A new study, commissioned after Seattle’s slow response in March to a toppled truckload of fish on Highway 99, knocks the city for a lack of coordination and training, and for failing to get tow trucks to crash scenes quickly enough.

Share story

When it comes to clearing road wrecks, Gridlock Sam says Seattle lags behind other cities.

In a frank 63-page report, national experts, including one credited with coining the word “gridlock,” say the city should get tow trucks to crash scenes faster, establish a clear chain of command and boost enforcement against unsafe commercial vehicles — to avoid a repeat of the March 24 incident in which a toppled fish truck blocked traffic on southbound Highway 99 for nine hours.

“A greater sense of urgency is needed at all levels when incidents occur,” the report found.

Blocked traffic: more urgency needed

Outside experts issued seven basic findings about how Seattle handles major traffic incidents:

• Seattle lacks comprehensive plans and policies.

• Training is lacking or nonexistent in all agencies.

• Police need a better understanding of why “quick clearance” matters and

how to make it happen.

• Seattle Department of Transportation needs to better coordinate with police before, during, and after incidents.

• The current towing contract may be too restrictive and hinder effective response.

• The city lacks clear ordinances needed for quick response, and for full enforcement against commercial vehicles.

• A greater sense of urgency is needed at all levels when incidents occur.

Source: Traffic Incident Management in Seattle: Observations and Recommendations, by TransSafe and Sam Schwartz Engineering.

Seattle can learn from Los Angeles, New York City, even the Washington State Department of Transportation, which deploys one of the nation’s most-emulated incident-response teams a mile away on Interstate 5, the study noted.

Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said Friday she wholeheartedly supports the findings and will provide specialized training to all 58 traffic-division officers.

The city’s transportation director, Scott Kubly, said his agency will shift its philosophy from the old model of “safety, property, traffic” toward “safety, traffic, property” — so that clearing the road takes a higher priority.

After the fish-truck crash, officials worried about further damaging the load rather than simply pushing it off the highway into nearby tunnel-construction property.

The Seattle Times obtained a copy of the report last week. The Seattle Department of Transportation has not released it yet, saying it’s a draft.

The study, commissioned by Mayor Ed Murray, was led by TransSafe Consulting and Sam Schwartz Engineering, with cooperation from city departments. Schwartz is an ex-New York City transportation director known as “Gridlock Sam,” after using that word as a city traffic engineer during a 1980 transit strike. TransSafe owner Annette Sandberg is a former chief of the Washington State Patrol.

“A lack of coordination among agencies in Seattle — including but not limited to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) — was immediately identified as a recurring problem in Seattle’s TIM [traffic incident management] response,” the report said.

Those agencies, collaborating with the fire department, should write a plan to clear wrecks inside the future Highway 99 tunnel, the report emphasizes. Other ideas include a citywide traveler’s alert system; and a corps of SDOT road-maintenance crews who receive hazmat training and are equipped with sirens and fuel for motorists who run out of gas.

Some proposals would change how drivers react to a wreck.

A “steer it, clear it” law would require drivers to move banged-up cars off the road in noninjury crashes. And the city could adopt the state’s “hold harmless” law that excuses police from liability if they damage a blocking vehicle while towing or pushing it.

The city’s shortcomings in dealing with major wrecks were exposed when the fish truck, carrying at least $450,000 worth of frozen cod in boxes, toppled at a curve where the Alaskan Way Viaduct descends into Sodo. Police called Lincoln Towing, based in the north end. It took more than an hour for a pair of long-boom tow trucks to arrive. They needed four tries to right the heavy container.

Boxes of fish had to be offloaded to another truck, with help from forklifts being used by contractors on the Highway 99 tunnel project, before the truck drove off around 11 p.m.

“Everybody was trying to do the right thing during that accident, but didn’t have the experience or training, and it was a complicated accident,” O’Toole said Friday. “The truck owner showed up, the insurance-company representative showed up. There were all kinds of debates about the value of the truck,” she said.

O’Toole said state troopers tend to be more advanced in clearing traffic than urban police, and the tradition of protecting property before clearing traffic “was definitely the method used by most police departments for a number of years.”

In March, Murray defended the response. He insisted that if authorities had tried to drag the damaged truck into the nearby Highway 99 tunnel job site, a smelly mess of fish would have spilled all over the roadway.

But last week, he acknowledged incident responses have been uncoordinated and he is excited about making improvements.

“You know Seattle is considered, in a lot of areas, we have best practices. We can have best practices in this area. We don’t have any more roads in the city or the region that we can create, so it really is about smart management. It really is about eyes on, all the time.”

O’Toole found only one suggestion in the report that seemed odd, that the city should avoid using parking-enforcement officers to help move detouring traffic, because they are “not being fully used to enforce parking violations.” Last Halloween, when an out-of-control pickup slammed into 10 cars in the Rainier Beach neighborhood, causing injuries, city parking officers safely kept traffic moving around the vast crime scene.

In late 2013, before O’Toole was hired as chief, morning commuters leaving West Seattle were stopped more than two hours by a noninjury crash, in which police waited for a van owner’s private tow company to arrive. O’Toole says she issued a directive last year that police will take charge of towing, unless the car owner’s tower can arrive immediately.

Schwartz and colleagues say the current tow contract with one company makes the city less nimble. Seattle should consider rotating the work, or using one company for light tows and another for heavy response, they said.

Murray said he’ll have police join SDOT in the traffic-management center in the Seattle Municipal Tower during incidents when the city convenes an emergency-operations center.

The report duly notes how Seattle’s “hourglass” shape makes it crucial to quickly clear blockages.

Seattle should also strive to prevent so-called secondary crashes, in which vehicles collide in a sudden detour, or while approaching the incident, they said.

The city issued an internal review and timeline of the fish-truck incident in April, in which departments agreed the amount of delay was unacceptable.

Parts of the response were more efficient. SDOT notified King County Metro Transit within four minutes of the crash, informed the public through its Twitter feed and overhead message signs, and dispatched police to Aurora Avenue to divert traffic.

The follow-up study, Kubly said, cost less than $50,000.

The city’s sense of urgency seems to have improved lately.

A flatbed truck carrying large spools for wire hit a crossbeam of the Alaskan Way Viaduct midday April 29. With help from Seattle City Light equipment, the southbound lanes were cleared in about two hours, shortly before the afternoon commute.

A stalled truck June 30 was towed into the Highway 99 tunnel-project work zone, allowing traffic to resume.

A full incident-management program is due from the city by January.