Photo by Marcy Stamper

By Laurelle Walsh

An easy way to strike up a debate at Three Fingered Jack’s, or begin a rant on one of the local Internet bulletin boards, is to complain about slow drivers on Highway 20 between Twisp and Winthrop. Another way is to complain about fast drivers, or tailgaters or Subarus.

Many drivers travel the roughly 10 miles between the towns twice a day for work or school, yet may pass only a dozen or so cars on the 12-minute commute. But having to follow someone driving slower than the posted speed limit, or having to pass a vehicle in the few sections where it is safe, can result in real consternation for some drivers — without an obvious solution.

What is the reality about speed on Methow Valley highways? Is that 45 mph nighttime speed limit for real? Why won’t that car in front of you just pull over and let you pass?

Washington State Patrol Sergeant Clint Thomas is relatively new to our area, having transferred to Okanogan from Tacoma last November, but he has been patrolling the state’s highways since 2006, and has encountered all kinds of drivers.

“I myself have experienced being stuck behind slow drivers, so I know how it is,” Thomas concedes, “but faster drivers are probably more of a problem on the road.”

Thomas reminds drivers that the posted speed limit is the maximum speed allowed on a given stretch of road, except while passing another vehicle. There is no minimum allowable speed on a two-lane highway.

“If a driver feels that for their safety they need to drive slower, then they are allowed to,” Thomas says. “If a driver feels that they need to drive slower than the posted speed limit, they have the added responsibility to ensure they lessen the impact to other drivers.”

What’s permissible

State law says that if a driver is impeding five or more vehicles, they must turn off the roadway in a safe turnout to allow others to pass. They are also permitted to drive on the shoulder, where permitted, to allow faster drivers to pass when normal passing is not feasible.

NEWS-SlowBurn-Time-pThomas allows that there are relatively few pull-outs on the local highways, especially during winter or in places where there is no shoulder, and slower drivers should only attempt to pull over where it is safe.

On Highway 20 the posted speed is often 60 mph, with a recommended night driving speed of 45. “The key word here is ‘recommended,’” says Sergeant Thomas. “Reduced speed is at the discretion of the driver.”

Determining what hazards warrant reduced speed at night is going to vary among individuals, Thomas says. In snowy conditions, a driver with snow driving experience might only reduce their speed by 5 mph, whereas a driver with limited experience in the snow may reduce their speed by 10 mph or more.

“The important thing is, each driver is driving within their ability to operate the vehicle in a safe manner,” says Thomas.

Thomas also reminds drivers that the yellow reduced-speed warning signs posted on curvy roads “are there for a reason,” and that larger vehicles will need to drive slower on winding roads.

Another speed consideration when driving at night or with reduced visibility is the concept of “over-driving” your headlights, “fairly easy to do and very dangerous,” Thomas says. To understand it, he says to “imagine traveling down the road at night and observing how far your headlights illuminate the roadway. If you cannot come to a complete stop prior to that point, you are over-driving your headlights. If there is an object in the roadway, you will either strike the object or be forced to make evasive maneuvers to avoid it.”

The four-second rule

The Washington State Driver Guide says that average headlights allow a driver to see 400 feet ahead, and recommends using the four-second rule: Pick out a stationary object ahead and count “one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand.” If your car reaches the object before you count “four one-thousand,” you are driving too fast, the guide states.

The four-second rule also applies to following distance, according to the guide.

Sergeant Thomas says that the average driver’s reaction time is 1.5 seconds. At 60 mph, “by the time you perceive the hazard, move your foot and begin applying the brakes, you have traveled roughly 132 feet,” he says. On a dry roadway, total stopping distance at 60 mph is 300-350 feet. Add to that the reduced friction of wet, snowy or icy conditions and stopping distance increases greatly. “If you are traveling at a slower speed, your stopping distance becomes shorter,” Thomas says.

Driving in the Methow Valley comes with challenges not always faced in other areas: slick surfaces, blind curves, falling rocks, no shoulder, and of course the omnipresent deer population. Sergeant Thomas recommends driving defensively in all situations.

“You should always play the ‘what-if’ game,” Thomas says. “If a deer jumps out right this moment, what can I do to safely avoid it? There are times when there is only so much you can do but driving defensively can go a long way.”