An increase in people looking for winter recreation has led to a dangerous increase in vehicles parking alongside a highway and sledding on interchanges right next to the road.
Winter's here and outdoor activity is a good option during a pandemic – so we know why so many people are flocking to the mountains right now. But we're also seeing some serious safety and access issues with travelers parking and walking along roadways near crowded areas.
Winter activities aren't new, but we're seeing much higher numbers as people seek out new outdoor activities or just a chance to get out of their house. Those higher numbers mean more crowding at popular recreation areas and this poses serious safety concerns. It also is preventing our crews from clearing some roadways and passes. With several more months of winter ahead of us, we're asking all travelers to help us keep everyone along our roadways, exit ramps and interchanges safe.
Highway shoulders are not parking lots – or walkways
On multiple mountain pass roadways, ramps and interchanges across the state, we're seeing vehicles parking along shoulders when parking lots or other areas fill up. This also means people walking along the highway, often carrying bulky gear that obstructs their view of vehicles around them, or wearing snow gear that may affect their mobility. This is a tragedy waiting to happen – just as it was this summer when we saw similar practices. Now, however, we have lower visibility and snowy/icy roads in play as well – and we've already seen close calls in areas.
In the past few weeks, we also saw people using highway interchanges as sledding hills very close to active traffic and areas where crews are clearing snow. Again, this poses serious dangers, including the chance a sledder will shoot out into open traffic. Interchanges and other highway right of ways are not designed for pedestrian use or recreation and they're simply not safe for those activities – even if covered in snow.
Vehicles parking along the shoulder also slow down traffic and increase the risk of crashes as passing vehicles have to maneuver through the now-narrowed area. That's the last thing we need during busy travel times or winter weather.
Help keep our snowplows moving
In addition to the safety factor, vehicles parking along shoulders at interchanges and other areas are also causing problems for our plows and the crews working hard to keep the roadways open.
On Snoqualmie Pass, plows couldn't make it into storage areas for additional salt and supplies recently due to vehicles parked on shoulders and blocking access. In some cases, there also wasn't enough room to turn around a plow to do their return runs, or barely enough space for large plows to move through roadways that people decided to turn into parking lots. Our partners at the Washington State Patrol ticketed some of those vehicles, but they don't have the staffing for such widescale parking enforcement.
During heavy storms these delays could lead to more road closure as crews aren't able to keep roadways treated or cleared. It can also affect emergency crews being able to reach crash sites. We hope everyone keeps that in mind when looking for safe, legal parking options.
So, what can you do to help lower these risks?
- Plan your trips ahead of time – and have a Plan B if your first choice is full. Simply driving until you see snow isn't always safe, especially if there is no designated parking area. Some areas also may not be developed due to avalanche or other risks that aren't immediately apparent.
- Find safe places to recreate. State parks as well as local parks can be a good option to explore the outdoors – check state park sites and safety tips online. If visiting ski areas, check ahead to see if they have limits or new safety procedures due to the pandemic.
- Check conditions and know your limits. Heavy snow can increase avalanche dangers. Check the Northwest Avalanche Center for forecasts and alerts and be sure to carry safety supplies with you. If you're not used to outdoor snow activities, research risks and needed skills, or consider a less risky alternative.
- Do not park or walk along highway shoulders. Hate to sound like a broken record here, but this is not safe for you or passing motorists.
- Pack extra supplies. Whether it's due to a road closure, vehicle trouble or other issue, it's always a good idea to have extra food, warm clothing and other supplies during winter travel. Not sure what you need? Check out our online winter supplies list for suggestions.
We know many Washingtonians enjoy outdoor winter activities and we want everyone – members of the public as well as our crews – to be safe when they do so. Please keep these tips in mind to help ensure all of your outdoor adventures are safe and fun.