Days after SDOT acknowledged safety concerns on new 35th Ave NE, a collision critically injured someone on a motorcycle

Someone driving a pickup truck collided with someone on a motorcycle at the intersection of 35th Ave NE and NE 75th Street Monday evening. The person on the motorcycle was critically injured and was rushed to the hospital in life-threatening condition.

We send our best wishes to the person injured.

It is not yet known exactly how the collision occurred. It appears from photos by people who saw the aftermath that the person in the pickup may have been turning left from northbound 35th Ave NE onto eastbound NE 75th Street, but the exact nature of the collision is not clear. Seattle Police traffic investigators were working the scene.

UPDATE: SPD posted an update: “When officers arrived and contacted the 87-year-old driver. The 22-year-old motorcyclist received emergency medical care at the scene. Police spoke with witnesses who stated the truck began turning left when the motorcyclist struck the driver’s pickup truck.

Seattle Fire Department Medics took the 22-year-old man to Harborview Medical Center where he remains in critical condition.

A drug recognition expert evaluated the 87-year-old man at the scene and found no signs of impairment.

Traffic Collision Detectives are now investigating and will determine what led up to the crash.”

But this horrific collision comes less than a month after someone on a bicycle was struck and injured (though less seriously) five blocks away on NE 70th Street.

These collisions have all happened within weeks of crews painting the lines for the revised design of the street. At the direction of Mayor Jenny Durkan, SDOT removed the bike lanes and associated traffic calming initially planned and contracted as part of a major repaving project on 35th Ave NE.

The backlash against the mayor’s decision (and the subsequent cuts to the near-term bike plan) was two-fold. On one hand, people saw it as a sign that the mayor was not dedicated to the city’s traffic safety and climate goals. People packed City Council chambers to voice their concerns, including Tamara Schmautz and Apu Mishra who brought a hand-cranked paper shredder up to the podium and proceeded to shred the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, Vision Zero Plan and Climate Action Plan.

But on the other hand, people were concerned that the city’s planned bike-lane-free design for 35th Ave NE was going to be dangerous. Wide lanes are known to encourage speeding, for example. But the reality has proven to be even worse since the road opened. The center turn lane, which was supposed to help calm traffic, has instead been used regularly for making illegal passes. We posted a video from @mitchellplease on Twitter demonstrating the problem quite clearly:

Councilmember Mike O’Brien also showed Mitch’s video during a recent Transportation Committee meeting, and the committee wrote a letter to SDOT asking whether the design is meeting the city’s objectives. Below is an excerpt (full letter in this PDF):

The Seattle Department of Transportation states that its first core value is Safety. The SDOT blog about this project claims that “By slowing vehicle speeds and better defining the travel lanes, this helps increase safety for everyone on 35th.” Watching this video, it doesn’t appear that defined travel lanes have reduced speeds or increased safety. In fact, it appears that in some locations, by eliminating a lane ofparking and widening the travel lanes we have increased speeds and decreased safety.

We would like you to answer the following questions:

From this video and other observations, do you believe the design as implemented has met the objectives of the project and Vision Zero?

  1. Did this design go through the Complete Streets Checklist assessing how this design serves all people travelling on the corridor, including people walking, biking and taking transit?
  2. If there are some short comings of the design as implemented, do you have plans to make improvements to the design? If so, what is the timeline?
  3. If this design failed to meet the safety objectives for all street users, can the department do some analysis as to how a decision to recommend this design was erroneously reached? What can we do different in the future to avoid these mistakes?

Since there has already been a serious injury to a bicyclist hit by a car in this corridor where a person biking was transported by ambulance to the hospital, we would like to see urgent action if there is agreement that action is needed.

SDOT sent an update to the 35th Ave NE project mailing list Friday acknowledging that they are aware of concerns about safety on the new street. The department will be “gathering speed data on 35th and will base changes to the posted speed limit on the observations and data,” according to the email. “In addition to studying speeds, we will be reviewing collision figures to see if there is a change in aggressive driving and the number of collisions.”

Traffic safety isn’t a political game

This whole 35th Ave NE travesty stems from Mayor Durkan misunderstanding the stakes of the debate. It was never about the anti-bike team competing against the pro-bike team in some kind of political game. It was not about picking between two groups of engaged and organized residents. It was about people’s health and safety. As SDOT professionals have long known (and was reaffirmed in a recent macro 13-year study that included Seattle), adding bike lanes to a street improves safety for all users of the road no matter how they get around.

It is impossible to know for certain whether bike lanes would have prevented these specific recent collisions on 35th Ave NE. But we do know for certain that quality protected bikes lanes do reduce the number and severity of collisions.

In harsher words, this is not a fucking game. These are our neighbors’ lives we’re talking about here. Adding bike lanes won’t hurt people driving. But cutting bike lanes will hurt people. It may have already.

