Last week the Associated Press reported on a terrible house fire in Riddle, in rural Douglas County, that left four children dead and their parents and a sibling in critical condition at a Portland hospital. According to the news agency the cause of the deadly house fire was a space heater.

AP cites a Facebook post by the local fire chief in which he explains that “a component of the family’s fireplace that circulated heated air back into the house had malfunctioned several days before. The family bought the space heater to stay warm until they could get the fireplace repaired. Four children ages 4 to 13 died in the blaze.”

As a 2014 article in the Vancouver Columbian noted: “the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that while only two percent of home fires involve portable heaters, they account for a disproportionate 25 percent of fire fatalities.” The paper added a warning for consumers that “it’s easy to miss a recall notice.” Indeed, it is easy to miss precisely because there are so many of them. A search of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall database turns up page after page of heater recalls. Every few months some model or other is pulled from the market. This situation has continued for years.

One of the deadliest stretches of road in our city will see radical changes beginning today. According to The Oregonian automated speed cameras “will be activated along the 3/4 –mile stretch of Southeast Division Street between 148th and 162nd avenues.” This comes just four days after the city council voted to lower the speed limit along a broader stretch of the road, running from Southeast 87th Avenue to 154th Avenue.

While the speed limit cameras have been in the works for some time (a state law approving their use was passed in 2015) the choice of Southeast Division as the site for one of the first sets installed is evidence of how much of a problem this stretch of road has become. Last week The Oregonian quoted Dan Saltzman, the City Commissioner who oversees the Portland Transportation Bureau, referring to Southeast Division as “a death corridor.” The newspaper noted that of Portland’s 44 traffic fatalities last year five took place on this one stretch of road. The 2016 tally of fatal Portland auto accidents was the highest since 2003, and the concentration of so many deaths in such a small area made a strong case for action.

According to KGW the city transportation division “used a little-known state law to enable the Portland City Commission to quickly lower the speed limit. Commissioners used their emergency safety authority to reduce the speed limit with Thursday’s vote.” Normally it is state officials who control the setting and changing of speed limits. The move drops the speed limit in the area from 35 mph to 30 mph, but it is only effective for 120 days. Saltzman and other city officials said the statistics along Southeast Division cried out for immediate action. The city government hopes state officials will move to make the new lower limit permanent before the four-month measure expires and are preparing to file required paperwork requesting the change.

In banking and insurance – businesses that people need but often hate – few companies have as stellar a reputation as the United Services Automobile Association, commonly known by its initials: USAA. The company is a membership organization, functioning in much the same way as a credit union. Many of the services it provides are offered at a lower cost than comparable commercial competitors, with membership open only to people who have served in the military and their extended families.

Because its core market consists of active duty military, veterans and their families the organization is often surrounded by a kind of patriotic halo. Yet USAA, like any other company, is ultimately in business to make money. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that USAA has spent years fighting lawsuits that claim it frequently puts profits ahead of people in one of its core businesses: insurance.

According to the company’s Hometown newspaper, the San Antonio News-Express, “USAA continues to be dogged by lawsuits that allege it uses a ‘cost containment scheme’ to delay, deny or reduce medical payouts to customers injured in auto accidents.”

Following up on a story I first wrote about last fall, a former nursing home assistant accused of repeated sexual assaults on his elderly patients will be going to jail for 25 years, according to The Oregonian. The newspaper reports that the man, who has been held in the Washington County jail since his arrest last September, pled guilty to two of the 28 sex crime charges against him.

The newspaper reports that the plea agreement is “global” – meaning that the defendant “won’t be indicted on the Multnomah County allegations” that have been made against him. After his initial arrest which focused on the alleged abuse of seven patients at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center five more people came forward with accounts of being abused by the same man while he was working at the West Hills Health and Rehabilitation Center in Portland between 2014 and 2016.

While it is satisfying to see some measure of justice done in this case, it has to be noted that the criminal plea agreement does not answer all of the serious legal issues this case raises. Under ORS 678.725 nursing home employees have a duty to report inappropriate conduct on the part of colleagues.

The sentencing this week of a former Kaiser Permanente nurse on charges of sexually abusing five women under his care should remind us all of the responsibilities hospitals, nursing homes, other care facilities and their staffs have toward their patients.

According to The Oregonian the 38-year-old man “pleaded guilty in Washington County Circuit Court to attempted second-degree kidnapping, second-degree invasion of personal privacy, third-degree sexual abuse and computer crime.” He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and will be required to register as a sex offender.

The newspaper notes, however, that in addition to the criminal phase of the trial, which is now over, two of the man’s victims “have since filed suit against Kaiser Permanente – where he worked for two years – alleging negligence by the medical company and sexual abuse and exploitation.” These charges are both significant and serious. Hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities have an obligation to ensure that their staff are interacting with patients in a proper manner, and to report any suspected abuse immediately (see the Oregon Department of Justice and Oregon Department of Human Services links below for more information).

