This Seattle Freeway Exit Is a Magnet for Car Crashes

If you grew up in or around Seattle, you probably know about its bizarre freeway arrangement downtown. The Express Lanes, exits on both sides of the freeway (sometimes requiring short merges across the whole freeway to make an exit), a city grid that really wasn’t designed to ingest modern levels of traffic and actually move it around on surface streets. But I’ve always felt it’s the area around the Convention Center—which looms over the freeway, covering it right around where most of the downtown exits are, creating a disorienting short period of darkness and confusion—is a mess. Even if you’ve driven northbound under the Freeway Park trying to exit at, say, Olive or Mercer, it can be a little stressful. But for southbound I-5 drivers trying to exit at Union Street (Exit 165B), it can be downright dangerous.

That’s because most drivers, when they’re exiting a freeway via an off ramp, expect some sort of gradual transition from high-speed restricted highway to low-speed, intersection-regulated surface street. At this exit, not so much any of that. One minute you’re going close to 60 mph in an exit lane, the next you’re in a sharp, nearly 90-degree turn with a 20 mph recommended speed limit, and at the end of that there’s an intersection a short distance from the tunnel exit. Oh yeah, don’t forget that you essentially pop into a tunnel right before the off ramp starts.  

Living a few miles away from this ill-conceived exit, it wasn’t too hard to pop a GoPro on a Kia EV6 test vehicle and show you a POV of what this exit is like—at a very moderate pace and a sense of what to expect. We should also note that, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation, what you see in our POV video represents changes made to the ramp in 2021 after several complaints.

The structure of the ramp itself wasn’t changed, but the signage was improved. The changes included making all the signs in the exit more visible and adding a “20 MPH” advisory label to the “Exit 165B” sign right at the beginning of the ramp. Reflective tubular barriers were also installed around the radius of the curve to make it a little clearer that this is an exit ramp, not a Hot Wheels loop-de-loop track.  

While drivers can and should be aware of the signs studding this exit, we can’t help but think that the design of this offramp is woefully inadequate. Pop into the bright light and you have a short distance to the 7th Ave intersection.  And there’s a nasty curb right at the end of the exit’s radius just as you exit the tunnel, and in the video compiled of crashes above you can see a few cars careen into that and sustain extra damage.

A lot of vehicles blast right through the intersection, which is at the edge of what’s a fairly busy pedestrian area. There’s shopping, business, and of course the convention center itself, all of which can draw a crowd—hopefully not a crowd trying to cross 7th Ave. at Union when a bewildered driver glances off the wall and into the intersection.  

The uploader of this YouTube crash compilation says it was compiled from four years of crashes, and likely almost all of them occurred before the signage revisions to the exit. (We spot a Mazda CX-5, a Tesla Model 3, and even a tow truck among the casualties.) There’s no indication this is a regular occurrence, but it does show the stark challenges you face when cities have to deal with the intersection of old surface street infrastructure, an interstate freeway dropped into the middle of that grid, and modern traffic (and modern distractions). It’s a headache, but given the physical layout of this offramp it’d be a Herculean task to alter it significantly. Let’s hope the data proves that the signage improvement is doing its job.

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