PARKLAND, Pierce County — Even as traffic deaths jump across Washington, Pierce County stands out.
Among the state’s counties, the rise in road fatalities in Pierce outpaced nearly all of them. Between 2020 and 2021, when Washington saw a 16% increase in deaths on the road, Pierce saw a 34% spike, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
Last year’s toll of 98 deaths in Pierce County was 75% higher than the 56 the county saw in 2017 and more than double 2012’s 42 deaths. By comparison, deaths in King County increased by a still troubling, but slower, 50% while Snohomish County’s remained flat in that same 10-year span. Pierce represented a disproportionate number of the state’s road deaths last year — 15% last year in a geographic area containing just 11% of Washington’s population.
As the toll mounts, so too does pressure on the county to change course, pledging over the summer to eliminate traffic deaths by 2035.
Amber Weilert’s 13-year-old son, Michael, had taken hundreds of bike rides near his Parkland home before a driver hit him at a crosswalk on Highway 7 in July, killing him at the scene on a road where death is common. Law enforcement is still investigating.
As Weilert struggles with her grief, she’s come to view the world around her as one built for speed, not safety, seeing even the spaces created for people like Michael as more hazard than help.
“I was happy when I saw crosswalks going in,” she said. “But I’ve learned that these crosswalks give a false sense of security because most of them don’t work. Michael’s didn’t work.”
In August, the Pierce County Council set a goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2035, a “Vision Zero” commitment also made by neighboring cities and counties. The specifics will take months to iron out, but will likely mean requiring comprehensive safety updates as part of every road or public works project. The vote was catalyzed by Michael’s death, but also reflects the torrent of fatalities on their roads in recent years.
“I think that brought home just how absurd the design of some of our transportation facilities are,” Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young said of Michael’s death, “where someone can do every right thing and still end up being struck and killed by someone driving a vehicle.”
The same theories that have arisen to explain the national rise in roadway fatalities apply to Pierce County: Empty roads because of COVID allowed for more speeding; car sizes have grown; alcohol use is up; enforcement is down.
But it’s more than all those things, said Councilmember Ryan Mello. Roads once built to whisk drivers to lightly populated communities now run through dense corridors, which have grown with housing prices and the region’s population. Gone are the empty fields that may have once bordered four-lane highways, replaced instead by strip malls, housing and people.
“As the urban unincorporated area has continued to densify, we’ve looked at ourselves and said, ‘Oh wow, there’s several hundred thousand people here in the urban unincorporated area,’” he said. “And gosh, we didn’t really plan very well.”
In identifying the county’s broader planning, or lack thereof, as the cause of the increase in deaths, Mello also identifies the complexity contained within the county’s “Vision Zero” declaration. If Mello’s diagnosis is accepted, achieving zero traffic deaths would mean a wholesale rethinking of Pierce County itself.
Mello knows this but said it’s worth taking the step regardless. “We can’t do everything in one day, even in one year and even in one decade,” he said.
Rural, then urban
Everything immediately to the west of Amber and David Weilert’s home feels like the country: The spacious yard gives way to a sparse collection of single-family homes backed by trees. The nearby road swoops past a wetland and only the occasional car passes. There are no lane markings.
For a boy who loved to ride his BMX bike, it was all welcoming enough.
“That’s why I had this, I guess naive now, thought that the roads were safe enough for him to ride on, because it had been safe every time before,” said Weilert.
Just blocks to the east is the second face of Parkland, one defined by Highway 7. A 10-minute walk from Weilert’s house, the country streets morph into tight, two-lane roads without sidewalks. Highway 7 itself has 5 lanes — two in each direction plus a median.
Michael and his friend were riding to the grocery store, on the other side of the busy stretch, which meant using a nearby crosswalk. It’s labeled, and a light near the signs with images of pedestrians should flash when a button is pushed. But the center light was broken, Weilert said transportation officials told her, apparently hit by a passing truck. The light remains broken today, although drivers often ignore signals anyway.
