Everyone has experienced it. Aggressive drivers. Tailgaters. Swervers. Shoulder and solid-line passers.
Defensive driving is an essential skill on the Key Peninsula. It encourages drivers to expect the unexpected when driving along the dark and congested major roadways to prevent accidents before they happen.
But they do happen.
Pierce County Planning and Public Works, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Key Peninsula Fire Department may not always be in sync on why these accidents happen, but there is one thing all three agree on: Speed is the main culprit.
They aren’t necessarily the most dangerous stretches of roadway, but the Key Peninsula News identified the following as the most accident-prone areas on the two main KP roadways from 2015-2022, according to data from WSDOT and South Sound 911.
State Route 302
No. 3 – 118th Avenue NW to 131st Avenue NW
This twisty three-quarter mile stretch of road has seen 64 accidents in the past eight years. According to WSDOT, traffic has increased 25% over the last decade. Many accidents along this stretch happened at the intersection of SR 302 and 118th Avenue NW before WSDOT added left-turn lanes onto 118th. Though collisions with wildlife are rare on the Key Peninsula, this is one of the sections of SR 302 where that’s likelier to happen.
In an email to KP News, WSDOT Communications and Outreach Supervisor April Leigh wrote “Our traffic engineering team is looking at the 118th Avenue intersection for a potential roundabout in the future but whether that happens depends on availability out of the right-of-way, environmental feasibility, etc. (because roundabouts are a great solution, but they have a big footprint).”
No. 2 – 94th Avenue NW to Creviston Drive NW
The fender-bender capital of the Key Peninsula. There have been 79 accidents in this nearly half-mile stretch starting at the first (or last) stop light on the peninsula.
“This has always been a problem area,” said KP Fire District 16 Public Information Officer Anne Nesbit. “And in this area, accidents lead to congestion.” Getting around accidents there is difficult and time-consuming. WSDOT doesn’t consider this particular stretch of the highway as a priority, but the No. 1 spot sure is getting some attention.
No. 1 – Goodrich Drive NW to 94th Avenue NW a.k.a. The Wauna Curves
There have been 203 accidents on this stretch since 2015. Combining that with No. 2 above equates to one accident every 10 days.
Yes, it’s curvy, hence the name, but it’s driving way too fast that causes the most issues.
“This is a priority area for us, but it’s a hard area to tackle,” said Sarah Ott, traffic engineer for WSDOT’s Olympic region. “We’re in the process to see what the right thing to do is.”
The likely solution, according to Ott, is a roundabout at Goodrich Drive NW. Other than the Purdy boat launch ramp, it’s probably the only space along the stretch that could be engineered.
“Roundabouts are great because it can reduce speeds from about 45 miles per hour down to 15,” Ott said. “People make better decisions, and it really reduces the likeliness of error heading into or out of (the Wauna Curves).”
Other additions WSDOT has made recently to curb accidents along the curves include emergency pullout locations throughout the area, reflective panels on the guardrails to make them more visible at night and widening center lines to slow down traffic organically. They’ve also added crosswalk signs and beacons to make it safer for pedestrians to cross near the boat ramp.
(Dis)Honorable Mention – Wright Bliss Road NW and SR 302 intersection
Despite local lore, this intersection doesn’t have a lot of accidents. But when they do happen, they’re doozies.
“We’re talking high-speed T-bones,” said Nesbit about cars trying to cross SR 302 from either side of Wright Bliss.
“What we see is a co-occurring trend of driver-error,” Ott mentioned. “Most are things we have control over, but we need to slow down.”
The beauty of the surrounding area makes this a dangerous stretch. Drivers may see a whale, sea lions, or a bald eagle, but when they do that means they’re likely not seeing the car in front of them coming to a screeching halt.
