In the 1950s the Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle was in a growth spurt with the demand for housing following World War Two, and the generation of children, called the Baby Boom, born in that post-war era. In the photo above we see the newly built school, Eckstein Junior High at 3003 NE 75th Street, a symbol of the new era of post-war neighborhood development.
In the foreground of the above photo we see a car bumping along on the yet-unpaved NE 75th Street. The unpaved road was a sign of the rural conditions in Wedgwood which was just then, in the 1950s, coming within the Seattle City Limits. We may chuckle at the thought of an unpaved NE 75th Street, but we may also ponder whether the roadway was in some respects safer in those days, as excessive speed was not possible.
This blog article will reflect upon the tenth anniversary of a horrific crash which took place on NE 75th Street, almost in front of the Eckstein school building, on March 25, 2013. Two pedestrians were killed outright, and two more were permanently disabled. We may ask: have the sacrificial deaths and injuries of that day, led to improved traffic safety conditions now?
Evolution of the streets of Wedgwood
It has been seventy years since Wedgwood came into the Seattle City Limits, and there’s no more unpaved roads in the neighborhood now. All of Wedgwood’s side-streets are paved and arterials such as 35th Ave NE have been widened over the decades with the newest modification, bike lanes, installed in 2019. The streets of Wedgwood are wide and smooth, but with this convenience has also come the ability of cars to travel at excessive speed. Traffic engineers have said that they can make physical modifications to the roadway itself, such as turn lanes and protective barriers for safety, but driver attitudes and behaviors are not as easily modified.
Are traffic conditions getting worse?
In a recent Pemco Insurance Company survey of drivers in Seattle and Portland, the consensus was that the frequency of seeing aggressive driving behaviors, has increased a lot. These behaviors can include speeding, tailgating, and erratic maneuvers.
Despite all the work of the Seattle Department of Transportation to make roadways safer, traffic deaths and injuries have actually increased over the past ten years, instead of decreasing. There have been a particularly high number of bicycle-car collisions with deaths and injuries.
This week on Crosscut, Seattle’s news and commentary site, there was an article about the increase in fatal hit-and-run crashes involving cars, pedestrians and bicyclists. It has been found that “impairment” is often a factor in these collisions, with DUI (driving under the influence) including alcohol or drugs.
The Schulte crash site on NE 75th Street
On the afternoon of March 25, 2013, the weather was mild enough for a family group to go out for a stroll. The group included a recently-retired couple in their sixties, Dennis & Judy Schulte, their daughter-in-law Karina Ulriksen-Schulte, and ten-day-old baby Elias. This was Karina’s first outing since the birth of Elias.
As the group set out to cross NE 75th Street at the corner of 33rd Ave NE, a large pick-up truck roared up the rise of the hill, traveling westbound. Other pedestrians who witnessed the crash said that the vehicle was traveling at least fifty miles per hour.
Action-movies which show the hero jumping or rolling out of the path of a speeding car, are not realistic because actually a human being cannot move faster than the speed of a vehicle. On that day, March 25, 2013, the truck struck the Schulte pedestrian group full-on, before they could get across the street. Dennis & Judy Schulte were killed outright. Karina and baby Elias were thrown to the side of the road and they sustained permanent, disabling injuries.
It was found that the driver of the truck was highly inebriated, with a blood alcohol level many times above the legal limit, and that he had many pending charges for drunk driving.
This sacrifice: the community discussion of traffic safety
On May 15, 2013, a community meeting was held with state officials and legislators to discuss whether the sacrificial deaths and injuries of the Schulte family members would lead to any real improvements in traffic safety.
The first speaker of the evening was Courtney Popp, a Traffic Resource Safety Prosecutor for the State Patrol of Washington. Ms. Popp explained how DUI cases are the most scientifically complicated cases with elements of the law, impairment/addiction, family issues such as the need of counseling and societal norms including our “car culture” – people just drive and drive and don’t want to give that up.
The question was asked as to pairing DUI with confiscation of the driver’s car. Ms. Popp told how that had been tried, but the costs to the state were enormous. In addition to the impound costs, the legal issues of custody of the car proved to be disadvantageous. Some cars were not worth anything and the owners didn’t try to get them back, leaving the state stuck with the junker cars. Cars which have value, often have car loans on them and technically the state cannot keep or destroy those cars. Impoundment of cars also has impact upon the driver’s family, in which the family might be unnecessarily punished by loss of the car and which does not address the real problem of DUI.
The question was asked, what a person should do if they see a family member or neighbor whom they believe to be impaired, getting behind the wheel of a car. Ms. Popp recommended calling 911 and reporting the driver and license plate. She also recommended obtaining an ignition interlock for a vehicle, which family members can do so that an impaired person would not be able to drive.
In the case of the Schulte family, as pedestrians the Schultes were struck by a drunk driver who had been ordered to put an ignition lock on his vehicle, but had not done so. This question was addressed by members of the state legislature at the May 15, 2013 Wedgwood community meeting.
State legislators who spoke at the May 15, 2013 meeting said that one of the most important and effective ways to prevent DUI is ignition interlock devices, and pairing that with a specially marked drivers license. The state of Alaska, for example, has drivers licenses which have the notation of an ignition interlock; therefore when serving alcohol the restaurant or bar asks for the identification to know that the person cannot drink and drive.
Statistics show that in Washington State about 80% of those who have had their driver’s license taken away, still continue to drive, and this was the case of the driver who hit and killed members of the Schulte family. He had lost his driver’s license and had not complied with a court order to install an ignition interlock device on his vehicle.
In 2018 the Schulte family settled a lawsuit out of court for $13 million dollars — $6.5 million coming from the City of Seattle and the rest from the city’s insurance carriers. The lawsuit blamed the City for not enforcing the drunk-driver’s probationary conditions from his previous DUI cases. The money from the settlement will be used to provide the care that Karina and Elias will need for the rest of their lives.
Ten years later, the same state legislators who spoke at the Wedgwood community meeting in May 2013, are still struggling to get “impairment” legislation put into effect. The reason why it is so difficult is that Washington State has very strong “personal freedom” regulations. Many Washington State legislators have objected to and prevented passage of laws which would require stricter regulation of drivers even after drivers have been arrested for impaired driving.
What can we do?
We can all participate in changing our culture’s approach to alcohol, making it unacceptable to drink and drive.
We can obey traffic laws such as speed limits, and encourage everyone to SLOW DOWN.
We can write to our state legislators to support legislation.
“Fatal hit-and-runs in Seattle leave lasting damage, few consequences,” by Liz Giordano, March 22, 2023, Crosscut.
“NW Poll Finds Drivers Seeing Less Politeness on the Road,” Pemco.com/blog.
“This Sacrifice: To Make Wedgwood Safer,” by Valarie Bunn, May 16, 2013, Wedgwood Community Council website.