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Fatal crashes on the rise in Pierce County

State troopers say they’re seeing more fatal collisions on I-5 in Pierce County than ever before.

TACOMA, Wash. — Employees with Fife Towing are still coming to terms with the death of Joe Masterson.

The 49-year-old driver was killed Feb. 15 after being struck by a semi-truck on Interstate 5 in Milton. Masterson’s colleagues tried to hold a memorial on Saturday where he was killed, but Philip Waldner, president of Fife Towing, couldn’t help but notice a problem while setting up.

“People were not slowing down and moving over, even for us, with all of our lighting from three to four tow trucks, and a DOT arrow truck saying ‘move over,'” Waldner said. “People were still not moving over.”

The investigation into the crash and Masterson’s death continues, but numbers from Washington State Patrol show a growing danger on the roads. Fatal crashes have continued to rise along Pierce County’s Interstate 5 corridor since 2017, with incidents jumping by more than 47% between 2020 and 2021.

State Trooper Robert Reyer said while the number of collisions have been consistent, they’re much more likely to be fatal, because drivers may be more reckless.

“Two years ago, people were used to being on the freeway by themselves, there was a car maybe a mile ahead of them, maybe two miles behind them, but the freeways were pretty clear,” Reyer said. “Now, when you look behind me, we see heavy traffic. There’s a lot of traffic around us. Many cars are around us, and people are not used to that anymore.”

That makes working conditions for tow trucks drivers and roadside workers even more dangerous. That is why Waldner hopes state lawmakers can help with stronger legislation.

House Bill 1709 is making its way through the state Legislature. The bill would let tow truck operators use not only red lights but rear-facing blue lights to increase visibility when they are stopped. 

Waldner is hoping stronger punishments for the current laws will help make the highways safer.

“We’ve initiated changes, safety changes that our drivers could aid them and help them protect themselves, but there’s only so much we can do,” he said. “It’s a small step. It’s not the only step necessary. But we have to start somewhere, and it’s a good place to start to honor Joe.”

State troopers are calling on drivers to get back to the basics of defensive driving.

“If you engage in dangerous driving behaviors, it’s very likely you may get hurt or worse, even killed,” Reyer said. “Use your blinker. You’re not alone anymore. And even if you were, you should still use your blinker. But tell people what you’re gonna do. Tell people you’re about to merge to the left or right. Keep your distance, don’t follow cars too closely, all those things that I believe need to be re-learned and I think people need to understand that it’s their lives that are at stake.”

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