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Rumble on Vashon

Island Life
Rumble Strips already etched into the main road north of Town.

"…The noise and vibration produced by rumble strips is intended to alert inattentive drivers that they have departed from their lane, or to give advance notice of a change in the roadway ahead…." from WSDOT Rumble Strip Design Policy Pages

Unlike in the above stated intent of adding etched grooves to the sides and centers of the state’s highways to protect drivers from themselves, there was almost no advanced alert or notice given for the recent appearance of crews and heavy equipment, carving up both older and nearly new sections of the Island’s main highway this past week. The qualifier "almost" is used here, since there was a short article over a year ago in the Beachcomber indicating that something like this might be in the works. It was around that time that an application was made for a federal grant to apply rumble stripping out here because Vashon was determined to be an apparent statistical nightmare in terms of run-off-the-road incidents and crashes. In speaking with Island roads supervisor Jim Didricksen, he had to dispatch part of the Island road crew to find out what was going on when private contractors arrived and set up work signs on the north end of the highway last Wednesday. Didricksen had been aware of the possibility that this was in the works, but had assumed that since it had been so long since he’d heard anything more about it that perhaps the project had been cancelled because of recent budget cuts.

When the road dept. is out of money for basic maintenance and can’t fix potholes and other hazards, but has the money to put grooves in the pavement, it has to make you wonder.- Mike DeBlasi

I first heard the news of the rumble strip project through an email from Mike DeBlasi, an Islander, former Cascade Bicycle Club president and board member and general cycling advocate and activist. This started a chain of communications throughout the Vashon cycling community, along with pleas to King County officials and politicians for information about why this work was being done, why no one had been informed of its happening, and what could be done to get it stopped. It was not long after that that I received an email from John Cornelison, Islander and former executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, whose website,, has an extensive position paper on rumble strips, which have been gaining national attention as being troublesome for cyclists everywhere. At this point, I also put in a call to Henry Perrin, an Islander and a senior engineer with King County DOT. As a part of the design team that worked on this project, Perrin sited a high occurrence of run-off-the-road accidents on Vashon as the reason that the project was deemed necessary, and that rumble stripping of the main highway seen as the solution. The practice of adding rumble strips on rural roadways has be found to reduce these types of accidents by statistically significant numbers. Besides the basic numbers of 92 crashes, 1 fatality and 43 injuries on Vashon between 1 January 2004 and 31 December 2008, no other information about these accidents is available from the King County Sheriff’s office. Because this data is unavailable, what is not clear is whether these incidents were weather related, involved vehicles dodging various animals on the roads, or if the vehicles were being piloted by drivers under the influence, all of which would benefit little from sound and vibration generating grooves cut into the side of the roadway.

On routes used by bicyclists, rumble strips should not be installed indiscriminately; a careful traffic safety study should be conducted to demonstrate a clear problem and a projected impact on safety.- From "Bicycling and Rumble Strips"-League of American Bicyclists

With calls and over a hundred emails received by Thursday night, all of which were trading information and voicing frustration over what to do, a suggestion was made that some sort of action be taken to stop the roadwork before any more damage was done. By this time it was learned that, while Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) guidelines state that rumble strips not be applied in areas where the speed limit is less than 45mph, a design decision had been made to lower that limit to 35mph in this case. It was also noted that in at least one case, a hundred yard section of shoulder area on the east side of the Highway just north of SW140th ( Old Vashon Highway) had been rumble stripped leaving only 3 to 3.5 feet of shoulder for the bike lane, and the minimum requirement is stated at four feet, with five feet being necessary if a guardrail is present. Having been a part of working to get shoulder areas expanded to better accommodate a rising number of cyclists out here, both for commuting and recreational use, it was frustrating at best to watch as those efforts were subverted by a process that the community had had no say in. So Friday morning, as work resumed in carving rumble strips in the centerline south of 204th and Sound Food, a group of cyclists lead by Steve Abel informed the project manager that they were intending to commit civil disobedience to stop the etching of Island roads. Cell phones were deployed. It is unclear whether the police arrived because of this statement of intent or because of threats made against the work crew by an irate motorist who was late for the ferry and being further delayed by the road work being done. A few minutes later, as the etching machine parked and shutdown next to where we were standing, word came through that work was being suspended for the day.

In 2010, WSDOT had to re-do inappropriately applied rumble strips on Whidbey Island. The Federal Highway Administration cites the installation cost of rumble strips at between $500 and $3000 per mile, with Vashon’s current installation cost estimate being $1200 per mile, while the removal cost, in one example case, was $13,000 a mile.

On Saturday, a group of cyclists met at Minglement to discuss what the next steps should be now that it was clear that work had been suspended for at least three weeks, in part to finally allow community input into the process. What came out of that was a need once again for a voice for cyclists on the Island. To that end, John Cornelison has created a website,, that is intended to be a contact point for cycling information on the Island. Obviously, given the stealth nature of this project, a website or an organization would not have gotten us much further than the present network did. One of the three beginning goals of this site, and hopefully the group that will grow around it, is to work with other communities and to help inform and advise around this and other cycling issues. All in attendance wanted all shoulder rumble strips repaired. The group was indifferent about the centerline strip, although safety records have shown that centerline rumble strips have been known to keep motorists from yielding to cyclists they are passing. The third main point we wanted to emphasize, was to increase access to Vashon cycling community, which will hopefully be accomplished at least partially through Bike Vashon.

As it turned out, just as the meeting was breaking up out on the front porch, a group of women cyclists rolled up. Having been randomly sampling passing cyclists about how they felt about the rumbles throughout the meeting (thumbs down), James Cottrell asked one of the women how she felt about them. In answering, Tracey Gramenz said that she was on a trial run of her new bicycle touring business, Real Active Women Retreats- They had actually driven on the Island and were staying at a rental on the south part of the Island, so they hadn’t quite experienced the full rumble of the road edge etchings just yet. But she was excited about the possibility of bringing groups to the Island to ride, and to support Island businesses in the process, like buying fresh locally grown produce for their meals, as well as having already partnered with an Island yoga instructor for helping to enhance flexibility and relieve post ride stiffness. And of course, having safe and comfortable riding conditions was of paramount concern. Having lead other commercial bike tours around the state and elsewhere, she was aware of rumble strips and not excited to see them become a part of the Vashon cycling scene.

As the rumble ruckus proceeds, it will be interesting to see how facts, logic and common sense prevail though all of this. It seems that the stated intent of applying rumble strips to our highway, or any roadway for that matter, is flawed from the start. It was always my understanding that while driving one is supposed to be paying attention. If one is texting or reading a letter or drunk, buzzed and mostly not all there, you shouldn’t be driving to begin with. And why is it that the cyclist is the one who is asked to pay in available bike lane space and reduced ride quality? There is, in fact, another type of rumble strip- edge line rumble strips (elrs) which are applied over where the fog line is, and therefore not rendering useless 20%-30% of the bike lane most motorists would prefer that the cyclist remain in (although according to state law cyclists have a right to however much of the right side of the car lane one needs to feel safe while cycling.) There is no third alternative for a rumble strip application to the left side of the fog line. This potentially would warn errant drivers that much sooner as they inattentively drifted and/or "departed their lane", and would take transit space from the side of the line from where the perceived problem is threatening. In terms of justifying things, it has been said that numbers don’t lie. But in this case it would seem that these numbers- the accident statistics- are not telling the whole truth.