Motorcyclists love the North Cascades Highway. It’s scenic, it’s a fun ride, and can be a manageable segment of an extended day trip for groups or individuals. For those coming from the west side, Winthrop is a great place to stop or stay the night. It seems like there are more motorcycles parked along Riverside Avenue every summer. Their owners are important contributors to the valley’s tourism economy.
But just as predictable as the first motorcycles over Washington Pass the day it opens are the subsequent entries in the police blotter, and the distressing reports sent to media outlets by the Washington State Patrol all summer long about motorcycle accidents. It’s not happy reading.
I am now used to seeing a steady string of State Patrol bulletins about motorcycle accidents on Highway 20, or hearing scanner alerts for Aero Methow Rescue Service to respond to a motorcycle wreck. Those accidents have always seemed to be happening all out of proportion to the total traffic using the busy highway.
I’m not pleased to report that my instincts were accurate. According to figures recently provided by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the 120-mile stretch of Highway 20 between Marblemount and Okanogan averaged about 14 motorcycle accidents a year between 2011 and 2015, resulting in 59 injuries and five fatalities. Most of the accidents occurred in good driving conditions, according to WSDOT studies. One out of every five vehicle accidents on that portion of the highway involved a motorcycle during that time period, WSDOT found.
WSDOT also confirmed what I have concluded from reading State Patrol accident reports for that same period: Most of the accidents involved single motorcycles going off the road. The cyclists lose control, almost always on a curve, and end up in a ditch. Other times, riders swerve to avoid hitting a deer, with the same outcome.
My own observational evidence is that many of the riders involved in such accidents are, shall we say, in the Baby Boomer generation. They are leisure riders out for a nice trip, not troublemakers looking for a rumble. They may love the glory of the open road with the wind whipping past their helmet visor, but they are not unnecessary risk-takers for the most part (although all of us have witnessed some purely crazy passing maneuvers by motorcyclists on Highway 20).
Mountain travel presents different hazards for motorcyclists than urban settings and crowded freeways, where dangerous situations are often caused by the actions and inattention of other motorists.
As we reported last week, WSDOT and the Federal Highway Administration are conducting a road safety assessment of the highway focused on motorcycles, in hopes of coming up with strategies to cut down on the number of accidents.
Proposals for increased safety include more signage — just what a scenic highway needs, right? — to alert motorcyclists that they should slow down for those mountain road curves that make the ride so intriguing.
I don’t know if that will be of much help. There are already speed-reduction caution signs all along the highway for just about every twist and turn of the road. It’s not like motorists and motorcyclists don’t know what they’re in for. Another possibility is installing blinking signs on particularly challenging curves. I don’t see that improving the scenic experience either.
That’s not to criticize transportation planners. Their options are limited, and the State Patrol typically only has a few troopers available to look after a lot of highway.
WSDOT, federal officials and other observers such as the folks at Aero Methow agree that most accidents are caused by driver error. Can an outreach effort help convince motorcyclists to just slow down coming over the North Cascades? I would hope so, but that might be difficult to achieve. The best solution may be less formal than government action. Motorcyclists are not a homogenous community but do share a love of two-wheeled adventures. It would be interesting to hear their ideas about improving safety. They have the most to gain — or lose.