Surface traffic jam safer than Viaduct traffic jam? SPD explains decisionmaking behind 5-hour, 4-mile Highway 99 closure

(Above, SDOT tweet with traffic-cam screen grab shortly after crash happened)
Two weeks ago, an almost-citywide traffic jam resulted when four miles of southbound Highway 99 were closed for five hours while Seattle Police investigated a head-on crash at East Marginal/Idaho/Nevada (map). As we have noted, investigative closures of that duration are not unusual when SPD’s Traffic Collision Investigation Squad is assigned to gather evidence at a scene. But questions persisted about why traffic wasn’t allowed to continue at least as far as the West Seattle Bridge, and what kind of consultation was made between city departments and officials as traffic continued to back up on alternate north-south routes as a result.

As noted in our first major followup, the decision on when and what to close rested solely with SPD. Councilmember Tom Rasmussen sent the acting leaders of that agency and SDOT a list of questions, published here. This morning, Councilmember Rasmussen shared the reply from SPD, and said that SDOT has told him theirs is in progress. One key point from the SPD reply signed by SPD Traffic Section Acting Captain Ken Hicks – the department feared that allowing anyone onto 99 between the Battery Street Tunnel and the crash scene would have led to drivers getting stuck “in an area without services,” surmising that traffic jams on surface streets were safer for drivers. Read the entire reply for yourself, ahead:

I am the SPD Traffic Section Captain at this time. I am going to provide as many answers to your questions about the collision on SR 99 on June 10th as I can.

The collision in the southbound lanes of 99 was a serious-injury head-on collision. The involved vehicles and debris field completely blocked all southbound lanes.

Although this collision was serious, requiring the callout of the Traffic Collision Investigation Squad, it was not an unusual occurrence. TCIS is called out multiple times weekly for serious collisions. The time and place of the collision compounded the serious impacts to the City.

The first report of the collision was broadcast at about 1:44 pm. This is just before the beginning time frame for the outbound rush hour traffic.

Patrol units and a Patrol Sergeant were dispatched to the collision. Those units quickly began arriving and taking control of the scene and the roadway, along with Seattle Fire Units.

It was reported all southbound lanes north of the collision were completely stopped with traffic backed up on the entire Viaduct. The request was made for more units to assist in the clearing of the Viaduct and 99.

Patrol units started the process of moving vehicles off at the Atlantic/Edgar Martinez exit and to the West Seattle exits. This was only partially successful as more traffic kept entering the Viaduct from the north. The Patrol Sergeant contacted his chain of command and screened the collision and closure.

At 2:00 pm the request was made by Patrol to SPD Radio for the Battery St tunnel southbound to be closed and the closure light activated. The closure and the previous requests start a notifications process from SPD Radio.

Because this collision was serious with possible impairment issues, TCIS was called out to investigate. When TCIS is called out their investigations are always done with the knowledge that there may be a death involved due to the injuries.

Because of this factor the investigation is done under strict parameters. The investigation must be able to stand up under scrutiny in both criminal and civil actions. If it is less than that, it affects the justice for the victim (s), the accountability of the offender (s) and the exposure of the City to liabilities.

If the Detectives are not provided with a safe environment, their attention is divided from the investigation to their concerns with the traffic around them. Because this is a collision on a roadway, there is only one opportunity to investigate the collision and maintain the possible crime scene, unlike a static location where the crime scene can be revisited.

Because of the expected length of the investigation, Traffic units began self-assigning to relieve the patrol units on the scene for traffic control duties. A Traffic Sergeant responded to assist and eventually relieve the Patrol Sergeant. Once there the Traffic Sergeant assigned all available Traffic Officer Units to the collision to relieve as many Patrol Officers back to 911 services as possible.

Once on scene the Traffic Sergeant was faced with several factors and options. The Sergeant went through a deliberate process weighing these factors and their consequences before making a decision on his options.

Factors he was faced with;

· Serious collision, with TCIS callout, at the beginning of rush hour. This also encompasses the heavy rush hour traffic on all north/south routes (1st Ave, 4th Ave, 23rd Ave, Rainier corridor, etc.) as well as I 5, I 90, West Seattle Freeway and SR99.

