As members of Congress worked through the weekend to agree on a spending bill to keep the federal government operating a fair of amount of media attention focused on an unrelated provision that would weaken the regulations imposed on banks in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Another, less noticed, amendment to the bill, however, is likely to have a more immediate effect on a much larger number of Americans.

 

According to NJ.com, language slipped into the federal spending bill at the last minute “suspends two rest rules for drivers” of semi-trucks. In other words, it makes it legal for trucking companies to demand more hours behind the wheel from already overstretched truck drivers.

 

Specifically, the website reports, “under federal law, truck drivers can be behind the wheel 11 hours a day, up to a maximum of 60 hours in a seven-day period. But if a trucker takes a 34-hour rest period, that seven-day calendar starts all over and he or she can drive another 60 hours during the next seven days.” The Hill, a magazine that tracks congress, notes that the new rule will “suspend a current requirement that truck drivers take breaks between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on consecutive nights before they can work again. The measure would also remove a limit on the number of times they can declare the start of a new workday.”

 

In other words: these rule changes will encourage companies to put their drivers on the road for longer hours and to do so during overnight hours when most people feel sleep depravation more acutely and when driving is, by its very nature, more dangerous. The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), claims she is doing commuters a favor by, in effect, shifting truck traffic away from rush hour, but drivers organizations and consumer advocates worry that a little rush-hour convenience will come at the price of more deadly semi-truck accidents. Speaking to The Hill the head of the Amalgamated Transit Union called the new rules “a very dangerous move by Congress that will result in more deaths and gruesome injuries on our nation’s highways.”

 

As a Portland lawyer helping the victims of Oregon and Washington truck crashes I am saddened and appalled to see the trucking industry’s profits being put ahead of both public safety and the welfare of the industry’s key workers – its drivers. It is widely known that drivers are often forced to work dangerously long hours just to make ends meet. With this measure – passed without proper debate or transparency, and attached to an unrelated bill which the President had little choice but to sign – the industry is putting its bottom line ahead of everyone else’s safety.

 

 

NJ.com: Senate clears spending bill that suspends truckers’ rest rules

The Hill: Union slams inclusion of trucker rules in funding bill

 

An OHSU study just published in a medical journal may have uncovered key evidence linking Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injuries and, more importantly, hinted at a way both can be addressed medically according to a recent article in The Oregonian.

 

According to the newspaper, a scientific paper prepared by OHSU and a university in New York “discovered that a traumatic brain injury fouls up the brain’s waste removal system, causing toxic proteins to build up among the cells. A similar phenomenon exists with Alzheimer’s.” The article goes on to note that if TBI and Alzheimer’s do, indeed, stem from similar chemical causes then there is “hope that scientists will find a drug one day to slow the development of Alzheimer’s or neurodegeneration after a brain injury.”

 

According to The Oregonian’s account of the study, the breakthrough lies in the discovery of “the brain’s waste removal system.” It continues: “Scientists had long suspected that the brain, which is separated from the body by a protective blood-brain barrier, had a mechanism for flushing out waste. But they did not have a clue about the process.” Now, they do. Another important feature of the study is its identification of the failure of this waste-flushing process as the core cause of both Alzheimer’s and of many traumatic brain injuries – a link between the two conditions that has long been suspected but has been difficult to prove scientifically.

 

It is important to note that all of this is very preliminary. While the study is exceptionally important it is only a beginning, and any drug to treat both Alzheimer’s and TBI is probably many years away. It does, however, hold out hope over time. More immediately, it confirms yet again the fundamental relationship between traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer’s – an increasingly clear fact that some in the sports community continue to attempt to explain away.

