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Car crashes take deadly toll on Native Americans in Washington state

caption: A memorial with three crosses hangs on a chain-link fence along Totem Beach Road on the Tulalip Reservation on March 8, 2023.
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A memorial with three crosses hangs on a chain-link fence along Totem Beach Road on the Tulalip Reservation on March 8, 2023.

Fatal traffic crashes are up in Washington state, and they are hitting especially hard among Native American communities, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

“The fatality rates are so much higher than any other race within our state,” Washington Traffic Safety Commission tribal liaison Penny Rarick told a June 3 meeting of the Washington House Transportation Committee.

Deadly crash rates are at least three times higher among Native Americans than any other race in Washington.

Native Americans are four times more likely to be killed in a car crash in Washington than non-Natives.

A Native pedestrian or bicyclist is five times more likely to die.

“We see it in Yakama Nation. We see it with the Confederate tribes of Colville. We see it in the Puyallup area, and then we see it at the Lummi. And those are where in the last five years, we've seen most of the fatalities,” Rarick said.

“Unfortunately, Yakama Nation is home to the number one [rate of] fatalities, not only for motor vehicle crashes, but also pedestrians,” said HollyAnna CougarTracks DeCoteau Littlebull, former traffic safety coordinator for the Yakama Nation. “We were fighting on multiple fronts to try to reduce fatalities.”

A spokesperson for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians declined to comment.

caption: Locations of fatal motor-vehicle crashes in Washington in 2023.
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Locations of fatal motor-vehicle crashes in Washington in 2023.
Washington Traffic Safety Commission

Littlebull called the stretch of U.S. Route 97 from Toppenish to Union Gap, on the Yakama Reservation, the deadliest highway in Washington.

Littlebull said some people call Route 97 through the reservation the “Yakabahn,” like Germany’s Autobahn, famous for its segments that have no speed limit.

“Highway 97 is basically a thoroughfare for semis,” she said.

Though the four-lane divided highway’s posted speed limit is 55 miles per hour, Littlebull said it often goes unenforced by tribal, local, or state police.

According to preliminary data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, crashes killed 810 people across Washington in 2023, a 10% increase from 2022 and a 59% increase from 2019. That year also saw the most pedestrians killed in a single year (157) and the most motorcyclists (141).

“The last few years, particularly since the pandemic, fatalities have been trending in the wrong direction,” Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste told the House Transportation Committee.

RELATED: Despite safety measures, promises, and plans, more people are dying on Washington roadways

Half of all fatal crashes in Washington involve an intoxicated driver, while one-third involve a speeding driver.

“We're arresting more DUIs consistently every year,” Yakima Police Department Capt. Shawn Boyle said.

“Unfortunately, in the city of Yakima, we're seeing it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's no longer a Friday and Saturday night issue from the bars closed at 2 o'clock,” Boyle said.

He said arrests for driving under the influence were up 28% in 2023 in Yakima.

“We find a lot of DUIs that passed out at a stoplight that are in the process of overdosing,” Boyle said.

Statewide, deadly collisions where either a driver or a pedestrian was intoxicated are up nearly 60% since 2019 in Washington.

Safety commission data shows the high-risk driver behaviors of intoxication and speeding are especially high among Native drivers.

The same is true for not wearing seat belts.

One in 3 Native Americans killed in a crash from 2018 to 2022 in Washington were not wearing a seat belt, versus 1 in 5 traffic deaths among other races, according to the safety commission.

“I really don't understand not wearing seat belts,” Littlebull said. “My car won't even go into reverse or drive if you don't have your seat belt on.”

With about 1 in 5 people on the Yakama Reservation living below the poverty level, many drivers have older cars lacking 21st-century safety features.

“They can't afford newer cars,” Littlebull said. “There's a lot of old vehicles on the reservation. One of my friends drives a 1986 Honda, I think.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation and the Yakama Nation have installed two roundabouts on crash-plagued Route 97 and have plans for three more.

The Yakama Nation has installed a high-tech sensor at one of the worst intersections to monitor road conditions and driver behavior, at least until a roundabout can be installed there.

The Washington State Department of Transportation and the Yakama Nation are also planning a 23-mile pedestrian-bike-equestrian trail along Route 97, though construction, if funded, would not begin until at least 2026.

At the individual level, the solutions to traffic safety seem straightforward, even a bit cliché.

“Slow down, buckle up, put your phone down,” Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said. “And for God's sake, don't drink and drive or drive under the influence of drugs.”

At the community level, solutions are less straightforward for reducing the lethal toll of drivers who fail, for whatever reason, to drive safely.

“Yakama Nation is supposed to be a dry reservation,” Littlebull said. “But then you had the cities pop up because of the railroad – which is Wapato, Toppenish, and Union Gap – and they had taverns and bars.”

Littlebull said the roots of addiction and dangerous driving behaviors run deep.

“There's a lot of historical trauma that people don't talk about,” she said.

Littlebull said she is the first generation of her family not to be forced to attend boarding school far from home.

Rarick said the Washington Traffic Safety Commission is currently in conversation with 11 tribal police departments to find culturally relevant strategies for improving traffic safety on tribal lands.

“It's not just road improvements, or it's not just enforcement, or it's not just public health campaigns,” safety commission spokesperson Mark McKechnie told legislators. “We have to do all of those things consistently and not sort of fall victim to the latest fad of, ‘Oh, it's this one thing.’”

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