Graham Hill – how dangerous is Meridian Ave?

By Bruce A. Smith

Although I was involved in a collision on Graham Hill that wrecked two vehicles out of the four involved, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) says that Meridian Ave / State Route 161 is not too dangerous.

It’s not on the list,” said Steve Bennett, our regional engineer for WSDOT, in a recent phone call. Bennett’s statement reflected that fact that the frequency and severity of car crashes on Graham Hill are not sufficient to warrant any significant action by the state to make this roadway safer.

Yet personal experience and years of observation by this writer suggest otherwise. Here are the facts:

According to WSDOT records, and supported by Assistant Chief Tony Judd of the Graham Fire and Rescue Department, the stretch of Meridian that spans from 238th St in the north to 264th St in the south, had thirteen accidents in the 12-month period of October 2015 to October 2016.

Of those thirteen car crashes, six caused any injuries, but only one incident was reported as “serious.”

Additionally, this pattern seems to exist when records from 2013-2014 are reviewed. Nevertheless, the accident I was involved with on the evening of October 6, 2016 sent two people to Good Samaritan Hospital.

In my view, the prime cause of danger on Graham Hill is the lack of turning lanes. There are no provisions for people to make left-hand turns into the businesses atop Graham Hill, such as Karen Lucas’ Art Studio, from the southbound lanes, or into the Evergreen Presbyterian Church from the northbound lanes.

Other turning dangers also exist, such as folks needing to come to a near stop as they access their homes or sub-divisions, such as Columbia Crest that is just south of 252nd St. I have witnessed innumerable instances of screeching brakes and narrowly avoided crashes as drivers come over the crest of the hill and see a line of cars stopped as someone is turning into a driveway or access road.

Clearly, the current push by the Pierce County Planning and Land Services to require developers to install turning lanes into their newly built residential projects did not exist when hundreds of homes were built along the summit of Graham Hill.

WSDOT is not blind to these circumstances, though, and Bennett did claim that his agency is researching the traffic patterns on Graham Hill, in particular its speed limits. Bennett said that the State is reviewing the possibility of lowering the top speeds across the summit.

It might be reduced to 50, or even 45 miles per hour,” he told the Mountain News. He also said that the state is reviewing the type of speed limit signs and their placement on Graham Hill.

When asked if the speed is reduced to 45 mph, would that also negate the need for climbing lanes, and thus provide roadway space to create the much needed turning lanes. Bennett demurred, and said that the creation of turning lanes could create other hazards, such as cars traveling in opposite directions and using the turns lane simultaneously, which could initiate huge problems.

Bennett is also mindful of the impacts of reducing speeds, and certainly taking away the climbing lanes.

You have to remember that ten percent of the traffic over Graham Hill are trucks,” he said, and warned how frustrated drivers could create an even worse problem by trying to pass slow freight haulers.

Another issue that Bennett acknowledged is the limited visibility at the summit due to the contour of the hill, which creates blind spots for on-coming traffic who can’t see traffic on the other side of the crest.

But this is a situation that exists throughout the state,” said Bennett. “Every country road has inherent dangers at the top of a hill. All I can say is that drivers need to be careful.”

However, Graham Hill is part of a heavily-used commuter corridor. State officials claim over half of residents in south Pierce County who are employed drive to work, either in Tacoma or Seattle. As a result, Meridian / SR 161 is one of the most-used roads, with the concomitant dangers of lots of cars driving at maximum speeds, and often in an aggressive manner. Hence, Graham Hill needs all the help it can get.

So, will the speed limit be lowered?

Bennett said that the state should conclude its research by early December, but as of this date no determination has been announced.

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4 Responses to Graham Hill – how dangerous is Meridian Ave?

  1. Denise says:

    I’ve been driving up and down Graham Hill for 26 years. I’ve never been involved in an accident, almost been involved in an accident, or seen an accident. I’m sure there have been some, just never when I’ve been there. I have seen drivers going up and down the hill that I wouldn’t be surprised if they did get in an accident. Flying up the hill having to be first, get past everyone. I get really annoyed when someone like that gets past me going up the hill heading south and then ride their brakes down the other side so that I have to break. Actually that pisses me off.

    Sure it would help if there were left turn lanes. But lowering the speed limit probably wouldn’t do much. If people would be cautious, plan for a car to be in their way when they crest the hill, there would be fewer accidents and almost accidents.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      If I was thinking like you, Denise, I probably would not have been in the accident. But I was operating under the premise that the road was safe. My belief was developed from at least one major factor: signage and speed limits give the presumption of safety. If the road is posted at 55 mph, then it should be safe to drive at 55. Clearly, that is not true.

      Also, that presumption is not believed or embraced by state DOT officials, apparently, as I wrote about one who warns motorists to be careful on state highways regardless of the posted signage and speed, especially on the crest of hills.

      That may be self-evident to most, but it was not evident to me. I suspect that it is not evident to at least one driver per month on Graham Hill. Perhaps lowering the speed to 50 mph will give many people like me a jolt of awareness of the underlying danger of Graham Hill.

      • Denise says:

        It might but I highly doubt it. I’m passed doing 55. People go up that hill doing 60 + just to get by everyone else. Granted, once upon a time I would have been inclined to do the same thing, but experience and gas prices have slowed me down. I’m not gonna burn gas just to be first up that hill 😉

        Lowering the speed limit might slow some down, more likely will just lead to more revenue for state patrol. Roads are only as safe as the people driving them. If one isn’t driving with the idea of avoiding and accident they are more likely to get in one. Defensive driving has always been the way to avoid most accidents. 🙂

  2. brucesmith49 says:

    Editor’s Note: The following comes from Pat Roberts Dempsey via email:

    Hwy. 161 was once described as the most dangerous road in Washington state. At that time there was only a blinker light at the intersection with what is now 224th street. It was even more dangerous than it is today. As I recall, the speed limit in the 60s and early 70s was 65mph! Thank you for bringing the continuing danger to the attention of the public.
    Pat

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