 

As a Portland TBI attorney my immediate concern is for people and families struggling with the effects of blows to the head, a group that includes athletes, car crash victims and others. Understanding the human chemistry behind traumatic brain injuries is a key first step in, someday, reversing them. Over the last few years we as a society have made enormous progress in TBI protection and TBI awareness, particularly among athletes at all levels, from children to professionals. We have also, however, seen that rules on and off the field do little good if they are not accompanied by changes in the culture of sports, and an awareness that playing through a head injury is never a good thing for an athlete to do. Perhaps this study will speed not only research on Alzheimer’s and TBI medications but also a change in the sideline culture that too often still encourages players to return to the field at times when they should be seeking medical attention.

 

 

The Oregonian: OHSU Researcher uncovers key to Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injuries

The New York Times reported this week on a decision targeting cyclists that might surprise some: “In the wake of two pedestrian deaths caused by collisions with bicycles, Central Park has lowered the speed limit for cars and bicycles to 20 miles per hour from 25, while reconfiguring intersections with especially heavy foot traffic.” Though the announcement mentioned cars it was mainly focused on bikes since large sections of the park are closed to motor vehicles at any given time (on weekends the entire park is off-limits to cars except for a couple of car-only passages that are largely below ground level and mostly invisible to other park users).

 

The speed limit change is part of “Vision Zero,” a program of safety improvements touted by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio with the goal of eliminating pedestrian deaths citywide. Earlier this year the Times reported that as part of Vision Zero police had stepped up speed limit enforcement in the park, at one point issuing “tickets to 103 bicyclists” in a single weekend, though that level of enforcement is not the norm. The program’s most visible element has been the lowering of the speed limit on most of New York’s streets from 30 mph to 25 mph.

 

In both fatal accidents congestion appears to have been a major issue, according to the Times. One victim was struck by a cyclist who “said he had swerved to avoid other pedestrians.” The other involved “a 17-year old bicyclist dodging a pedicab.” The paper quotes the head of the Central Park Conservancy, the non-profit group that handles day-to-day operations of the park, saying “There’s no question: Slower traffic will mean a safer park.”

 

Regular readers know that as a Portland bicycle accident lawyer I have long been a strong advocate of our city’s cycling community. I’m pointing out these developments from far-off New York, however, to remind Portlanders that the “share the road” slogan carries a message for bike riders too. Awareness of pedestrians and a requirement to follow the rules of the road (speed limits, stopping at traffic lights, respecting crosswalks, etc) apply to bikes as well as cars. Portland is justifiably proud of its bike culture, but cyclists need to acknowledge that safety is a concern for everyone, not just drivers.

 

 

The New York Times: Central Park is Lowering Speed Limit

The New York Times: Deaths Expose Chaos of Central Park Loop

 

Oregon DUI stories often, sadly, seem to be an inevitable part of every holiday weekend. Here in Oregon Thanksgiving week began with a DUI story that may raise broader issues.

“Police say a Salem woman was under the influence of alcohol early Tuesday when she drove her car the wrong way down Interstate 5 and crashed into another car, killing a passenger inside,” according to a report this week in The Oregonian. The newspaper reports that the 49-year-old woman “was driving northbound in the southbound lanes of I-5 for several miles, police said, before her 2003 Volkswagen Jetta collided head-on with a southbound BMW near mile marker 266.5, near Keizer.”

A 49-year-old Nyssa woman riding in the BMW “was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash,” while that car’s driver and a second passenger were injured. The driver was treated at Salem Memorial Hospital while the second passenger was transported to the Portland area for treatment. The wrong-way driver was also treated at a Salem hospital for crash-related injuries and, once released, was charged “with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, driving under the influence of intoxicants, assault, reckless endangerment and reckless driving.”

This fatal Oregon DUI crash may raise particular issues related both to Oregon’s dram shop and to its host liability laws. I have written about dram shop laws frequently. These are the Oregon statutes which hold bars, liquor stores and their employees responsible if they serve or sell alcohol to a visibly-intoxicated person who then goes on to be involved in a DUI incident. What is less well-known is that a related doctrine known as “social host liability” can also apply to individuals. If the wrong-way driver responsible for this particular accident were to have been served alcohol at a party, for example, the hosts or organizers of that party could be held responsible for the victim’s death as a result of their failure to make sure that an intoxicated guest does not get behind the wheel of their car.