Key Peninsula Highway
Tied No. 3 – Lake Minterwood (101st Street NW to 140th Avenue CT NW) and Home (A Street to McEwan Road NW)
Where SR 302 is plagued with twists and turns, the issues with the KP Highway are straightaways where drivers pick up speed. The Lake Minterwood area is tree-lined on one side with a five-foot-high embankment on the other, leaving little room for error. There have been 21 accidents in this short stretch since 2015, including a preponderance of single-vehicle accidents.
Perhaps the most surprising area on this list, at least for those who don’t live there, is Home. The speed limit drops down to 35 MPH going through Home, but the 21 accidents that have happened there suggest that’s more of a guideline than a rule. Nesbit said she regularly sees cars going above 50 as they travel through the town.
No. 2 – Key Center (84th Street NW to 92nd Street NW)
Driving south through Key Center speeds quickly transition from 45 MPH, to 35 and then to 30.
“We evaluated the speeds in Key Center about 15 years ago,” said Scott Moeller, Pierce County’s associate traffic engineer. “The 30 MPH speed limit seemed to fit what people were doing around that time.”
Nesbit said it’s a little different today from 15 years ago. “Speeds are faster than they’ve ever been. People are using the turning lane as a passing lane and that’s so dangerous.”
There have been 22 accidents in Key Center, with many happening near the fire station.
Nesbit said flashing speed signs that visually show drivers how fast they’re going could have helped. Each of those signs almost cost more than the cars they track. Ott said it can cost $20,000-$30,000 to install and they’re difficult to maintain.
No. 1 – 64th Street NW to 167th Avenue CT NW
The most accident-prone stretch of the Key Peninsula Highway is also where children are most present: Key Peninsula Middle School and Volunteer Park. This 1.4-mile stretch has seen 34 accidents in the last eight years, including six in 2022. For most schools in the Peninsula School District, speeds drop to 20 MPH during school hours to protect the students and staff, and those bringing or picking up the kids from school. Not for KPMS. The highway remains 45 MPH throughout the day.
According to Pierce County Traffic Engineer Sarah Grice, in order for that to change, the school and district need to ask the county to do a study. Grice said she believes there isn’t a speed reduction because there isn’t high pedestrian use by the school or park.
Evergreen Elementary School, which also has its entrance along the Key Peninsula Highway, has a speed-reduction zone.
Grice said speed limits are set by the Pierce County Council, based on recommendations from her team. But Moeller was quick to note that a “reduced speed limit doesn’t necessarily mean drivers reduce their speed.”
(Dis)Honorable Mention – KP Highway/Jackson Lake Road NW/Lackey Road NW
Between the No. 1 spot on the way to the No. 3 spot is an awkward intersection. It doesn’t have a lot of issues, but is high enough on Pierce County’s radar to make a change. Letticia Neal, the Pierce County transportation improvement manager, said a roundabout could be on its way, but don’t expect it soon. The county already has $275,000 budgeted this year for a roundabout design, but they don’t yet have funding for the construction. She doesn’t know if the roundabout will be the solution to any issues in this area, but the Key Peninsula public chose this solution among four others in 2022.
“People have a love-hate relationship with roundabouts,” Neal said. “A lot of people who don’t like them end up liking them and vice versa.”
The Key Peninsula averaged just less than three fatality crashes per year since 2015. Of those, 12 happened on SR 302 and the Key Peninsula Highway, but 10 have happened on side streets.
Speed, again, is the big issue.
“Hitting a bump or a pothole on a side street is a lot different at 45 MPH than it is going 75,” Nesbit said. “Going that fast, a slight dip can make people lose control.”
Slow down. According to WSDOT, fatal and serious traffic injury rates are up despite less driving since more people are working from home.
“If we all drove more responsibly, accidents and fatalities would be a different story,” Nesbit said. “Drive the speed limit and drive appropriately for the road conditions.”
Ott agreed. “Pay attention. In some years almost 80% of crashes are related to drivers not paying attention. It’s going to take all of us working together to make a change.”
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