Today the federal government is announcing a partnership with Google aimed at preventing accidents at railroad crossings, according to the New York Times. The newspaper reports that the Federal Railroad Administration will work with the tech giant “to provide the locations of all grade crossings” and make them available on Google’s maps.

The initiative follows “a sharp increase in the number of rail crossing accidents last year,” according to the Times. “Last year, 270 people died in highway-rail collisions, up from 232 the previous year, and 843 people were injured, according to federal safety statistics… Grade crossing accidents are the second-highest cause of rail fatalities after trespassing accidents, which killed 533 people last year.”

The scope of the project, however, is vast, which may be part of the reason why there is no target date for its completion. According to the Times there are well over 200,000 grade crossings nationwide. By pinpointing those locations in the mapping software that runs phones, GPS units and car navigation systems the company hopes, initially, to make it clearer where the danger spots lie. Over time it should eventually be possible to include information warning about oncoming trains in real time. According to the Times the FRA is also reaching out to Apple, MapQuest, TomTom and Garmin with proposals for similar programs.

As a Portland personal injury and wrongful death attorney I am very happy to see this effort to combine technology with a wealth of government data. It is an excellent example of a public-private partnership focused on making everyone’s lives safer.

 

New York Times: Agency Taps Mapping Technology to Curb Rail Crossing Accidents

A three-vehicle Oregon car accident near Tillamook this weekend took the life of a 79 year old man from Aloha, Oregon in Washington County.

The Oregonian, citing the Oregon State Police, reports that the accident took place on State Route 6 Saturday afternoon when “a 2013 Hyundai Elantra… was stopped on Wilson River Loop and attempting to turn east onto Oregon 6 when it pulled out in front of a westbound 2003 Chevrolet Silverado. The Silverado’s 16-year-old driver attempted but was unable to stop and collided with the driver’s side of the sedan.” As the crash unfolded both of the vehicles then hit a third.

The driver of the Elantra was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident, according to The Oregonian, while his passenger, a 78-year-old woman was “airlifted to a Portland-area hospital.” There were no reported injuries to either the teenager driving the Silverado or to any of the three people in the third vehicle – among them a three-year-old child. According to the newspaper all of the occupants of all three vehicles were wearing seat belts.

As an Oregon auto accident lawyer I am always saddened to see cases like this, where a single driving mistake appears to have set off a chain of events effecting many people with fatal consequences. The aftermath of this Oregon car crash will take many weeks if not months to sort out as the injured recover and a grieving family struggles to get on with its life. The sort of careful safety measures and infrastructure improvements I have often written about on this blog are essential if we are to improve safety on our streets and highways. The first responsibility for safety, however, always lies with each of us whenever we get behind the wheel.

 

The Oregonian: Oregon 6 Crash near Tillamook claims life on Aloha man

On the eve of a US Senate hearing focused on the Takata airbag recall, Senate Democrats have issued “a 45-page report into the nation’s largest-ever recall of about 34 million vehicles by 11 automakers for air bags that can explode and send shrapnel flying,” according to the Detroit News. The paper notes that it was only last Friday that the airbag manufacturer acknowledged an eighth documented death linked to its defective safety equipment.

According to the newspaper, the Senate report found that more than a decade after engineers first became aware of the problem “no one can identify a root cause for the ruptures.” The defect in the Takata airbags causes the gas canisters used to inflate the bags to explode, sending potentially lethal shrapnel flying into the faces and bodies of people riding in the car.

As company executives prepare to face Congress another fact reported by the Detroit News is even more shocking. According to the Senate document, even the replacement parts Takata is providing to millions of families here in Oregon and around the country are not necessarily safe. “Takata is currently producing hundreds of thousands of replacement inflators each month that may or may not completely eliminate the risk of air bag rupture,” the report says. The idea that the company is replacing defective and potentially fatal air bag inflators with parts that may themselves also be defective is difficult to comprehend.

What little good news there is to this story can be found in another recent announcement: that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s database of VIN numbers of recalled vehicles (see below for link) now includes information linked to the Takata recalls, though even there the NHTSA site, safecar.gov, warns visitors to check back regularly if they fear they may be impacted by the Takata recall. It notes that information on the vast number of cars effected is still being updated and fed into the system, so that even now the database cannot be considered complete.

As a Portland car accident and defective products attorney I can honestly say that a recall on the scale Takata and its automaker partners face is truly unprecedented. The fact that the company had been aware of potentially fatal issues with its airbag systems but chose to do nothing for years speaks to the worst aspects of corporate America’s bottom-line culture. We are lucky to live in a society where ordinary people can use the courts to obtain justice in cases like this.