As an Oregon attorney with extensive experience working with DUI victims and working on dram shop cases I will be watching media coverage of this terrible accident closely to see if further details emerge to shed light on how the Jetta’s driver came to be headed the wrong way down I-5.

 

The Oregonian: Alleged wrong-way driver charged in fatal Interstate-5 crash

Investigators from Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration are looking into a possible Oregon industrial accident that claimed the life of a Scappoose woman on Thanksgiving Day.

According to a report in The Oregonian the 43-year-old woman “died Thursday afternoon in an explosion that investigators believe was started by sparks from a metal grinder at an industrial work site.” The fact that, according to the local sheriff’s office, the site of the accident was being leased by a trucking company from a third party may prove to be significant in determining whether this incident meets the legal definition of an Oregon industrial accident.

Third-party liability is often overlooked in reporting on incidents like this, but is important nonetheless. Under Oregon law a company or a property owner’s duty to provide a safe workplace extends to sub-contractors as well as its employees. While we obviously cannot draw any firm conclusions based solely on the short piece in The Oregonian, it will be important for OOSHA investigators and, in turn, the courts to consider where ultimate responsibility for this fatal accident may lie.

Obviously there is still a lot of investigative and legal work which remains to be done in relation to this case. Special attention, however, needs to be paid to one particular section of The Oregonian’s report. “Sheriff’s officials say that an oxygen tank was spewing gas while … (the victim was) working. A metal grinder ignited the flammable gas.” As a Portland Industrial Accidents attorney I hope the investigators will look closely at whether the facility’s gas detectors, gas piping and related equipment met applicable standards and were functioning properly. Based on the newspaper account of the accident all of these issues clearly merit further investigation. The owner of the building as well as the company that was leasing the property will need to answer many potentially difficult questions in the days and weeks to come.

 

The Oregonian: Scappoose woman dies on Thanksgiving Day from explosion at work site

An experiment by a Connecticut television station designed to highlight the problem of distracted driving among truck drivers turned up a wealth of disturbing evidence.

 

NBC Connecticut.com set up cameras on three major interstate highways “over the course of several months looking for distracted drivers behind the wheels of big rigs… it didn’t take long for us to find several drivers of tractor-trailers who appeared to be either talking or texting while driving.” Like Oregon, Connecticut has a comprehensive distracted driving law that bans the use of cellphones without a hands-free device and bans texting by drivers in all circumstances.

 

The article goes on to quote a spokesman for Connecticut’s Motor Transport Association asserting that the trucking industry has always advocated “tougher laws and better training to stop distracted driving,” as NBC Connecticut puts it. The TV station’s findings, however, highlight the importance of enforcement mechanisms to prevent distractive driving. Specifically, other states need to do what Oregon did several years ago and close loopholes that allow truck drivers and others involved in serious accidents to avoid distracted driving responsibility by claiming that their phone calls were “work-related.”

 

According to NBC Connecticut “in 2012, more than 421,000 people were injured and 3,328 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers across the country. Semi-truck accidents are among the most serious and often deadly crashes on our roads, and distracted driving remains a significant factor in far too many truck accidents here in Oregon, Washington and nationwide. Proof of this can be found in a Virginia Tech study cited by NBC Connecticut which found that “talking and dialing at the wheel increase the likelihood of what they call ‘safety critical events’” by a factor of more than 23 and that, among such events, “texting is by far the biggest threat.”

 

As an Oregon and Washington distracted driving attorney with a particular interest in semi-truck accidents the report from Connecticut only reinforces what I have known for a long time. For all the attention that has been paid to distracted driving over the last few years the problem remains a significant one. Tougher laws do little good unless they are accompanied by robust enforcement and penalties strong enough to make people, whether in trucks or cars, think twice before picking up a phone or sending a text.

