Yakama Nation installs traffic data sensor at deadly intersection on US 97

TOPPENISH, Wash. — Nearly two dozen people have died on U.S. Highway 97 between Union Gap and Toppenish since 2001, but almost a third of those fatalities happened where the highway intersects with Larue Road.

“It’s the deadliest intersection within the boundaries of the reservation,” said Hollyanna Littlebull, traffic safety coordinator for the Yakama Nation DNR Engineering Office. “There’s been seven fatalities at this intersection.”

Littlebull said that’s why they decided to install the first MUST traffic data sensor at that intersection as part of a pilot project to improve traffic safety on U.S. Highway 97, which has some of the highest collision rates in the state.

Washington State Department of Transportation spokesperson Summer Derrey said the frequency of collisions in that area is mainly due to the high number of at-grade intersections, where the highway meets side streets.

“So if you’re trying to cross a busy highway, you have to pause, wait for a gap, go really fast and hope that you make it,” Derrey said.

According to WSDOT, there were 23 fatalities across nine intersections on U.S. Highway 97  from Union Gap to Toppenish between 2001 and 2021.

The data shows that on average, about 1% to 6% of crashes at those problem intersections were fatalities. However, more than 21% of crashes at the Larue Road intersection were fatal.

Four of the seven people who died in collisions at that intersection during the 20-year period recorded in the WSDOT study were killed in one crash in 2019.

“The only person that survived was the gentleman in the freight truck,” Littlebull said. “The four passengers in the sedan were all killed.”

Littlebull said the goal of their one-year pilot project — funded by the University of Washington — is to use data from the MUST sensor to help improve driver safety. The sensor can track weather, car models, speed, visibility and more.

There’s a corresponding app that provides traffic safety officials with real-time data about road conditions that can be used to warn travelers about safety issues at that intersection before they start their journey.

“If it becomes freezing conditions, we can let WSDOT know,” Littlebull said. “They can put it on their readerboard.”

The app can also send out an alert if it determines there was a crash in the area. Littlebull said that can help emergency responders get to the crash victims faster to provide potentially life-saving medical care.

Over the course of the pilot project, Littlebull said they hope to use the MUST sensor to get enough detailed information on road conditions and other factors involved in crashes to determine why that particular intersection is so deadly.

Littlebull said the long-term plan is to replace the at-grade intersection with a roundabout to reduce the number of crashes and likelihood of fatalities, something WSDOT has already done at McDonald-Becker Road and U.S. Highway 97.

Between 2001 and 2021, there were 59 collisions at that intersection,  95% of which resulted in injuries. But since they installed the roundabout there a year ago, Derrey said they’ve had few crashes, even fewer injuries and no fatalities.

Derrey said the state has already approved the installation of a roundabout at the intersection of U.S. Highway 97 and Larue Road, but it’s slow-moving.

According to Littlebull, they still need additional state or federal funding to be able to pay for the installation. She said they’re hoping data from the new MUST sensor will help them reach that goal.

“This will help us get the data that we need so that we can prove that we need the funding for this intersection,” Littlebull said.

If more funding becomes available, additional MUST sensors may be installed on the U.S. Highway 97 corridor and throughout Yakima County.