 

Detroit News: Takata: report on delayed airbag recalls not accurate

 

Resource:

Safecar.gov: Look up recalls by VIN

The sad news last week that a three-year-old boy in Idaho was found dead in his family car is a timely and tragic reminder of something I highlight nearly every summer: the danger that sealed cars pose for small children.

According to the Associated Press the boy “apparently wandered outside and climbed into a hot car with two family dogs.” Both the boy and the pets died. The case is especially noteworthy because the news agency says local authorities investigating the case “believe the child headed out with the dogs and all three of them climbed into the car. The boy was not locked in the vehicle.” This is important because it reminds us that unlocked cars to which a child has access can be just as dangerous as cars in which a child has been locked by accident.

According to SafeKids, an organization I have long supported and promoted, child deaths in hot vehicles are a serious problem. “Heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths for children,” the organization notes on its website (see link below). “On average, every 8 days a child dies from heatstroke in a vehicle.”

As a Portland lawyer specializing in injuries to children I want to take this opportunity to remind parents throughout the Pacific Northwest of SafeKids’ simple rules for preventing hot car deaths. First, never leave a child alone in a car – even for a few minutes. The interior can get a lot hotter, a lot faster, than most people think. Second, create reminders that force you to check the back seat before leaving the vehicle – such as placing a briefcase, backpack or purse there rather than on the empty passenger seat. This forces the driver who may be in a hurry to park the car and get out to turn around and notice a child who may otherwise be sleeping quietly in the back. Finally: take action. As SafeKids notes, “If you see a child alone in a car, call 911. Emergency personnel want you to call. They are trained to respond to these situations.”

Hot car deaths are among the most easily-prevented tragedies imaginable. As we head into summer, let us hope that a little attentiveness can do a lot when it comes to keeping our children safe.

 

AP via The Oregonian: Idaho boy, 3, climbs in hot vehicle, found dead

SafeKids: Heatstroke

 

We tend to think of distracted driving as something involving cellphones or, perhaps, overuse of a GPS or an in-dash entertainment system, but an Oregon bus accident this week offers a strong reminder of just how broad the term actually is.

According to a report in The Oregonian “the driver of a shuttle bus that crashed Saturday morning on Interstate 5 near Woodburn was trying to retrieve a water bottle when he lost control” of the vehicle. The accident occurred near milepost 269 in I-5’s southbound lane. The 35-person bus had only two passengers in addition to the 72-year-old driver, according to the paper. All three people suffered minor injuries when the bus “crossed the center median, broke a cable barrier, crossed the northbound lanes, went off the road and rolled onto the driver’s side.”

The bus hit a car as it crossed the northbound interstate but no one in that vehicle was injured. Two northbound lanes of the highway were closed “for several hours,” The Oregonian reports.

We can all be thankful that no one was seriously hurt in this Oregon bus accident, but the fact that something this dramatic could be touched off by something as seemingly minor as reaching for a water bottle ought to make everyone reading this blog sit up and take notice.

As I have noted on several previous occasions, the sheer number of distractions we all face when we drive has multiplied incredibly over the last generation. As an Oregon distracted driving victims lawyer I am always careful to remind people that distractions come in many forms. The focus on texting and on the use of hand-held cellphones in recent years has been very useful, but cannot be a substitute for a broader awareness of safety at its most basic level – keeping your eyes on the road. Fiddling with the radio or rummaging in a bag sitting on the passenger seat may not be as dangerous, statistically speaking, as texting, but that does not mean that either of these activities is ‘safe.’

Bigger education campaigns focusing on exceptionally dangerous conduct should not make any driver forget the potential distractions – and dangers – that even mundane items (such as a water bottle) can offer if using or searching for them takes more of your attention than the road – even for just a few seconds.

 

The Oregonian: Driver in I-5 bus rollover was reaching for dropped water bottle, police say

Last week the New York Times published a long article looking at a number of so-called ‘heads-up’ technologies making their way toward commercial use in the auto industry. All of the technologies described in the article involve projecting information onto a car’s windshield so that it appears to be ‘floating’ just ahead of the car. The companies designing these systems tout them as cutting-edge tools in the fight against distracted driving, but the article makes a strong case that for many drivers there is a high probability the heads-up technology will make things worse.

Accompanying the article is a screen shot from a video promoting one of the new companies. The still image shows the driver’s hands on the steering wheel as the car enters a sharp bend to the left. Projected into the driver’s line of sight are both an animated image of the car and the road, and a photo of the driver’s mother as he takes a phone call from her. The device allows the phone to be answered with a wave of the driver’s hand.

