Opinion: Yakama Nation is taking smart steps to tame traffic | Opinion

After more than 700 crashes and nearly 24 deaths, five of the deadliest intersections in the Yakama Nation are in line with some major safety improvements.

Good – it’s long overdue.

For decades, drivers, passengers, and pedestrians have been taking their lives into their own hands to travel the major traffic arteries that pulsate through the Lower Valley. It’s great to see the Yakama Nation’s Department of Natural Resources and Washington’s Department of Transportation continue to make progress.

Yakama DNR is providing some high-tech help from the Intelligent Transportation Research and Applications Laboratory at the University of Washington and AIWaysion, a company that specializes in using technology to solve traffic problems.

A crew set up a small sensor to monitor traffic around one of the deadliest intersections – US Highway 97 and LaRue Road – just last week.

“We’re trying to make data-informed decisions,” HollyAnna Littlebull, traffic safety coordinator for Yakama Nation, explained to YH-R reporter Jasper Kenzo Sundeen. “We want to see what kind of users are using this intersection… We need to know the size and types of vehicles.”

This would be useful information, but the most effective solution seems to be a foregone conclusion: roundabouts.

Five of them are already planned in the region:

  • Interstate 97 and Jones Road.
  • Interstate 97 and bypass.
  • Interstate 97 and LaRue Road.
  • Interstate 97 and State Route 22.
  • State Route 22 and State Route 223.

Work will begin next year on the roundabout in Jones Street. A sixth roundabout was built last year at the intersection of Highways 97 and McDonald and Baker.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, roundabouts immediately eliminate traffic accidents—reduced debris at intersections that have been converted to intersections by about 37%.

More importantly, roundabouts can reduce fatalities by up to 90% at intersections and can reduce injuries by 75%. They smooth out traffic, so even if drivers end up in wrecks, their speeds are much slower. Accidents are highly unlikely to be fatal.

This would go a long way to addressing what is often the worst component of accidents along Interstate 97: speed.

As we’ve seen often over the years, when cars coming off country roads are drawn into traffic at 60mph, bad things can happen.

And because the intersections in the circle of lights are in relatively busy areas where sidewalks are scarce, many pedestrians and cyclists increase the risk.

Foot and bike traffic is handled by a separate long-term project for Yakama Nation. The ambitious Heritage Connectivity Trails plan looks to add 150 miles of trails that stretch from Union Gap to White Swan.

For now, though, rolling out rotors should be a top priority. Many lives have already been lost, and many more hang in the balance as traffic flows increase.

Time to fix this.

The Yakima Herald Republic’s editorials reflect the collective opinion of the newspaper’s local editorial board.

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