 

 

NBC Connecticut.com: Tracking distracted drivers behind the wheels of big rigs

A recent story in the Salem Statesman-Journal highlighted some critical changes the ODOT is now beginning to implement in the name of traffic safety, but did an equally good job of drawing attention to how those changes get approved.

 

The article focused on the September 24 death of a well-known Salem-area psychiatrist in a fatal Oregon car crash on I-5. According to the newspaper the accident took place when a vehicle traveling the interstate highway in the other direction crossed the median. The psychiatrist died at the scene. A colleague who was travelling with him died at an area hospital a few days later from injuries suffered in the crash.

 

The circumstances of the accident raise longer-term questions about Oregon wrongful death, and whether the fatal crash may prompt a legal action. More immediately, what made the reaction to this accident different was the outpouring of emotion from the Salem community, an outpouring which only increased when the Statesman-Journal revealed “that in the previous 10 years there had been 20 crashes along I-5 in Salem that involved vehicles crossing the center median into oncoming traffic.” The paper noted that the ODOT has plans to install simple cable-like barriers along that stretch of the highway. Cable barriers have been shown to be a relatively inexpensive way to prevent crossover crashes. The paper also discovered, however, that bureaucracy and political infighting had led to progress implementing the plan to install the barriers moving slowly at best. Indeed, a low-bidder to carry out the work was not scheduled to be selected until next February, even though, the paper reported, a decision in principle to move forward had been reached some time ago.

 

But a single high-profile death, followed a month later by what the paper called “an eerily similar crossover crash” on I-5 in Albany, this one involving a semi-truck, spurred quicker action. A day after the second crash and its subsequent media coverage ODOT announced that at the Governor’s urging “the department would expedite the process of installing cable median barriers along I-5 in Salem and Albany. It was a tactic taken previously by the state only when highways had been damaged by natural disasters. But due to the two crashes, ODOT officials said that change needed to come sooner,” according to the newspaper.

 

It is always good to see government do the right thing, but as an Oregon car crash victims’ attorney I am sorry to see action come only once a pair of tragedies draw so much media coverage that there is a sudden imperative for change.

 

Salem Statesman-Journal: Change follows story of crashes, highway conditions

Last month I wrote about the spreading scandal relating to potentially lethal airbags installed in millions of vehicles from nearly a dozen carmakers over more than a decade. The airbags have a defect that can cause the steel cylinders used to inflate them to fragment, sending shrapnel into the bodies of the people the bags are meant to protect. Car accidents involving the defective airbags, manufactured by an auto parts supplier named Takata, are believed to have resulted in at least four deaths.

 

This week, however, the story became even more serious when the New York Times reported that as far back as 2004 “Takata secretly conducted tests on 50 airbags it retrieved from scrapyards, according to two former employees involved in the tests.” The paper goes on to report that when the tests confirmed the defect in the airbags “instead of alerting federal safety regulators to the possible danger, Takata executives discounted the results and ordered the lab technicians to delete the testing data from their computers and dispose of the airbag inflaters in the trash.”

 

“Today, 11 automakers have recalled more than 14 million vehicles worldwide because of the rupture risks,” the Times notes. In addition to the four fatalities linked to the defective products “complaints received by regulators about various automakers blame Takata airbags for at least 139 injuries, including 37 people who reported airbags that ruptured or spewed metal or chemicals.” The newspaper adds that Takata is the world’s largest airbag company “accounting for about one-fifth of the global market.”

 

Assuming that the Times’ reporting is correct, it is really hard to imagine a more clear-cut case of corporate irresponsibility. This case potentially touches on a number of legal areas: class actions, wrongful deaths, car accidents and defective products. As a Portland wrongful death attorney whose practice involves all of these areas I am both shocked by the allegations of such wide-ranging irresponsibility on Takata’s part and reminded that this is why our courts are so important. They offer ordinary Americans the opportunity to hold reckless and negligent companies accountable for their actions (and inactions) on a level legal playing field.

 

The legal fallout from the airbag scandal is likely to take several years to work its way through our court system, and it will be worth following every step of the way.