The idea that these devices will make driving safer boils down to the contention that by keeping drivers looking up and ahead they reduce the distraction of cellphones, in-dash navigation systems, and even the dashboard itself (since the devices can display things like speed and gas level). “The argument… boils down to a simple notion: Drivers are going to do it anyway, so why not minimize the riskiest kinds of multitasking, like looking down at the phone or handling it” according to the Times.

Set against this are a parade of experts on distracted driving, the human brain and behavioral science. “The technology is driven by the false assumption that seeing requires nothing more than having the eyes fixed on the right spot,” according to a psychologist from the University of Kansas quoted by the paper. It says that while studies have found a small gain in safety when basic driving information (such as speed) is projected onto the windshield, the moment one adds non-driving information (phone calls, texts, navigation, the song or station on the audio system, etc) any potential benefit disappears. Put another way, using a heads-up system might be a bit less bad than texting while driving, but that does not mean it is either safe or desirable behavior. Notably, the Times offers multiple voices taking issue with the claim that these systems are similar to those used by pilots, pointing out that “the heads-up displays used by airplanes show only information critical to flying, like an outline of a runway or the horizon. By contrast, a head-up display in the car that gives non-driving information that is out of alignment with the road ‘is the worst of two worlds.’” The image accompanying the article (the still from the video) seems to prove this point: not only does it contain information about a phone call, but even the image of the car on the road is not aligned with what the driver is actually seeing in front of him.

From my practice as a distracted driving lawyer here in Portland I am all too aware that our laws on cellphone use and other distractions are far from perfect. As the Times points out there is a disconnect between the speed with which technology is advancing and the pace at which the federal government and the states can assess and regulate it. Right now, according to the paper, the federal government has issued only “non-binding guidelines.” After a period of years in which many states have done a good, if imperfect, job of addressing the problem of cellphone use behind the wheel, the challenge now will be to see whether regulations can adapt to new technology in a timely manner. The contention that people are going to use these technologies anyway has some validity. That, however, ought to be an argument for better driver education and tougher regulation, not for simply accepting new threats to everyone’s safety on the road.

 

The New York Times: Windshield Devices Bring Distracted Driving Debate to Eye Level

Last December I highlighted a stealthy move by the trucking industry to have its friends in Congress slip provisions into a stop-gap funding bill that were good for the industry but bad for Oregonians and the rest of America. Not content with that victory of profits over public safety the industry is now at it again, according to The New York Times.

An editorial published in the newspaper this week warned that “Republican lawmakers have attached a long industry wish list to an appropriations bill that will be voted on in the House in the coming weeks.” Last December’s measure suspended rules governing how much rest the drivers of large trucks need to get each week. The new measure, if it becomes law, will make it very difficult for President Obama or his successor to lift those ‘temporary’ rule suspensions.

Meanwhile, other parts of the bill “would allow trucks to carry longer trailers across the country, make it harder for the Department of Transportation to require drivers get more rest before they hit the road and forbid the department from raising the minimum insurance it requires trucks and buses to carry. The insurance levels have been in effect since 1985,” according to the paper.

As it did the last time around, the industry is reported to be defending these proposals with claims that defy common sense. As I noted last year, the industry’s argument for allowing it to force drivers to drive more hours on less sleep was that this would improve safety by decreasing the number of trucks on the highways. In a similar vein, the Times reports, one of the new measures “would allow trucks to pull two 33-foot-long trailers.” This compares with the current federal limit of two 28-foot-long trailers. The trucking industry says “this will improve safety, because it will result in fewer trucks on the road. But that is not believable because part of the industry’s motivation is to take business away from the railroads… In fact, there is good reason to worry that longer trucks will be less safe simply because trucks with multiple trailers are more unstable and take longer to stop than other vehicles,” the Times writes.

As an Oregon and Washington semi-truck accident lawyer I’m once again disappointed to see our legislators acting in this way, and can only hope that these proposals never become law. Our focus should be on improving safety for everyone on America’s roads. One element of that is sensible regulation of semi-trucks, the cargoes they haul and the rules designed to protect the people that they share the road with.

 

The New York Times: A foolish attempt to weaken truck safety

 

Memorial Day weekend has come and gone and the summer is officially underway. That is mostly a good thing, but as The Oregonian reminded us last week, it is also a moment to give some careful thought to safety. The holiday weekend, the paper noted, is “also the start of the season for cold water drownings in the region’s alluring, but often deadly, natural waterways.”