· The beginning inbound traffic congestion caused by a Mariners game at Safeco Stadium. The Atlantic/Edgar Martinez exit from SR 99 directly impacts this already-congested intersection of corridors. Adding the traffic from the Viaduct would have brought all directions to a standstill.

· If the tunnel was left open and the traffic was moved off on the Atlantic St exit, it would have backed the traffic up on the raised Viaduct, effectively trapping motorists in an area without services. If an emergency of any nature would occur, such as medical, a traffic collision or disturbance, there would be no way of approaching the problem except on foot. This would put all the stranded motorists at a needless risk.

· Allowing the tunnel to remain open and then forcing motorists off at the West Seattle exits would have resulted in a similar stranding of motorists on the Viaduct. The West Seattle Freeway corridor is just as congested during the rush hour as other corridors.

· The need to keep the collision scene intact for the investigation and the safety of the investigators on the scene, and the preservation of evidence in a felony investigation, prevented the option of letting traffic flow through the scene. The scene actually consisted of all southbound and two northbound lanes.

· Communications also made notifications. I do not want to speak for them but I believe the on duty Captain and South Precinct Captain may have been notified.

The Traffic Sergeant contacted another Traffic Sergeant to discuss the options. The options were then relayed to the on-duty Traffic Lieutenant. After screening the incident with the Lieutenant, the decision was made to continue the tunnel closure until the investigation could move off the SR 99 corridor.

Moving the traffic off the 99 corridor onto surface streets does create enormous traffic impacts. But it prevents the risks of trapping motorists on the Viaduct. The motorists are then able to use the traffic control on the surface streets to at least make some progress.

At 3:45 pm an estimate of 3 hours was given for the completion of the investigation and reopening of SR 99. The processing of the vehicles and evidence by SPD and the eventual cleanup of the scene by SDOT are all part of the time delay.

The actual time the highway was reopened was 7:24 pm. The closure allowed the investigators to complete the investigation in an hour less than expected. And there were no more emergencies attributed to the incident as consequence of the decisions.


Acting Captain Ken Hicks
Traffic Section

We’ll of course have another followup when SDOT’s response is in. We’re also asking Councilmember Rasmussen for his reaction, and whether this might be the subject of a meeting/hearing.

34 Replies to "Surface traffic jam safer than Viaduct traffic jam? SPD explains decisionmaking behind 5-hour, 4-mile Highway 99 closure"

  • Rebecca June 23, 2014 (11:32 am)

    How would we have been trapped on the viaduct? We would have been exiting into West Seattle. Yes, traffic would have been slow as people realized that they could not continue onto into Georgetown and merged over to exit into West Seattle, but rather than sitting on surface streets for 3 hours, we would have been on the viaduct for one. Maybe let us decide for ourselves next time. Closing a major route into West Seattle when there are basically only three ways in is a jerk move. Frankly, I don’t believe they made that judgment call at the time. I think they’re trying to rationalize a bad choice after the fact. “Hey, Jim, do you realize that you caused a four-hour back up?” “I did? Oooohhh……well, it was so people could be stuck in traffic near a restaurant instead.” “Really?” “Ummm……yes?”

  • tim June 23, 2014 (11:40 am)

    The last part is confusing.
    “At 3:45 pm an estimate of 3 hours”
    “was reopened was 7:24 pm”
    “in an hour less than expected”
    Seems like it took a half hour (39 min) LONGER than expected.

    • WSB June 23, 2014 (11:43 am)

      Tim – I noticed that too and meant to make note of it. I think the 3:45 pm part might be the error, but am checking our timeline first.

  • Curtis June 23, 2014 (11:46 am)

    Those darned irresponsible police – thinking of things the rest of us hadn’t in order to keep everyone safe. Darn them!

    Actually, I think tis situation could be reviewed for next time, but in the middle of a crisis isn’t really the time to plan for next time.

  • Jane June 23, 2014 (11:55 am)

    Closing roads doesn’t cause traffic. Traffic is a group phenomenon caused by everyone sitting in it. If traffic affects you, you are part of the problem. Make excuses all you want but that is a fact.

  • Smitty June 23, 2014 (12:25 pm)

    I “kind of” get the part about getting the investigation done properly to avoid litigation later (damn lawyers!), but is this procedure consistent with other big cities? I simply cannot imagine NYPD shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge during rush hour for 5 hours to “get it right”.

