Washington State University Student Rural Road Deaths Spark Concern

By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS | January 17, 2017

The recent deaths of two Washington State University students while driving back from winter break have revived concerns about the safety of roadways leading to the rural college town of Pullman.

Some students and parents are criticizing WSU officials for not delaying last Monday’s start of classes because of hazardous driving conditions due to winter storms. Rachel Pomeroy, 20, of Snohomish, died in a head-on collision Sunday on icy state Highway 26 west of Washtucna. Pomeroy was driving east toward Pullman on the two-lane road that is heavily used by students from western Washington who are driving back to the school in southeastern Washington.

The day before, WSU student Dashiell Mortell, 19, of Bainbridge Island, died in a three-vehicle crash west of Cle Elum on icy Interstate 90. Three other occupants of the vehicle, all WSU students, were injured.

“We had an incredible Christmas break with him,” his parents, Arthur and Dinah Mortell, said in a statement. “He was sad about leaving his family and friends but excited to get back to his friends at school.”

Students driving to Pullman, 75 miles south of Spokane, have no choice but to drive on two-lane roads. The main routes to Pullman are Highway 195, south from Spokane, or Highway 26, which branches off Interstate 90 near Vantage and heads east.

Over the years the roadways, mostly two-lane with few passing opportunities, have seen numerous accidents involving WSU students.

In late December, WSU student Jessica R. Brooks 26, of Sequim, died in a head-on collision on Highway 26 east of Colfax as she was driving home for the holidays.

In 2015, two WSU students were killed while driving home for Thanksgiving break. Morgan Cope, 20, died in a head-on collision on Highway 26. Christine Hunter, 18, died in a crash on Highway 195.

In 2012, Austin M. Scott, 18, of Lake Forest Park was killed and four other WSU students injured when their vehicle hit a patch of ice and rolled on Interstate 90 east of Ellensburg

Last year, the number of crashes involving WSU students prompted then-interim president Daniel Bernardo to declare road safety a top university priority. That led to meetings among university leaders, the state Department of Transportation and the Washington State Patrol.

Washington State has about 20,000 students, nearly all of them from communities far from Pullman. The town is served by a small airport, but most students drive to Pullman. The drive from the populous Seattle region, where many students live, can take five hours.

Some people criticized the university for holding classes on Monday, considering the highway conditions over the weekend.

“Class shouldn’t come before student safety. Sad to see nothing being done after there have already been MULTIPLE STUDENT DEATHS,” former student body president Adam Crouch, one of numerous critics, tweeted.

The decision to hold classes is based on local weather in Pullman, said Rob Strenge, a spokesman for WSU.

“As a residential campus, WSU Pullman almost never closes. It is literally home to thousands of students, which makes an actual suspension of operations quite problematic,” the college said in a press release. “Staff is required to support our operations 24 hours a day and large numbers of students live on campus even between semesters.”

College President Kirk Schulz this week sought suggestions on Twitter for improving student safety during hazardous weather.

“Our goal is always to ensure EVERYONE arrives and departs Pullman safely all year long with no accidents, injuries or deaths,” he tweeted.

Schulz also met with university staff Monday to come up with a plan for better alerting students about travel conditions, Strenge said.

Some help is on the way.

The state’s 2015 highway package called for improving the roads leading to Pullman. The package included funds to add seven passing lanes on U.S. 195, which are scheduled to be completed this year. It also included plans for passing lanes on Highway 26, but those aren’t scheduled to be completed until 2025.

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