Collisions up 33% on I-5 near construction zone in Tacoma

TACOMA, Wash. — State troopers are responding to an increased number of traffic collisions near an Interstate 5 construction zone in Tacoma.

“We’re looking at a little more than two collisions that happen on this stretch per day,” Trooper Robert Royer with the Washington State Patrol said.

The data provided by the agency, which covers the distance between milepost 132 (near state Route 16 exit) to milepost 136 (near the Port of Tacoma Road exit), shows traffic collisions are up 33% since 2019. With more than 400 collisions already reported this year (so far), troopers are responding to at least two crashes a day on that specific stretch of the interstate.

Royer said the primary reason behind most of the collisions is distracted driving.

“When I drive through this area on a daily basis, I see people on their phones. I see people putting on makeup, eating behind the wheel because they just get bored when they’re stuck in traffic. And those are the reasons why we have so many collisions,” Royer said.

Royer also attributed the rise in collisions to poor driving habits picked up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it’s because people were home (and not driving) or because they were driving frequently on emptier streets, the mass influx of drivers on roadways has caused problems for troopers statewide.

But add in a construction zone with tighter lanes and different restrictions, then you have even more factors contributing to an abnormal rise in collisions on this specific stretch of I-5.

“We’re seeing an increase, mostly because people are just more out and about and still not focusing on the primary task — the driving task,” Royer said.

The construction zone is part of an ongoing, 20-year HOV (High- Occupancy Vehicle) program by WSDOT. The Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program is a series of projects that focuses on building HOV lanes on I-5, SR 16, and state Route 167 in Pierce County. (https://wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/I5/PortlandToPortSB/default.htm )

The construction zone on I-5 from Port of Tacoma Road to Portland Avenue is set to be completed by the end of 2021, according to WSDOT’s Cara Mitchell.

Mitchell also noted the increase of collisions on construction zones statewide. (WSDOT compiles its own data on traffic incidents.) She also confirmed distracted driving was a top, contributing factor.

“The number of collisions in those work zones has remained high, and that trend has continued into 2021. We are seeing distracted driving as a top reason for crashes on our highways,” Mitchell said.

Tom Richmond, a local delivery driver, said he wasn’t surprised by the data based on his daily commutes around Puget Sound. He also noticed a considerable shift in driving behavior during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Listen, I’ve been driving here for 36 years, and I’ve seen traffic just explode,” Richmond said. “People’s driving is four times worse than it was before COVID. They’re out (now), and they think, ‘I can go as fast as I want cause during COVID, the traffic was a lot less.’ I worked during some of that. … So people were doing 80 (mph) on the freeway instead of 70 (mph). Now they think they can still do 80 (mph) with all this traffic. It doesn’t work.”