It doesn’t feel good to say, “I told you so.” It feels terrible. As someone whose job is to report on bike issues in Seattle and advocate for safer streets, I failed on 35th. I tried, as did many people organizing with Safe 35th, but we lost. And the result of a loss when fighting for safe streets can be horrific. And what did the anti-bike advocates win?

But ultimate responsibility here lands squarely on Mayor Durkan. Her decision on 35th was an enormous mistake, and she needs to fix this. And no, some plastic posts next to the turn lanes won’t be enough, as SDOT’s recent email suggested. The problem requires more significant action, such as the protected bike lanes originally planned. The design is already complete and ready for construction. I know it’s hard for politicians to admit a mistake, but the alternative here is far worse. She shouldn’t wait for any more injuries (or worse) before doing the right thing.

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28 Responses to Days after SDOT acknowledged safety concerns on new 35th Ave NE, a collision critically injured someone on a motorcycle

  1. Rob says:

    Doesn’t sound like this accident had anything to do with the new street design. That said, the new 35th is a total disaster.

    I’m am experienced cyclists, and rode my bike pretty much every day in this town for 20 years, but I finally stopped a few months ago. It’s way too sketchy out there now. Traffic has increased. The Burke is over capacity with e-bikes, e-skateboards, e-everything. Many of the protected bike lanes are awful. Seriously, who thought putting it on the LEFT on NE Ravenna was a good idea??? Anyway, I give up. Hope to move in a few years. Until then I’m running for exercise and driving to get anywhere.

    • Eli says:

      Yeah, I’m going to Vancouver BC on weekends, so I can actually enjoy urban biking.

      Seattle is awful.

    • Ben P says:

      Motorcycle may have been going slower with the calmer design, giving the elder more time to see the oncoming motorcycle, and the rider more time to stop, swerve, or at least collide with less force. Very speculative, yes, but it could be related.

    • Andres Salomon says:

      Also, it’s not just the bike lane – the repaving of 35th should’ve been an opportunity to introduce all kinds of safety improvements. For example, Seattle should be systematically slowing left turns like NYC is doing: https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/pedestrians/left-turn-traffic-calming.shtml

      We know SDOT knows about this, since they installed a hardened centerline on NE 65th at Roosevelt to slow left turning drivers where a woman was killed in a crosswalk. A leader who is strong on safety could be pushing SDOT on this kind of thing, but… Durkan is not a strong leader.

  2. Kingsley says:

    Good grief, the agency on the police statement. The motorcyclist struck?

    • Seth McGrew says:

      I was bicycling south on 35th Ave NE and approaching NE 75th St when this accident occurred 2 blocks ahead of me. I was too far away to see whether the light was changing or the pickup driver failed to yield, but I can say that this motorcyclist passed me going faster than I’ve ever seen someone travel on a city street. My thought at the time was, “this can only end in disaster.” I hope the guy recovers, but he was clearly endangering himself and everyone him around by driving so fast in that area.

      • NoSpin says:

        By definition, a driver turning left in front of oncoming traffic is failure to yield – unless the driver has a left turn arrow, in which case the oncoming traffic would have a red light (which I don’t believe is the case for signization at at this intersection).

      • Seth McGrew says:

        Yes, I know. And you’re right, it is the case that there’s no left turn arrow at that intersection. [I couldn’t figure out how to edit my reply and thought someone might notice that careless wording — good catch.] What I intended to say is that I don’t know why the pickup driver turned left in front of the motorcyclist. Best guess based on what I could see is that he either didn’t see him at all or didn’t recognize that he (the motorcyclist) was going much, much too fast to stop or avoid a turning vehicle. It’s possible that they were both trying to squirt through the intersection on a light that was turning or had already turned red.

  3. orange wheels says:

    in this gruesome image, it seems clear that the 87 (?!!!) year old driver cut the corner short and hit the motorcyclists who was coming down 75th into the left turn lane. If that’s true, the truck driver was driving into oncoming traffic.

    https://twitter.com/mitchellplease/status/1138243750440816640

    I suspect cutting the corner was due to speeding, since you don’t normally take the corner that wide even if you’re shooting a gap in traffic since you’ve already pulled half way into the intersection.

  4. David says:

    Witnessed the aftermath of this collision yesterday. My home is a half block from the site. As a bike commuter I can confirm that illegal passes on 35th are now common since Durkan’s restriping pander to the car culture. Greater concern: Son bike commutes to Roosevelt HS.

    • Jessica says:

      David, let’s continue to speak up for the students who cycle to this, and other neighborhood schools. 10-16 year olds don’t drive, but bike and walk and bus, and they don’t vote. We have a safe routes to school grant from SDOT, and the city must do better.

