Police urge patience, caution on roads

Conditions in the Valley are conspiring to put a healthy number of drivers off the road.

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WALLA WALLA -- No matter when the snow first flies in the Walla Walla Valley, many drivers are unprepared for it, said city police Capt. Gary Bainter.

This year, he noted, is no different.

Between early Monday and this morning, his officers logged in 31 traffic mishaps -- some of those collisions and many just people sliding off the road, Bainter said. "Right at this point, people haven't had a chance to get winter tires on."

The Public Works department is striving to make intersections less slick by dispersing road salt, starting at about 200 feet before each crossing, explained Tom Purcell, operations superintendent. "We did it yesterday and we started again today, about 3 a.m."

Ice-melting salt, at $60 a ton, is a better bang for the buck than gravel, Purcell pointed out. "Bearing in mind, we have precious few pennies."

His department had enough salt inventory for about five rounds of city streets and has gone through two of those in the last two days.

The city's snow plows won't come out unless there is "four inches of snow and building," Purcell said. "We have the situation of being a city, with all kinds of manhole covers and water valves in the street. You need enough snow to make sure you don't hit those. We have to hold that plow about two inches off the ground to keep from that problem, so we don't gain a whole lot (by plowing) until the snow is higher."

At about 8:30 a.m. on Monday in Milton-Freewater, law enforcement officers closed Highway 11 at Milton Hill going south to Pendleton for a short period until the Oregon Department of Transportation could sand it, said Doug Boedigheimer, the city's police chief.

While there were a number of non-injury crashes on the road between Milton-Freewater and Walla Walla, his officers responded to no crashes within city limits on Monday, he said. "The main thing we advise people is to anticipate when they are stopping and turning. Officers are seeing people sliding up to stop signs."

Which is the same thing police saw in College Place, noted Marianne Barr, Police Department records supervisor.

Most drivers are being cautious, but one person did fail to negotiate the corner of College Avenue and Lamperti Street and was stopped by a fire hydrant and post, she said, referring to this morning's police log.

"Everybody needs to be patient," Bainter advised. "One thing is to keep your windows, mirrors and lights clear of snow. Take a broom and clean off all that so snow isn't just blowing onto your windshield."

Drivers need to remind themselves that overpasses and bridges typically freeze faster than roadways, he added. "A good example is the bypass at Second and 12th -- people often get on there and all of a sudden lose traction."

Bainter also advises drivers to stay four or five car lengths behind the vehicle in front of them, he said. "You can't really be too far back."

By about 8 a.m. today, Tuesday held promise of being quieter than Monday, he noted. "Yesterday it was nothing but collisions."

The captain had one more point this morning. "One thing we hear a lot is how people in big pickups seem to feel like they are able to drive faster than the rest of us. It's that kind of cavalier driving that's the problem."

When queried, Bainter said he assumes many of those drivers are men. "But it's getting to be more of an equal opportunity problem."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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