    There must be alternatives.

  • B June 23, 2014 (1:10 pm)

    I don’t know… sounds to me like SPD had a job to do and they focused on the best way to get that job done. Unfortunately, traffic suffered, but I think their reasoning was sound – at least on surface streets you can go to the bathroom, get gas if you need it, or just turn around and go the really long way.

    Then again, all those cars stuck in traffic meant I managed to make it home from downtown in record time!

  • Steven CC June 23, 2014 (1:28 pm)

    Buses coming south to West Seattle and White Center could have been allowed on at Columbia St. and off at West Seattle Bridge. This would have helped with a lot of commutes home. I hope the city is trying to learn from this.

  • AmandaKH June 23, 2014 (1:46 pm)

    The real problem here is that there are no Incident Protocols in place. Just shutting down the viaduct to stop more cars from entering the roadway does NOTHING to mitigate the traffic. There needs to be a clear directive when there is an accident shutting down the viaduct. And I thought that would have been created after the December 6th incident. I will be very curious to hear SDOT’s response.

  • Mickymse June 23, 2014 (1:56 pm)

    So, SPD and SDOT don’t think SR 99 is an important enough corridor to have a tow truck on standby during rush hour or to create appropriate emergency protocols for… but now they expect us to believe that this was a concern when this incident happened? Nice try, but you don’t get to CYA now that folks are angry!

  • datamuse June 23, 2014 (2:02 pm)

    “Services” doesn’t read like restaurants, to me. It reads like someone’s car running out of gas, or a driver suffering a heart attack, or something like that. Or if another accident had occurred on the viaduct, which I don’t think would have been terribly unlikely.
    rather than sitting on surface streets for 3 hours, we would have been on the viaduct for one.
    That strikes me as awfully optimistic. The bridge already backs up during rush hour under regular traffic load, and you know that people whose destination wasn’t even West Seattle would’ve gone that way anyway to try and get around the crash scene. I’d guess the backup would’ve been about as long, time-wise, just in a different place.

  • This can't be right? June 23, 2014 (2:06 pm)

    Thousands of people are are basically held prisoners in their cars for 5+ because SPD needs to make sure the right insurance company gets billed? 5 hours x 10,000 people (not counting those who simply had their commute time doubled or tripled) x $28 (average hourly wage in Seattle) = $1,400,000. No doubt a conservative figure. And it’s impossible to count the personal sacrifices – kids not getting picked up from school or daycare, medical or dental appointments missed – probably everyone stuck in that mess, on a beautiful Friday afternoon, has a tale of woe. But, I’m very relieved to know that the wrong insurance company wouldn’t get billed. That really would be a travesty.

    At the time, witnesses and media accounts all reported that the accident was caused by one car crossing over into the oncoming lane, something that’s fairly obvious from the photos as well. And I’m glad they checked for drugs or alcohol. The City could use the fine money. But how could this have possibly taken 5 hours to investigate? I’ll bet the two insurance adjusters could have figured out what happened in about 10 seconds, pretty much like everybody else did. What extra piece of evidence could this type of investigation produce that could possibly justify this kind of response?

    For me, the most annoying part of SPD’s response to public is the tone. ‘This is the way we do it and you people are too dumb to understand how important it is to get the insurance information right.’ You would think that given the public outcry over the thing, not to mention the Justice Department consent decree, and as a basic PR 101 strategy, they might have at least said something about having a look at the policy for this kind of accident and seeing if there might be a way to have less impact on the public next time. But that’s not our SPD. And that’s why the Justice Department just issued another report that was highly critical of them, particularly when it comes to discipline within the Department.

    And for those of you who say that we have no right to question the police? Wow. You might want to brush up on how that kind of attitude has worked out in the past.

  • eigenwijs June 23, 2014 (2:12 pm)

    Not sure this really satisfies me as an explanation why 99 couldn’t remain open until the WS Bridge exit. It also doesn’t explain why the decision to close 99 wasn’t re-evaluated at any point as congestion became more and more nightmarish.

