KLICKITAT COUNTY If you go to Alderdale before dawn, you won’t see the vast swaths of vineyards and orchards that blanket the landscape. But you might guess at their rolling, unbroken expanse by watching a trail of lights.
“I akin it to a trail of ants,” Klickitat County’s Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Joe Riggers said.
His description is apt: when the lights first appear, they are mere pinpricks, marching through the dark. Gradually, they resolve into pairs of headlights and their speed becomes apparent.
As they pass, Riggers clocks them on a dashboard monitor. Since he set up, none of the vehicles has been at or below the 50 mph speed limit, but he lets them go by. He’s waiting for speeds closer to 70 mph — the average for Alderdale Road.
This 17-mile stretch of highway is the main access point for workers commuting from Prosser, Sunnyside and Mabton to agricultural businesses in the east end of the county.
During the height of summer, the road can see as many as 1,400 vehicles per day, Klickitat County Road Department statistics show.
That volume, combined with Alderdale’s remote location, creates a dilemma for traffic safety enforcement. Alderdale is 50 miles from Goldendale — where county law enforcement officers are located — as the crow flies; the shortest drive takes an hour and 20 minutes. By the time deputies arrive, they’re likely to get a call from a more populated part of the county. As a result, Alderdale’s average enforcement presence is slim-to-none.
Without deterrents, driving behavior in the area is anything goes.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 of 2016, there were four reported collisions on Alderdale Road, one of them a fatality. Riggers himself has dealt with three separate fatality collisions there.
He doubts patrol efforts have made a dent in the problem.
“We pull one over and nine or 10 more fly by,” he said.
Sheriff’s Office records show the road consistently ranks highest for speeding citations in the county. Yet, it is also one of the least patrolled.
Now, the Sheriff’s Office hopes to tackle the problem with a $50,000 federal grant. Awarded through the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, the grant will sponsor a three-pronged approach: enforcement, engineering and education.
From May 1 through September, the road will receive at least 25 hours of undivided enforcement per week. The grant allocates overtime pay for deputies specifically dedicated to the road — they won›t have to field calls from elsewhere in the county.
The project will also include new signage: 90-degree corner signs, electric signs that alert approaching drivers of their speed, and signs in English and Spanish that say, “Slow down, arrive safe.”
The effort’s centerpiece is education.
A majority of the commuters are Hispanic; most reside in Sunnyside, Mabton, Prosser and other Lower Yakima Valley communities.
Riggers, the project manager, says communicating across cultures is essential for the program›s success.
At first, workers with visas didn›t know what to expect from deputies. Some would flee, fearful of immigration enforcement, Riggers said. Now, there›s a collective understanding that the effort is about traffic safety.
That knowledge may allay fears, but it hasn›t translated to full cooperation. Speeding is still the norm, and most commuters treat enforcement as an obstacle to be sidestepped, not a deterrent to be respected. At some point during the morning, a Mercer Canyons employee sent a group email warning of workers of the Sheriff’s Office presence.
Rather than slowing, drivers responded by detouring onto side-roads above Rigger›s location.
The Sheriff’s Office hopes to partner with Alderdale employers to create a culture of safe driving. So far, Mercer Canyons has led the way in organizing company traffic-safety training.
The training will also be part of new-hire orientation.
To measure the project›s impact, the county Road Department will collect data on traffic volume, speed and time of day from May through September. Employees compare that data to a baseline study conducted in 2016.
Studies of projects like this suggest they typically lower average speeds by 4-6 mph.
The Sheriff’s Office goal is 10 mph.
“It may be optimistic, but I think we can do it,” Riggers said.