  5. Witness says:

    The cyclist was going too fast. Witnessed the wreck (did not see the light change/was not looking at that. Was concerned for both parties involved)
    Drive safe. Be safe.

  6. JB says:

    For Mayor Jenny Durkan and her Department of Transportation, the threshold for personhood is that you should be in a vehicle at least the size of a Fiat. Therefore, this collision is of no great concern and not much is likely to change.

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  8. Calling out bull*** says:

    I don’t understand how you draw a correlation between bike lanes and safety? Would a bike lane have prevented this horrific accident? No. Personal accountability would have. I hope that kid survives. That motorcycle was flying past us as we walked on 35th I even mentioned to my son I hope he slows down. He choose to speed and the 87 year old either didn’t see him or like everyone has to make a left turn on a red light. Left turn signals at that intersection would help safety but nothing accounts for personal accountability and breaking the law. I see cars, bikes, motorcycles breaking the law daily. If that stopped we would be safer. The bike lanes in this are great but installing them does not improve safety, there is no data to support your theory.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Bike lanes do improve safety for all road users regardless of how they get around. Here’s info from a macro 13-year study that show just that (which is also linked in the story): https://usa.streetsblog.org/2019/05/29/protect-yourself-separated-bike-lanes-means-safer-streets-study-says/

      We cannot ever know if bike lanes would have prevented this collision. We would need a time machine to know that. There are too many factors in a single collision to make that call. But this is not the first serious collision on a street that was just redesigned a month ago. Bike lanes (and the slimmer lane widths that we’re part of the original design) do slow traffic speeds, and speed is everything in traffic safety. There would be fewer injuries on this street if quality bike lanes were installed. The data is clear about that.

      • NExpat says:

        I agree with Tom’s reply above, at least as it pertains to the expected aggregate effect of bike lanes. I do feel the need to clarify that this particular motorcyclist was not merely driving 10 or 15 mph over the speed limit, though; he was winding it out like someone on a test track — really flying. Not typical behavior, even for 35th (I hope).

      • Erik says:

        Irresponsible headline before actual facts came out.

      • Dave F says:

        Drivers (and motorcycle riders) drive faster and take more risks when lanes are wide. We will never know why this motorcyclist was speeding, but a calmer street could have discouraged him from speeding in the first place.

    • Erik says:

      Facts not even out and blaming the width of the lanes. Facepalm.

  9. Tim F says:

    There’s plenty of evidence that narrower lanes and streets reduce top-end speeding. Much of that effect comes from drivers not being able to pass a slower vehicle, though.

    35th by contrast is designed with lanes that are too wide for a street where people live and walk. And it’s still designed to encourage passing (especially at corners). First of all, the current design of 35th has highway-width lanes. Particularly in the evening, the parking lanes are sparsely used, which makes the lanes feel ten feet wider. In places it feels more like a runway for landing planes than a place to walk to. Drivers are also using the middle lane as an extra 5-10 feet on top of that. At the corners, the lanes split to provide left, right and straight lanes, so impatient drivers don’t have to wait their turn, but rather they are swerving into various lanes and are confronted with plenty of other drivers making their own maneuvers. On top of all that, the speed limit remains higher than even Northgate Way.

    SDOT may have tried to make the street superficially look like the improvements on Nickerson and 75th, but it very much tried to avoid the actual reasons those streets became safer. To be clear, that is to let the most cautious driver set the pace and to smooth out traffic flow (a single straight, narrow driving lane without swerving).

    • JB says:

      I am not as familiar with 35th as many of you who are posting here, but the more I read these comments the more it is becoming apparent that this repaving project was not a misguided but carefully considered prioritizing of cars over bikes; it was a shambolic and completely incompetent political hack job. Now we are seeing the results of Durkan’s leadership and they are not pretty – which is especially ironic given her branding as the no nonsense make-the-trains-run-on-time candidate. Mayor Jenny Durkan is clearly out of her depth. For Seattle’s sake, and probably her own, she needs to be out of office yesterday.

  10. Steven Lorenza says:

    When Mayors are designing our streets, everyone loses.

    • Erik says:

      Yeah Steve often when traffic engineers design them everyone loses. See the awesome downhill bike lanes that no one uses on QA Avenue except newbies who don’t realize they are a nightmare for safety due to risk of doors opening and being wedged between parked cars and driving cars at downhill speeds. You could ride slow on them but that is unlikely to happen. Most these traffic engineers don’t ride enough to know the pitfalls of what they do.

  11. 905524 says:

    The 22-year old motorcyclist in that accident died. He was put on life support in the trauma center so that his organs could be donated. His family said goodbye to him yesterday, and is gratified to know that he might play a role in saving other lives.

    • NExpat says:

      Thanks for the update — I’d been wondering. That’s very sad news. Sincere condolences to the person’s family.

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