurred last week when thousands of motorists endured an eight hour closure of southbound I-5 after a Fedex truck (driven by a Tacoma man- why did he have to be from Tacoma?) jackknifed and caught fire almost directly under the Seattle Convention Center (Trib 5/29). The blame for this crash should be placed squarely on Fedex and the driver, but the lengthy wait is something else entirely.
Why did it take eight hours for the State Patrol, Department of Transportation workers and tow truck drivers to clean the mess and get traffic flowing again?
There are only a few reasons for an extended lane closure following an accident: a lengthy police investigation, a complex debris situation or a difficult motorist extraction. Since the latter is an absolute necessity, let’s discuss the other two.
Serious injuriy or fatal accidents are extensively investigated, often using real measurements, photos and evidence collection to reverse engineer the crash. This time-consuming process is necessary to prosecute subsequent vehicular assault or homicide charges.
Yet when one compares that priority to the real potential for further collisions – rubberneckers have been crashing since the advent of the car – as well as the cascading economic, social and environmental consequences of hours long delays, the relative importance of a lengthy and painstaking investigation rapidly diminishes.
The other reason for the delay is cleaning up the mess. The Washington State Patrol trooper on the scene is responsible for orchestrating a smooth and timely return to the normal traffic flow by calling in tow drivers, emergency flaggers and vehicles, heavy removal equipment, etc. As an agency, the Patrol can do a better job of resetting traffic.
While individual troopers and local police officers are well trained for the job, when they arrive at collision scenes their actions are based on protocol hammered into them by leaders who place a higher priority on diligent investigation than on traffic flow. The result is a driving public with an almost fatalistic acceptance of the seemingly endless delays that follow collisions on major roadways.
This is not to say that every collision needs to be swept aside at maximum speed. Instead, it means that a better, more proactive and efficient system for investigating and clearing accident scenes should be developed.
It is no surprise that mammoth rigs roam Washington’s highways and interstates, and that these rigs occasionally run into things. When said object is attached to an essential part of the region’s traffic flow – say, an aging bridge in Mount Vernon or a jersey barrier in downtown Seattle – the public safety response should demonstrate a “We knew this was going to happen and we’re ready for it” attitude.
This would require the collective wisdom and ingenuity of traffic engineers, transportation experts, road repair crews, tow drivers and, of course, the State Patrol. With the mission of more efficient accident response and better traffic management, this is a task force that could make broad changes to a broken traffic model.
With aging roads built for a fraction of today’s vehicular traffic, the motoring public needs this type of change now more than ever. Think about that the next time you see brake lights flash in front of you and traffic grinds to a halt.