A city review of the epic tractor-trailer wreck that shut down Highway 99 for more than nine hours and snarled traffic across downtown Seattle revealed “systemic weaknesses” in the city’s response. New responses are planned.
Getting traffic flowing is now a higher priority than property considerations during major roadway accidents in Seattle — and it’s all thanks to a toppled truck on Highway 99 loaded with fish.
A city review of the epic tractor-trailer wreck that shut down the roadway for more than nine hours last month and snarled traffic across downtown revealed “systemic weaknesses” in city protocol for dealing with significant traffic incidents, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and city Transportation Director Scott Kubly said in an interview Friday.
As a result of the review, the city — by the end of June — will change its response priorities for handling major traffic incidents and hire a consultant to write new response strategies. Both Kubly and O’Toole agreed that responses to major incidents should include engineering experts who can assess strategy to remove stalled vehicles.
The analysis of the crash and the city’s response did not assign blame or suggest how authorities might have more quickly cleared the road or improved traffic flow. Instead, the review focused on which agencies did what during the response and on recommendations.
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“I don’t think any of our people on the scene did anything wrong,” O’Toole said. “They did the best they could under the circumstances. We just need to give them the best tools and protocols necessary to help them perform their jobs.”
In the meantime, until policies are developed and implemented, police, transportation and other traffic-incident-response crews will put interim practices in place. They will exercise their discretion to clear blocked roadways, Kubly said.
That was the case when a car stalled on the West Seattle Bridge a few days after the big fish-truck wreck, Kubly said. Rather than wait for the city’s contracted tow trucks to remove the wrecked vehicle — as was the case with the fish truck — response crews cleared the car, he said.
The focus of Friday’s 12-page report was the March 24 incident in which a tractor trailer loaded with frozen cod overturned in Sodo at 2:23 p.m. while heading south on Highway 99.
Traffic was halted, gridlock rippled throughout the city, and the start of the Sounders game was delayed.
The roaddidn’t reopen until 11:37 p.m. According to the report, the driver was cited for exceeding reasonable speed.
City leaders, who were immediately second-guessed by commuters and reporters after the traffic debacle, said complications in removing the damaged truck and its unstable load of fish contributed to the long closure. In the incident’s aftermath, officials called for the review.
A key finding, Kubly said, was that the city doesn’t have protocols for dealing with significant, unplanned road closures caused by major accidents. The current emergency traffic-management and closure plan for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which provides response guidelines for planned, short-term closures — was put in place in 2005, Kubly said.
“Technology has obviously changed since then, communications have changed, and we now have a new Transportation Operations Center in place,” Kubly said. “So, that plan — while it provides a good framework for us — can certainly use some updating.”
The report, which included a detailed timeline, identified some positive actions taken by responders, Kubly said.
Police arrived within four minutes. Within 10 minutes, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) contacted King County Metro Transit to ask that buses be rerouted. At the same time, police began tweeting out information about the wreck. About an hour after the crash, SDOT alerted the Sounders, leading the team to delay its start time.
Such communications and public notifications are relatively new, Kubly said. They largely resulted from a city pledge to improve coordination after a fatal crash last year near Spokane Street closed Highway 99 for eight hours, he said.
The review also detailed the room for improvement.
It took Lincoln Towing, the city’s contracted towing company, more than 80 minutes to bring a second and third tow truck to the scene to help right the overturned rig — a task that ultimately took more than three hours.
In the meantime, several other traffic problems occurred elsewhere near the highway or downtown, drawing police responses. They included a bus collision with a pedestrian and two separate car crashes near Aurora Avenue North and North 39th Street.
By 7:37 p.m., after the truck finally was righted and its trailer reattached, response crews deemed it too unstable to drive. Seattle Tunnel Partners, the city’s contractor for the nearby Highway 99 project, later used sky jacks to help unload and move the cargo.
“This was a complicated situation,” O’Toole said. “It was a real mess. Obviously, the big question is, did it take longer than it needed to take? But in reality even if (the truck) were pushed out of the way, it would have taken several hours.”
One of the lessons learned, O’Toole added, is that during such incidents, “We really need to have people at the scene with engineering skills or the kind of expertise to say what we need to do” to right or remove a large vehicle. That’s expertise a typical police officer doesn’t have, she said.
The review’s top recommendation — to prioritize incident-response decision making “first, to save lives and protect public health, second, to minimize and mitigate impacts to traffic congestion, and third to minimize damage to public and private property” — flips the second and third priorities now practiced.
Under national guidelines, property considerations come before traffic, O’Toole said.
“In recent times, those last two categories have been reversed in many jurisdictions,” she added. “I don’t want to create the illusion that just because we switch the two priorities, that it will make things less complicated. These will still be complicated decisions needed to be made at the scene.”
The other key recommendation calls for review of the city’s coordinated response across Seattle’s transportation, police and fire departments and other agencies, as well hiring a traffic-incident management consultant to come up with new written practices.
The new protocols will seek to meet federal guidelines, ensure personnel are trained and up to date on best practices, and assess other resources that may be available to help untangle traffic more quickly. A city team will then meet monthly to manage and review the plans