An investigation by the paper found that since 2006 “area lakes, rivers and the Pacific Ocean were the site of 212 drownings. The large majority – 180 – were men or boys; the remaining 15 percent, a total of 32, were women or girls.” The paper goes on to offer examples of incidents that started as routine outings but quickly turned into tragedies. It continues: “This kind of hazard abounds in natural waterways. One moment you’re in water up to your thighs, the next step takes you to water 10 feet deep.”

The solutions are very simple: public awareness and easier access to safety equipment. The Oregonian notes several organizations and initiatives that are working “to reduce the number of drownings through education and enforcement.” In particular, it quotes first responders reminding people of the importance of life jackets. The article quotes a sheriff’s office official in Clark County saying that “in more than 90 percent of the drownings he’s responded to, a life jacket would have saved the person.” Among the safety initiatives already underway in some parts of the state and expected to continue this season are efforts to make life jackets – usually ones that can be borrowed for free – more easily and widely available at potential trouble sites.

As a Portland-based attorney who represents injured children I am all too aware of the hazards that waterways pose each summer. The good news is that things are slowly changing. The same Clark County official who said life vests would have saved almost every drowning victim he has seen over nearly 20 years also compared the issue to seat belt usage and car accidents. He noted that it took time but attitudes and habits changed with education. With summer here we can only hope that that process of education leading to new awareness moves forward.

 

The Oregonian: The drowning season: Warm weather, cold water and no life jackets add to death toll

May is National Bike Month and to mark the occasion the US Transportation Department’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has released a new set of guidelines designed to promote bike safety in cities and towns across the country.

Formally titled the “Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide” the 147-page document is seeks, according to the official FHWA blog, to outline “planning considerations and design options for this innovative bike facility. It provides information on one and two-way facilities, outlines different options for providing separation.” The report goes out of its way to address “midblock design considerations” – meaning situations in which vehicles need to be allowed to cut across the bike lane to gain curb access – as well as offering advice on how to handle intersections (something Portlanders, with our city’s mixed history of success with bike boxes, know is one of the more tricky elements of bike infrastructure design).

As the news release goes on to state: “The guide builds on our current policy to provide pedestrian and bicycle accommodations and on our support for design flexibility. It will inform the USDOT’s ‘Safer People, Safer Streets’ initiative as well as our efforts to improve access to opportunity for everyone.”

Simply put, the plan is the latest effort by the federal government to extend cycling culture. As an Oregon bike advocacy lawyer I know all too well that even a bike-friendly city like Portland can experience both political and logistical problems in trying to extend bike-friendly infrastructure. Bike lanes separated from traffic – the focus of this USDOT plan – are one of the best and most cost-effective ways to encourage bike riding in urban areas while also increasing safety (a key issue for many novice bike commuters). All of us need to do our best to build cycling culture here in Portland and elsewhere. It is good for the environment, good for public health and good for our community. This report is a welcome reminder that the federal government supports the idea of more extensive bike infrastructure. It is up to all of us to turn that aspiration into reality.

 

USDOT: FHWA introduces Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide

A single-vehicle Portland car accident that killed one person and injured two others spotlights both the dangers of reckless and drunk driving and its broader legal implications, even when a second car is not involved.

According to a report earlier this week in The Oregonian a 29 year old man who was riding in the back seat of an SUV died when he was thrown from the vehicle during “a fatal crash Sunday night off Northwest Skyline Boulevard.” The paper reports that “the SUV rolled down a steep embankment toward the 6600 block of Meridian Ridge Drive where it struck a house and caught fire. Neighbors were able to extinguish the fire and no one in the home was injured.” The newspaper, quoting police, says that the SUV’s 39-year-old driver remains in an area hospital in critical condition. The other passenger, a 30-year-old woman, “was treated for her injuries and released” from the hospital.

As the paper notes, “while the cause of the crash remains under investigation… (police) said it appears that alcohol and excessive speed were both contributing factors.”

The legal consequences from this Oregon car crash could be far-reaching. Because it appears to have involved drunk driving our state’s dram shop laws may come into play. These ensure that a bartender, liquor store clerk or even the host of a social event can be held responsible for providing alcohol to someone who is not in a condition to drive. Because there was a fatality it is also possible that the bereaved family might be able to sue for damages based on an Oregon wrongful death claim.

As a Portland auto accident attorney I see cases like this one far too often. Fast driving, nighttime and alcohol are always a poor combination. The details of this case will bear closer scrutiny as the police make more of them available, and our justice system takes its course.

 

The Oregonian: Police identify driver, passengers in fatal NW Skyline Boulevard crash