A bicyclist died in a Portland accident Monday involving a box truck, according to a report published in The Oregonian. The newspaper reports that the accident took place at the intersection of Farragut Street and Interstate Avenue in North Portland.

The truck driver was “making a right-hand turn and killed a cyclist who was riding in the bike lane beside him,” the paper reports, quoting the police. “(Police) said early information indicates the driver wasn’t distracted or impaired.” Though the newspaper reports that the driver of the truck is cooperating with the authorities it also notes that he was neither arrested nor issued a citation at the scene of the accident.

There are several different sections of the Oregon legal code that might come into play as this case unfolds. At the most basic level ORS 811.135, which covers Careless Driving, could leave the 38-year-old truck driver subject to significant penalties and a loss of his license for up to a year. Under ORS 811.050, “Failure to yield to rider on bicycle lane”, the driver could also be subject to a Class B traffic violation and an accompanying fine.

Word that a recent Vision Zero enforcement effort yielded more than 40 citations in just two hours is a reminder both of the program’s importance and of the larger role that our laws and courts play in ensuring the safety of both pedestrians and cyclists.

According to the advocacy organization Bike Portland “the Portland Police Bureau wrote 43 citations (for 61 separate violations) and handed out 23 written warnings… between 6:00 and 8:00 pm on Southeast Hawthorne Blvd between 12th and Cesar E. Chavez Blvd.” As the organization notes, this is a busy area, yet its car-focused traffic design ”hasn’t changed in decades.” It added that the Vision Zero enforcement action took place just a few blocks from the spot where a 15-year-old was killed last August while trying to cross the street.

Vision Zero is an initiative underway in Portland and a number of other cities with the goal of eliminating pedestrian and bicycle fatalities. As bike Portland notes: “unless we stop normalizing dangerous behaviors, introduce more safety regulations on car owners and redesign our streets to encourage safer behavior, this game of cat-and-mouse between police and road users will continue.”

The announcement last month that furniture giant Ikea will pay $50 million to the families of three children killed when its dressers tipped over on top of them may bring closure for families of the victims. The broader question is whether it will lead to long-term changes in the company’s behavior.

As a recent article in The Washington Post outlines “the children, no more than two years old, died when Ikea dressers toppled over with crushing force. In all cases the lethal furniture was one of Ikea’s Malm dressers, a line of popular assemble-it-yourself chests.” The newspaper adds that “such a payout may be among the largest-ever settlements of its type.”

In looking at Oregon’s laws concerning dangerous products and injuries to children large corporations often take solace from ORS 30.910. This states that “it is a disputable presumption in a products liability civil action that a product as manufactured and sold or leased is not unreasonably dangerous for its intended use.”

A recent article in the Bend Bulletin highlighted an unusually deadly period on Central Oregon’s roads. Over the course of ten days at the end of last month “Central Oregon highways were as deadly as they have ever been,” the newspaper writes. In that short span of time seven separate crashes led to 10 deaths in the area around Bend – half of them on US Route 97 alone. To put those numbers in context, over the five-year period between 2010 and 2015 US 97 saw a total of 15 crashes and 17 deaths.

Citing Oregon Department of Transportation officials and figures the paper notes that over the last five years more than 90 percent of the crashes on this road have been driver-related, as opposed to being caused by weather or a mechanical issue. “The most common causes of crashes include following too closely, driving too fast for the road conditions and not yielding to a right-of-way,” the newspaper notes.

A consistent theme in the Bulletin’s reporting is local residents insistence that the area’s roads need more medians to separate fast-moving traffic and other measures to get drivers to slow down on roads that are often both narrow and frequented by large trucks. One of last month’s crashes involved a fatal head-on collision between a passenger car and a commercial semi-truck. The fact that icy road conditions may have been the main cause of that particular accident only reinforces the importance of medians and other safety barriers – which might have prevented it – and of safer habits on the part of commercial drivers and their employers.

A new law that came into effect in California this month is likely to be closely watched here in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere around the country. The wide-ranging legislation goes “further than most states in prohibiting the use of cellphones, banning drivers from even holding mobile devices while driving,” according to the New York Times.

The newspaper describes it as a legislative attempt to get ahead of the technology curve. “The law builds on earlier legislation that prevented drivers from talking and texting but did not prohibit them from streaming video, for instance, or using apps like Facebook and Twitter,” the paper reports. It notes that “late last month a family filed a lawsuit against Apple over a 2014 accident in which a driver using FaceTime crashed into the family’s car, killing their 5-year-old daughter.”

It may seem obvious that a law designed to prevent texting would also cover the use of Skype or FaceTime, but that is no excuse for legislators failing to tighten up the language of the relevant statutes. For example, here in Oregon the law governing distracted driving, ORS 811.507 (see link below), defines a “mobile communications device” as “a text messaging device or a wireless, two-way communications device designed to receive and transmit voice or text communication.” Would that definition cover the latest generation of the iPod Touch, a device that can’t make phone calls or send text messages but can surf the internet and make video connections? In a world where wi-fi networks are rapidly spreading around cities and towns this is no longer a theoretical question.