File photo by Don Nelson Motorcyclists start coming over Highway 20 as soon as Washington Pass opens in the spring, and keep up a steady stream of two-wheeled traffic through summer.

File photo by Don Nelson
Motorcyclists start coming over Highway 20 as soon as Washington Pass opens in the spring, and keep up a steady stream of two-wheeled traffic through summer.

State, feds hope to reduce motorcycle accidents on Highway 20

By Ann McCreary

Every summer the North Cascades Scenic Highway attracts thousands of motorcycle riders who travel the route to enjoy the highway’s spectacular views, sweeping curves and tight turns.

Highway 20 is frequently called one of the “premier rides” on websites describing popular motorcycle routes in Washington state, and many riders heading east make the Methow Valley their destination.

Unfortunately, a significant number of riders on State Route 20 are injured or killed in motorcycle crashes on the highway. In an effort to reduce the number of accidents, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Federal Highway Administration are conducting a road safety assessment of the highway focused on motorcycles.

Transportation officials are evaluating a 120-mile stretch of Highway 20 between Marblemount and Okanogan to identify causes of motorcycle accidents and ways to prevent them, said Jeff Deal, a WSDOT civil engineer.

Between 2011 and 2015, there were 69 motorcycle crashes on that stretch of highway, Deal said. Five were fatalities and 59 produced injuries. Most happened on clear, dry days, according to WSDOT statistics.

Motorcycles are involved in approximately one out of every five crashes — 20 percent — along this section of Highway 20. That compares to a national average of 3 percent of all accidents that involve motorcycles, according to WSDOT.

“The study is focused on safety improvements for the roadway” such as improved signage and increased law enforcement. But the most important factor in addressing motorcycle safety is “rider behavior,” Deal said.

“A lot of the issue is people making poor decisions,” he said.

Losing control

Most of the motorcycle accidents are “off-road crashes” involving single riders who lose control of their bikes, he said.

As part of the safety audit, transportation officials came to the Methow Valley earlier this month and talked with business owners, Aero Methow Rescue Services, and members of motorcycle clubs visiting the valley.

“The general consensus from most of the motorcycle clubs and riders … was that the road is in pretty good condition. They think the major problem is … people going too fast for the conditions, and not being very experienced riders,” Deal said.

“What happens, especially on this route — and confirmed through a lot of interviews — is you get guys that travel in a pack and the last rider is not as good as the rest of the riders.

“They are flying through curves with warning signs of 35 miles per hour and they’re going through at 60, and the guy in back can’t keep up” and loses control, Deal said.

Last year there were 11 motorcycle accidents, with no fatalities, on that stretch of highway, and so far this year there have been seven accidents, Deal said.

Cindy Button, Aero Methow Rescue Services director of services, said two of this year’s accidents — one near Rainy Pass and one near Klipchuck campground — resulted in fatalities. Aero Methow responds to accidents on Highway 20 from Rainy Pass to Loup Loup summit.

“When we get dispatched on a motorcycle [call] we always put Life Flight on standby, “ Button said. 

In her experience, Button said, most of the motorcycle accidents result from “human error — whether excessive speed or drowsiness,” or deer on the highway.

An outreach effort to heighten awareness among motorcycle riders could be one approach to reducing accidents on Highway 20, Deal said. That might include placing messages geared to riders heading west out of Winthrop on the WSDOT sign just outside town, he said.

“It could run during peak periods in summer” and advise riders to use caution, Deal said.

More signs

Plans call for installing more warning signs to alert riders and drivers to curves on the highway, Deal said.

“The safety audit is piggy-backing on a region-wide chevron and safety improvement project,” he said. The project includes installing 290 new chevron signs on the North Cascades Highway.

Chevron signs are yellow rectangular signs with an arrow indicating the curve direction that are placed at intervals throughout a curve “to provide a visual border as you progress through the curve,” Deal said.

“We’ll identify areas where maybe signs could improve attention on the curves,” he said.

WSDOT may also consider installing rumble strips down the center of the road in some areas, he said.

On some curves that produce more accidents, a blinking sign might help capture the attention of motorcycle riders and drivers “and make sure they’re not caught off-guard,” Deal said.

Increasing law enforcement on the highway would be desirable but might be difficult to achieve. “State patrol is spread pretty thin as is,” Deal said.

The WSDOT safety audit was initiated as a result of prompting from the Federal Highway Administration, Deal said. “They contacted us [due to] the sheer number of motorcycle crashes on the route.”

Deal said the audit report and recommendations are expected to be completed in about a month.