Weilert can’t bring herself to learn the details of exactly what happened. She knows the driver in the first northbound lane stopped, but the driver in the second did not. She’s only recently found strength enough to revisit the intersection and the memorial that now marks it, which was overflowing with cards, decorations and a bicycle painted white — a “ghost bike.”
“Every time we come here there’s flowers,” she said over the din of traffic. “We don’t even really replenish it.”
Traffic deaths spiked the most in unincorporated Pierce County — nearly doubling from 2020 to 2021. Exactly half of all fatalities in the county between 2017 and 2021 were in unincorporated areas. The deadliest roads are well-known: highways 7, 512, 167, Interstate 5, all long, straight and wide, many of which cut through increasingly populated areas.
Laura Svancarek, advocacy manager for the Tacoma-based transportation organization Downtown: On the Go, sees the danger as connected to the larger forces of housing and displacement in the region. “As folks in Seattle come into Tacoma, people in Tacoma can no longer afford to stay there and they move out into the unincorporated county, into spaces that are more historically rural, or just on the cusp of suburban,” she said. “You think about State Route 7, that is a surface highway. There were never meant to be communities along that.”
Except for speed limit signs, the roads have few markers — trees, narrowed lanes — to signal to drivers to slow down. Sgt. Darren Moss of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said drivers’ speeds spiked in 2020, with the onset of COVID, and haven’t really let up.
“It seems like people still have lead feet,” he said. Of traffic deaths in Pierce County last year, 32% involved speeding, according to the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.
In the wake of Michael’s death, Weilert found strength in pushing for change. That advocacy worked. Just over a month after Michael’s death, the Pierce County Council voted to make a plan for eliminating traffic deaths by 2035, joining the ranks of “Vision Zero” municipalities, which already includes Tacoma.
“We have to just fundamentally change the way we do business,” said Young. “And so that’s gonna take a little time. But, you know, the first step is the council saying, ‘We need to do this.’ ”
But among cities that have made similar commitments, the results so far have been discouraging. Los Angeles’ goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2025 is further out of reach after a bad 2021, prompting questions as to whether Vision Zero has failed there. Seattle, a Vision Zero city, has seen an increase in deaths — 30 last year and on pace for more this year — as have most places in the country, Vision Zero or not.
The sole “no” vote on the resolution, Councilmember Amy Cruver, cited some of these trends in explaining her opposition, saying she didn’t believe the price would be worth the benefit.
The key to Vision Zero, which is believed to have originated in Sweden in 1997, is a reshaping of roads so that when drivers make mistakes, as they inevitably do, the result is not death.
While European countries seem to take this to heart, American cities tend to focus more on the branding around Vision Zero than the substance, according to a 2021 review of the policies prepared for the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. In Portland, the review’s authors found, “Its branding is strong, but proclamation of a campaign and branding have not led to positive results.”
“We probably do more talk than action,” acknowledge Carrie Wilhelme, senior transportation planner with Tacoma, which is putting the finishing touches on its Vision Zero action plan. “In this world we know the solutions, it’s just about making it happen. It’s that political will to redesign a street, to create a driver delay, to take away parking.”
Young said he believes Pierce can move in that direction. In fact, the changes would start now: Pierce is likely to abandon its plan for a highway expansion on Canyon Road to free up funds for safety.
On Weilert’s forearm is a fresh tattoo of a sunflower and a dragonfly, as well as the years her son was born and died. Michael had complimented the sunflowers Weilert had planted in their front yard. He told her she should grow a wall of them next year and let them take over the side garden with their yellow hue.
Shortly after his death, Weilert was standing outside, looking at those same plants when a dragonfly flew by her head, landed on a sunflower, and circled her once more. She watched its path and felt a connection to her son and a bit of comfort for a moment.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of Pierce County traffic deaths in 2021 that involved speeding.