Unsafe at present speed?

West Beach Road resident Romilly Cassida walks along the road in an area where it becomes 50 mph. She and a friend gathered over 150 signatures of residents who want the speed limit reduced for safey reasons. - Jessie Stensland
West Beach Road resident Romilly Cassida walks along the road in an area where it becomes 50 mph. She and a friend gathered over 150 signatures of residents who want the speed limit reduced for safey reasons.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland

After a young woman was killed last year in an accident on West Beach Road, a couple of people who live in the area started going door-to-door with a petition asking the county to reduce the speed limit in a section of the road from 50 to 40 mph.

Romilly Cassida and Leon Lewis easily collected 156 signatures, but then they were surprised to find resistance to the idea in Island County government.

Commissioner Mac McDowell, for example, points to a recent traffic study that doesn’t support the idea of reducing the speed limit on the road between Sunset Beach and Hastie Lake Road.

“People are still going to drive the speed they feel comfortable with,” he said. “If you reduce the limit, you’re just going to create a speed trap and perhaps give people a false sense of security, which will make it more dangerous.”

The real problem, McDowell speculates, is that drivers are speeding on West Beach Road. He says the solution is for deputies to patrol the area more aggressively and he’s urged Sheriff Mike Hawley to make that happen.

In response to the citizen complaints, the Sheriff’s Office recently set up a speed reader board on the road to remind people not to speed. Hawley and north precinct deputies are holding a neighborhood meeting next Tuesday to discuss the traffic complaints.

“We need to have these issues looked at from everyone’s perspective,” said Jan Smith, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.

But nothing short of a change in the speed limit may satisfy many of the residents of the scenic West Beach Road area. Cassida said stronger enforcement would make residents happier, “but the speed is still too high.”

Cassida said she’s heard all kinds of “horror stories” about the road. “I’ve been told about kids waiting for the school bus and almost getting hit,” she said. “There seems to be more accidents. People are afraid to jog or walk along the road. ...

“People get tail-gated, passed on the double yellow lines or honked at, and they are going the speed limit.”

Above all, Cassida said, she and other residents are worried about safely on the road. She said heavy fog, high winds and occasional black ice in the area contribute to the danger. A particularly dangerous area, she said, is the top of the hill in the Even Down area. The speed limit changed to 50 mph at the bottom of the road, she explained, and drivers gun their engines on the way up the hill, but then “they don’t let up once they reach the top.”

Cassida claims that many people who live along West Beach, particularly in Even Down, have trouble leaving their driveways safely.

In addition to the change in speed limit, the petition asks that the intersection at West Beach and Fort Nugent roads be switched from a one-way to a three-way to slow traffic. Cassida said in the last few months there’s been an increase in drivers crashing into the barrier at the intersection.

Cassida and Lewis submitted the petition to the commissioners and didn’t hear back until they were invited to an informal meeting in August. By then, a new traffic study of the stretch of road had been largely completed.

Cassida said she was shocked to find “staff and the commissioner seemed really opposed to the change.” She argues that the traffic study “doesn’t address concerns of the neighborhood, which is safety.” She said the speeds are currently unsafe and a change would prevent accidents.

On the other hand, county Traffic Engineer Joseph Araucto said he’s in the process of finalizing the traffic study and will recommend that the speed limit remain the same, but deputy patrols of the area should increase.

Araucto said the standard practice used nationwide to gauge speed limits is to measure how fast people are traveling on the road. He said 85 percent of people behind the wheel are responsible drivers who will travel at the speed that is appropriate for the existing conditions of the road, including the sight distance and width of the blacktop.

“Regardless of the posted speed limit,” he said, “people tend to adjust their speed to the conditions of the road.”

In addition, Araucto said he looked at the collision history in the area, the “geometry of the road,” the road condition and other factors. He said the collision rate in the stretch is the same as “any typical county road on the island.”

To set the speed limit any lower, Araucto said, would “penalize the people who are driving responsibly out there.”

Yet according to Araucto, the traffic study shows that this “85 percentile” of responsible drivers are traveling at 48 to 58 mph. Together with the 15 percent of irresponsible drivers, that means there’s a heck of a lot of speeders out there.

That’s why, McDowell said, he wants the sheriff to send more patrols to the area. He points out that four or five deputies are funded by the road tax for the expressed purpose of patrolling the roads and making the county highways and byways safer.

“Dropping the speed limit down to 40 won’t solve the problem,” he said. “We need more patrols in the area to remind people of what the speed limit is.”

According to McDowell, West Beach Road, Heller Road and Highway 20 are designated as the “arterials” for the north end of the island, which means they are designed to safely and efficiently move traffic through an area. The road is used by many drivers who want to avoid traveling on the highway through the city, as well as people heading to work at the Navy base.

In fact, McDowell wants the road department to look at increasing the posted speed from 40 to 50 mph where West Beach Road turns into Swantown Road in the sparsely populated area south of the base.

McDowell said he knows his views probably aren’t popular with many West Beach Road residents, but his duty is to the entire county.

“Different people come to us all the time and ask to have their speed limits reduced in front of their houses,” he said. “But the person who lives five miles away also has the right to drive on a nice road at 50 miles per hour.”

Let’s talk about it

The Island County Sheriff’s Office is holding a neighborhood meeting for the West Beach Road neighborhood Tuesday, Nov. 26, to discuss traffic complaints and other crime trends.

The meeting will be at 7 p.m. at the Sierra Country Clubhouse, which is located off West Beach Road at the intersection of Hacienda and San Juan.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-1166.

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