  • higgins June 23, 2014 (2:40 pm)

    There’s a traffic jam on 99 every single day but nobody seems worried that drivers don’t have “access to services” during these routine backups. Drivers run out of gas or have to pee while sitting in traffic all the time, why was this time different? I agree with the first commenter, Rebecca, that this sounds like someone making up a reason after they made a mistake. HOWEVER, I think the SPD is well within their rights to take as long as they need to complete a proper investigation. I’m sure it was much more complex than just which insurance company to bill, sounds like it is a case of which driver to charge with vehicular assault. If it was myself or my family member hurt, I would want the police to do whatever was needed to build a case.

  • Fiwa Jcbbb June 23, 2014 (2:46 pm)

    Dear Jane…

    It’s not an “excuse”, it’s called reality: Many of us have to have “jobs”, which often require mobility. You’re sounding an awful lot like (thankfully) former Mayor McSchwinn and The Stranger’s Dominic Holden, who would like to “solve” this problem by making it so only the wealthy and/or people with nothing to do can get around in their vehicles (had the pleasure of meeting Mike 4 times, each time he arrived in a chauffeured city SUV), the rest of us can consider ourselves at fault and plan to add hours we don’t have to our day. Glad you’re doing so well, but the rest of us need to work to eat. I’d be very much in favor of a true “rapid transit” system (we came pretty close with the monorail, thanks to Joel Horn for ruining that), but for most in Seattle it seems “public transportation” is always something for someone else to use.

  • Azimuth June 23, 2014 (2:47 pm)

    Jane, the issue is options. Autos are the best option for most because our mass transit options as they exist are poor. Light rail, subways, separated bus routes, and so on are an absolute must if Seattle wants to keep growing and become a world class city.

  • Ann June 23, 2014 (3:32 pm)

    I think all West Seattleites should fill out this quick survey for Sound Transit. They are looking for input by July 28th.

  • Lamont June 23, 2014 (4:59 pm)

    in response to this quote:

    “But, I’m very relieved to know that the wrong insurance company wouldn’t get billed. That really would be a travesty.
    At the time, witnesses and media accounts all reported that the accident was caused by one car crossing over into the oncoming lane, something that’s fairly obvious from the photos as well. And I’m glad they checked for drugs or alcohol. The City could use the fine money. But how could this have possibly taken 5 hours to investigate? I’ll bet the two insurance adjusters could have figured out what happened in about 10 seconds, pretty much like everybody else did.”

    if they spent “about 10 seconds” on it, and then i turned out that the driver at fault was DUI, but the case was thrown out by the judge because of shoddy investigative work, and then the driver turns around and kills someone else, you’d probably be back in here complaining about how nobody takes the time to do their job right anymore…

  • Les June 23, 2014 (5:14 pm)

    Did anyone read the article in the Stranger about the STP tunnel project?
    Enjoy the screwed up traffic folks are government officials seem every increasingly incompetent.
    I still love the old viaduct and I would be willing to make a wager on the remaining portion withstanding the next earthquake.
    Please stop the tunnel project NOW!!!!!!
    Two lanes will never work for present or future growth in Seattle.

  • Kim June 23, 2014 (5:30 pm)

    Ann, thanks for posting the survey. Everyone should take a moment to complete it and express interest in more transit options for West Seattle. Things won’t improve until we have more alternatives that don’t involve roadways.

  • jrr June 23, 2014 (6:31 pm)

    The thing that gets me with this response is this: the viaduct isn’t new. They’ve had since 1953 to put plans in place for alternate routes and directing traffic should a situation like this arise.

  • This can't be true June 23, 2014 (6:46 pm)

    Higgins and Lamont: Yes, I know there are those who think that the public should have no say in how the police do their job. I hope they did a good one given that they tied up the entire city for nearly six hours – traffic was gridlocked from North Seattle nearly to South Center. Even the most conservative estimate would put the number of hours commuters wasted that day at 100,000 plus. I understand that you think this is an appropriate response and use of the public’s time because this really very straightforward accident may or may not have involved drinking? But I count at least 20 emergency vehicles in the above photo. And between them it took almost six hours to figure that out? Surely they must have taken blood samples at the hospital. Just last week the Justice Department reported, again, that SPD is an extremely opaque organization and resistant to any kind of change. And while other police departments are using high quality video to document accident scenes like this, precisely to prevent these kind of fiascoes, SPD and it’s union have fought this kind of stuff tooth and nail. If they could figure out the what happened at Dealey Plaza by looking at one 8mm film, doesn’t it seem entirely possible that HD video from every angle might tell us everything we need to know about this every day kind of accident? I’m sorry you don’t have better things to do with your time. I do. This was absurd.

