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By Jess Macinko
News Editor 

Spring brake in Alderdale: traffic grant targets road

 

April 12, 2017

Jess Macinko

ADVENTURES IN ALDERDALE: Sgt. Joe Riggers of the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office speaks to a pulled-over motorist at dawn last Thursday on Alderdale Road.

If you go to Alderdale before dawn, you won't see the vast swaths of vineyards and orchards that blanket the landscape. But you might guess at their rolling, unbroken expanse by watching a trail of lights.

"I akin it to a trail of ants," says Sgt. Joe Riggers of the Klickitat County Sherriff's Office (KCSO). Riggers' description is apt: when the lights first appear, they are mere pinpricks, marching through the dark. Gradually, they resolve into pairs of headlights, and their speed becomes apparent.

As they pass, Riggers clocks them on a dashboard monitor. Since he set up, none of the vehicles has been at or below the 50 mph speed limit, but he lets them go by. He's waiting for speeds closer to 70 mph-the average for Alderdale Road.

This 17-mile stretch of highway is the main access point for workers commuting to agricultural businesses in the far-east end of Klickitat County. During the height of summer, the road can see as many as 1,400 vehicles per day, according to the Klickitat County Road Department (KCRD).

That volume, combined with Alderdale's remote location, creates a dilemma for traffic safety enforcement. Alderdale is 50 miles from Goldendale as the crow flies; the shortest drive takes an hour and 20 minutes. By the time deputies arrive, they're likely to get a call from a more populated part of the unty. As a result, Alderdale's average enforcement presence is slim to none.

Without deterrents, driving behavior in the area is anything goes. Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 of 2016, there were four reported collisions on Alderdale Road, one of them a fatality. In his time with KCSO, Riggers himself has dealt with three separate fatality collisions on Alderdale Road.

When they have been able to write tickets, Riggers doubts their efforts made a dent in the problem. "We pull one over and nine or 10 more fly by."

According to KCSO records, the road consistently ranks highest for speeding citations in the county. Yet it is also one of the least patrolled.

Now, KCSO hopes to tackle the problem with a $50,000 federal grant. Awarded through the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC), the grant will sponsor a three-pronged approach: enforcement, engineering, and education.

From May 1 through the end of September, the road will receive at least 25 hours of undivided enforcement per week. The grant allocates overtime pay for deputies specifically dedicated to the road-they won't have to field calls from elsewhere in the county.

The project will also include new signage: 90-degree corner signs, electric signs that alert approaching drivers of their speed, and signs in English and Spanish that say, "Slow down, arrive safe."

But the effort's centerpiece is education. A majority of the commuters are Hispanic; most reside in Sunnyside, Mabton, Prosser and other areas of the lower Yakima valley. The grant sponsors a media plan centered on public service announcements for Hispanic radio stations in the valley.

Riggers, the project manager, says communicating across cultures is essential for the program's success. At first, workers with visas didn't know what to expect from deputies. Some would flee, fearful of immigration enforcement. Now, Riggers says, there's a collective understanding that the effort is about traffic safety.

Jess Macinko

THE ROAD MORE TAKEN: Alderdale Road consistently ranks highest for speeding citations in the county, yet is also one of the least patrolled.

That knowledge may allay fears, but it hasn't translated to full cooperation. Speeding is still the norm, and most commuters treat enforcement as an obstacle to be sidestepped, not a deterrent to be respected. At some point during the morning, a Mercer Canyons employee sent a group email warning of KCSO presence. Rather than slowing, drivers responded by detouring onto side-roads above Rigger's location.

KCSO hopes to partner with Alderdale employers to create a culture of safe driving. So far, Mercer Canyons has led the way in organizing company traffic-safety training. The training will also be part of new-hire orientation.

To measure the project's impact, (KCRD) will collect data on traffic volume, speed and time of day during May – September. They'll compare that data to a baseline study conducted in 2016.

Studies of projects like this suggest they typically lower average speeds by 4 – 6 mph. KCSO's goal is 10.

"It may be optimistic," Riggers says, "but I think we can do it. The key is consistency." One statistic is already heartening: there have been no collisions since the project began.

Jess@GoldendaleSentinel.com

 

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