Driver inexperience also cited as a factor in many crashes
By Ann McCreary
Each year an average of 14 motorcycle riders crash while riding on the North Cascades Scenic Highway between Marblemount and Okanogan, resulting in five fatalities and 13 serious injuries between 2011-2015.
Some of those deaths and injuries could be prevented on the most dangerous stretches of Highway 20 by adding more warning signs, widening pavement, extending guard rails, and installing reflectors on guardrails, according to a recently completed safety analysis.
Each summer thousands of motorcycle riders travel Highway 20 over the North Cascades, and many of the eastbound riders make the Methow Valley their destination. Riders enjoy the spectacular views and sweeping curves of the route, which ranks high on lists of best motorcycle rides from sources like magazines and blogs.
Because so many motorcycle riders are injured along the route, a team of state and federal transportation officials conducted a three-day “road safety audit” in August to identify where accidents happen and why, and develop measures to improve safety for motorcyclists.
Team members gathered data and met with the Washington State Patrol as part of the safety audit. They visited the Methow Valley to meet with Aero Methow Rescue Services and talk with motorcycle riders. They also traveled the 120-mile stretch of Highway 20 to survey conditions, and then came up with recommendations for motorcycle safety improvements.
Motorcycles are involved in 20 percent of all vehicle crashes along this section of Highway 20, according to the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT). That compares to a national average of 3 percent of all accidents that involve motorcycles.
When and where
A summary of motorcycle crashes in the audit report reported 69 accidents in the five year period from 2011-2015; 45 percent occurred on Saturday or Sunday with the highest time period for crashes been noon and 3 p.m.
The majority — 94 percent — of the crashes took place between June and September. Speed was the primary contributing cause in 48 percent of the accidents, and 75 percent of the crashes occurred on curves.
Drivers involved in the accidents were mostly older riders, with 55 percent between 50-73 years old and 29 percent between 60-73 years old. Helmets were worn by riders in all but one accident.
The safety audit team identified the most dangerous stretches of Highway 20 by analyzing accident statistics and evaluating the road conditions in site visits. The result of the analysis produced four stretches of roadway, called “areas of interest,” with the highest number of accidents, and three milepost locations.
One of those areas of interest is just south of Winthrop at the intersection of Highway 20 and Witte Road, where three motorcycle crashes occurred. “Driving eastbound, the intersection is hard to detect and therefore it is assumed drivers are stopping suddenly to make the left turn (onto Witte Road). There is not an advance warning sign for the intersection driving eastbound,” the analysis found, and recommended installing a sign warning of a left turn or intersection ahead.
One of the mileposts of interest identified is the sweeping curve just below the Liberty Bell spires as Highway 20 descends toward the valley floor. WSDOT already has plans to install chevron signs on the curve, and the audit report concurred with those plans.
Chevron signs are yellow rectangular signs with an arrow indicating the curve direction. They are placed at intervals throughout a curve to provide motorists with a visual border as they progress through the curve.
More danger areas
Another dangerous location in the Methow Valley is the intersection of the road to the Mazama Junction and Highway 20. As westbound motorists approach the intersection, the roadway appears to continue straight or curve to the right from a distance, but in fact continues left. The report recommended installing signs warning of the intersection and consider installing chevrons visible to westbound motorists.
Areas of interest also included a short, one-tenth of a mile stretch where seven crashes occurred during the five-year period. The area is a right curve just beyond the grated bridge that crosses Gorge River three miles east of Newhalem.
The study found that riders were braking at the start of the curve rather than before it, crossing the centerline and striking other vehicles or guardrails. The report recommended refreshing roadway markings, installing chevrons and reflectors on a concrete barrier on the east side of the bridge.
As part of the study WSDOT collected comments from the public. Some commenters opposed “polluting the scenery” with more warning signs; some said frustrated motorists make unsafe passes when slow moving vehicles don’t use turnouts; and some said rider behavior is a bigger problem than highway design.
Motorcyclists interviewed for the report focused on human factors rather than the roadway, and said there are too many inexperienced riders who don’t know how to negotiate curves.
The results of the audit are intended to provide suggestions to WSDOT to mitigate the safety risks to motorcyclists. The final step of the process is for the interdisciplinary team to develop a plan to address the findings of the Highway 20 safety audit.