  • jwright June 23, 2014 (6:52 pm)

    Totally agree with what This can’t be right? posted. What’s to investigate for 6 hours? I do not see what possible public good could have come from hours 2 through 6 of the investigation that would be worth causing a city-wide traffic jam for the duration. Very disappointed the folks at SPD seemed to lack the ability to think through the consequences of their decisions. Also disappointed (but not surprised) to learn that SPD has carte blanche to do whatever the heck they feel like in this sort of situation without any accountability.

  • Mel June 23, 2014 (8:35 pm)

    Rationalizing a rash decision doesn’t make it any more sensible. There was incompetence here – the kind where instead of one bad decision, it’s a chain of bad decisions that act as a multiplier – and it will be interesting to see what happens.
    And something WILL happen, because as we learned in the Blizzard of 2008, the one thing Seattle citizens will not stand for is not being able to drive where they want, when they want.

  • Kc June 24, 2014 (6:17 am)

    Smoke and Mirrors to CYA… Shut things down to keep everyone safe and investigate until 3am, I don’t care. But there was no reason at all to close all exits even initially, the West Seattle exit is 1/4 to 1/2 mile to the north of the accident area. This is the exact response I thought would come, to say it was done to keep people safe and close to services and allow for emergency response in the back up to that I say BS. Even through the construction area you could move to the right and squeeze three cars wide if you had to. To say it could not of hit at a worse time, I would agree and say all the more reason to re access 30 min into it get people turned around and clear the area between the accident and the West Seattle exit block the road at the exit and allow it to remain open. If they saw the bridge backing up due to increased volume they could have posted officers at the major intersections in West Seattle if that was needed to clear things out just like they do after the games at the stadiums.
    Change will happen with new chief in town, instead of CYA it would have been better to have said we made a error in judgment and we will learn from this and do better next time… with that statement this story fades and goes away instead it will linger for a long time. Welcome aboard Chief O’Toole, I hope you brought your boots, the muck is very deep these days

  • sophista-tiki June 24, 2014 (9:31 am)

    SPD can attempt to cover their asses all they want. Plenty of us can see right through that line of bull. Bottom line- they pretty much don’t give a crap if we’re all stuck in traffic until we dry up and turn to dust. They are more concerned with game traffic . Ever been stuck trying to even move one block while the ” traffic directing cops” purposely funnel everyone the wrong direction. Then combine that with simultaneous ferry traffic and its a gigantic infuriating cluster FK. Traffic in this city gets worse by the day and the more road construction they do the worse they make the mess. Heres a clue, how about don’t cripple EVERY SINGLE ROUTE AT THE SAME TIME.

    My analogy for traffic in Seattle is. Its like an old western where they heard the cattle into a box canyon and theres no way out.

  • TGL June 24, 2014 (10:56 am)

    REALLY disappointed in SPD response. Why? Simply because this type of issue is one of the few really typical scenarios we should have STANDARD RESPONSE PLANS ALREADY IN PLACE for, so that all that’s left is to execute it.

    We have interagency earthquake games every few years, it doesn’t take much to build a plan for something like this. There’s probably only 4 or 5 events that need to be planned for. Shut down of the one of the major north/south corridors or one of the major east west ones through downtown during rush hours.

    SPD/SDOT/WSDOT should all know who goes where, who DOESN’T and who manages traffic.


    Did anyone see a coordinated traffic control response OFF of the viaduct on the surface streets to prevent intersection blocking? You could have saved HOURS of sitting on those surface streets and it has the added benefit of looking like SOMEONE KNOWS WHAT THE HELL THEY’RE DOING and has a plan.

    This isn’t rocket science. It’s essentially the same as having events at both stadiums and a concert at Key Arena at the same time. Sure, it’s not going to be pretty but it doesn’t have to turn into a 6 hr. cluster.

