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Sunday, May 26, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Crackdown On `Killer' Highway -- Alcohol-Related Crashes High In Yakima Canyon

AP

YAKIMA RIVER CANYON - For 24 dazzling miles, the Yakima River flows lazily between steep basalt cliffs. Bighorn sheep roam the crags and bald eagles soar far above.

The beautiful setting draws thousands of people each year for fly fishing, inner-tube floats and the scenic drive between Yakima and Ellensburg.

But the traffic causes some serious problems, including a high percentage of alcohol-related car wrecks.

"The Yakima River Canyon is beautiful, but deadly," said state Secretary of Transportation Sid Morrison. "It's a killer."

Eighteen percent of all car accidents along Highway 821, also known as Canyon Road, are alcohol-related, compared with a 10 percent state average, according to statistics from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

During the summer months, the figure jumps to 48 percent.

Morrison and other state officials this month kicked off a campaign to make the canyon safer. The effort includes increasing the number of police patrols through the canyon and adding air surveillance to help crack down on speeders and erratic drivers.

The goal of the program to make it safe, "so all of us can bring our families here, enjoy the beauty of the canyon, and come back alive," Morrison said.

Opened in 1924, the 24-mile Canyon Road follows the winding course of the Yakima River on this stretch of its journey south to the Columbia River. The state declared it a scenic route after Interstate 82 linked Ellensburg and Yakima in 1971.

Between January 1992 and October 1995, there 115 car accidents on that twisting stretch of highway, according to commission statistics. Twenty-six of those accidents, including one fatal crash, were designated as alcohol-related.

Most of the alcohol-related accidents have been linked to people who were camping, swimming and rafting along the river, said John Moffat, commission director.

"The collisions and drinking-driver collisions on this roadway mirror what is happening throughout Yakima County, where we have one of the highest drinking-driver collision rates in the state, a very high fatality rate and the lowest seat belt use in the state," Moffat said.

Two banners have been strung across the river at railroad trestles to raise the issue with river rafters and inner-tube floaters.

"Who's driving downstream?" the banners say. "The designated driver is the life of the party."

"We're hoping to catch them as they get in so they know . . . that before they get on the river and drink for a couple hours, they should look for a designated driver," said Michael Urakawa, traffic safety coordinator for the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments.

Problems with drunken river rafters trying to drive back through the canyon peaked in the mid-1980s, when commercially organized river floats attracted summer crowds estimated at 10,000 people, said Bob Lamb, a commissioned law-enforcement officer for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"It was far more dangerous then. There were at least two or three fatalities a month," Lamb said, standing near the dock where most floaters pull out of the river. "Some folks would hit the rock wall just a couple blocks from this parking lot."

Lamb said he and someone from the Bureau of Land Management make a point of sitting in the parking lot in the late afternoon on summer weekends, something they call "flying the colors."

They'll occasionally approach a group that appears especially intoxicated and ask who's doing the driving, but that's usually not necessary.

"Just because you're sitting here in a marked vehicle and (wearing) a uniform makes a difference," Lamb said. "You don't have to say a word and you make a difference."

The state crackdown, called the Canyon Corridor Safety Project, is similar to an effort launched two years ago to reduce the number of accidents along Highway 97 between Union Gap and Toppenish.

Moffat said that program, which also combined education and heightened enforcement, has reduced injury accidents by 35 percent and alcohol-related accidents by 25 percent.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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