 

 

New York Times: Takata Saw and Hid Risk in Airbags in 2004, Former Workers Say

If there is any night of the year when extra-cautious driving and attention to pedestrian safety are required in residential areas it is Halloween. Small children are everywhere, running up and down streets, many of them dressed in dark costumes as the sun sets. The news spreading around the northwest today is of a terrible accident that appears to have brought this fact home in the worst possible way.

 

According to The Oregonian “two girls, ages 6 and 7, and a 20-year-old woman were in critical condition with life-threatening injuries on Saturday morning, police said. The woman was reportedly put into a medically-induced coma.” This was the tragic outcome of an apparent Washington drunk or impaired driving incident in which “a Ford Mustang… jumped the curb and struck a group of trick-or-treaters on a Vancouver sidewalk Friday night.” The newspaper adds that, according to police, the man driving the car “was likely speeding and driving impaired.” A 33-year-old woman also suffered broken bones in the Washington car accident.

 

Police say the driver, a 47-year-old male, only came to a stop after hitting a pole. He is reported to have only minor injuries. The paper reports that toxicology tests are still being conducted but the police already suspect that drugs may also have been a factor in the driver’s impairment.

 

As though all that were not enough, the newspaper adds that “chaos revisited the scene about 1:30am, when a suspected drunk driver crashed through traffic barriers set up on 112th Avenue… traffic investigators and a tow truck operator were forced to jump out of the way of the speeding car,” which eventually crashed into a guardrail following a short police chase.

 

As a Portland attorney who helps drunk driving victims in Washington, last night’s events offer several lessons. First and foremost there is pedestrian safety, especially the safety of children. As I said at the beginning of this post, if there is any evening when everyone on the road should be extra-careful it is Halloween. The later accident, however, reminds us of an often-overlooked aspect of October 31. Here in the United States, Halloween is not just a children’s holiday. Indeed, among adults it is second only to New Year’s Eve as a time for over-indulgence in alcohol. Dialing back the association of Halloween and drinking is clearly both important and necessary. It is time for public awareness campaigns to begin focusing the sort of attention on October 31 that has long been reserved for December 31.

 

 

The Oregonian: Driver who plowed into Vancouver trick-or-treaters was likely impaired, speeding police say

As I have written on several previous occasions, distracted driving here in Oregon and around the country is not exclusively a teen problem – but it is also important to acknowledge that it is an issue of particular relevance to teens and other young drivers.

 

The latest attempt to reach that audience and impress the importance of this issue on them comes from, of all places, CalTrans, California’s state transportation agency. According to a recent Tech Wire story, reprinted by the newsletter Government Technology, the agency “has launched a mobile app and online game designed to teach teenagers the importance of safe driving habits and avoiding distracted driving while on the road.” The app is currently available for free in the Google Play store, the publication reports (there is no mention of an iOS version at this point).

 

According to Government Technology the app and game “puts the player in the driver’s seat and challenges them to obey the speed limit in a virtual car while slowing down in highway work zones and avoiding phone calls and other potential distractions… CalTrans seems aware of the potential mixed message of releasing a game app, and says the game should not be played while driving.” If that last point seems a little obvious the fact that the agency felt compelled to make it is also evidence of how deep the distracted driving problem runs, especially among teens.

 

As the article notes, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that “among drivers 15 to 19 years old who were distracted in fatal crashes, nearly 1 in 5 were distracted by their phones.” The numbers are for 2012, the most recent year for which full data is available.

 

As a Portland distracted driving lawyer I welcome this latest effort to raise awareness of the issue of phones, texting and other things that pull a driver’s attention away from the road. Oregon and many other states have laws to ban or limit distracted driving, but as we have all seen for decades with seat belts such laws require regular reinforcement. Distracted driving is a problem that is probably here to stay. Because of that, new and innovative efforts to stop it are always welcome.

 

 

Government Technology: Caltrans Distracted Driving Game App Promotes Safe Habits