  • higgins June 24, 2014 (2:58 pm)

    In my high school physics class we had an officer come and talk to us about how they use physics to investigate traffic collisions. After listening to him talk and helping him collect data from a “accident scene” that he had created for us in the parking lot, I fully believe it could take 5-6 hours to properly investigate a serious collision. There are so many factors to take into consideration, and the scene must be kept intact until everything is documented correctly. Here’s just a summary of what must be done: securing the scene, placing traffic cones and flares, recording weather and road conditions, containing and mitigating any hazards (leaking gasoline, blood pools), interviewing drivers and witnesses, photographing the scene and vehicles from different angles, diagramming and measuring skid marks, recording any damage to property (guard rails, sign posts, etc), diagramming and classifying any debris, examining and recording exterior and interior damage to vehicles, taking precise GPS coordinates, triangulating the direction and speed of the vehicles, creating test skids, and so on. And don’t forget the time it takes to clean up the scene – towing cars, sweeping debris and removing oil and other fluids from the roadway. What it comes down to is that a traffic collision involving an injury or death is a crime and must be treated as such. We would never suggest that a murder or shooting investigation be rushed or criticize why it takes so long, the same should apply to a collision investigation. In short, if you are not a traffic collision investigator, you have no right to say how long it “should” take. Just like a traffic collision investigator has no right to tell you how to do your job. The fact that SPD answers to the public does not automatically mean we get to criticize a process none of us have any professional knowledge about. We have a right to ask questions and hold SPD accountable, we do not have the right to say we always know best.

  • wakeflood June 24, 2014 (4:15 pm)

    Higgins, most of us aren’t primarily concerned that there was an extensive investigation. The primary issue for many of us is that –

    A)SPD/SDOT seemed unprepared to deal with something as predictable as a major accident during rush hour on one of our two major N/S routes through town.

    And B)There appeared to be no sense of urgency to mitigate the resulting traffic issues for thousands of folks.

    Neither of those issues require them to “speed up” an investigation.

  • jwright June 24, 2014 (5:11 pm)

    wakeflood I agree with A and B but not your preamble. What public good does an extensive investigation that impacts thousands and thousands of people serve? With respect to what higgins shared, I don’t doubt that the police could find things to investigate for 6 hours. They could probably find another 6 hours worth of stuff to investigate if they really wanted to. Doing a cost/benefit analysis, I just don’t see how the benefit of a prolonged investigation justifies the cost of plunging the city into total gridlock.

  • That cant be true.. June 24, 2014 (6:25 pm)

    My Dear Higgins,I wouldn’t even know where to start unraveling your reasoning on this, and you no doubt feel the same way about mine. It sounds like the police officer who visited your physics class made a big impression on you, however many years ago that was. Education is a wonderful thing.

    And as cool as the skid mark demonstration must have been, and the triangulation, and identifying every little piece of debris (“This piece is red, clear plastic, Hmmm. I’ve got it! Tail light fragment number 200!), taking photos of everything and then drawing the exact same things by hand, that I understand. As for getting the exact GPS coordinates, I’m not so sure. Couldn’t they have asked any one of the thousands of drivers they had on lock-down to check their phones, or ask a teenager. But really, the most important piece of information about that location, the one that actually would have required a little thinking and leadership, the one SPD choose to ignore, is that closing down one of the few major commute routes in the City, a city with some of the worst traffic in the country, on a beautiful Friday afternoon and evening commute, the worst possible time, for a non-fatal two car accident, would turn the entire region into a parking lot. And that it was just fine. Wow. They must have seen the same accident investigation demonstration that you did that time in high school, and been equally as impressed.

  • wakeflood June 25, 2014 (7:25 am)

    jw, I get your point. My unwritten assumption was that there was going to be an investigation and whether it was 1 hr. or 20hrs., they were going to close the viaduct and create a traffic mess.

    I was (mistakenly) under the assumption that SPD would actually WANT to mitigate the chaos. If they did, they certainly chose the least effective way to do it. I think my cat would have picked better options.

  • bolo June 27, 2014 (7:48 pm)

    @That cant be true: Tuesday, it was a Tuesday, call it Tuesdaygeddon.

  • RayK June 29, 2014 (1:14 pm)

    I’m not sure what role SDOT would have in this incident. Having a tow truck on site would not expedite the traffic through the site until SPD allowed the wrecked vehicles to be moved away. That would be hours after the first call at best. Some relief could have been to have traffic officers open the northbound lane into two way traffic to “bleed” the congestion through the site.
    SPD owns this response; not SDOT.

Sorry, comment time is over.