Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Accidents

The Associated Press reported earlier this month on a boy who died “after falling off a parade float on his seventh birthday.” The tragic event took place during the Miner’s Jubilee Parade in Baker City. The news agency says the boy “was struck by the rear wheels of a commercial vehicle” after falling from the float.

According to AP the authorities in Baker City are treating the event as an accident. But even if this tragedy was an accident that does not mean that no person or organization bears responsibility for what happened. Indeed, when a child is killed or injured all of us have a special obligation to investigate the circumstances to the fullest possible extent.

From a legal standpoint, this means looking at questions of health and safety in much the same way we might consider any other question of negligence leading to an injury or death. Special attention needs to be paid both to the organization of the parade and to the construction and operation of the float on which the child was riding.

A few weeks ago I wrote about efforts to design a ‘breathalyzer for distracted driving’ – an app that law enforcement officers could use to determine whether a smartphone or other electronic device had been in use in the moments surrounding an auto accident.

Now, according to a Seattle Times story republished in The Oregonian, “anti-distraction software by a tech startup called Cellepathy would automatically go into a restrictive ‘driver mode’ when a phone is within a moving vehicle.”

Technology along these lines has long been a goal of activists looking for ways to reduce or end distracted driving. The challenges are formidable. At the most basic level, how does one make a technology sufficiently sophisticated to distinguish between the driver of a vehicle and passengers (this problem sunk some early ideas, such as using a smartphone’s GPS system to tell when the car is moving)? How does one make it both simple to use and relatively difficult to fool?

With the Oregon Senate taking up HB 2597, a bill that would significantly increase fines for distracted driving, this is a good moment to look at both the state of the law here in Oregon and at a new technology-driven effort to combat the problem.

As The Oregonian reports, the state House passed HB 2597 early this month. According to the newspaper’s legislative tracking site the Senate held its first hearings last week and the Senate Judiciary Committee has a work session on the measure scheduled this Tuesday (May 30). If enacted, the legislation would make major – and much needed – alterations to Oregon’s existing distracted driving law.

Under current law, as laid out in ORS 811.507, distracted driving is a Class C traffic violation, punishable by a fine of up to $500 (though in practice assessed fines are often much lower – usually around $160). According to The Oregonian “under HB 2597, Oregon drivers could be fined up to $2000 for using a ‘mobile electronic device’ while on the roads. Fines for a first offense could total $1000 and be erased if drivers take a state-approved distracted driving avoidance class at their own expense. Subsequent offenses, or a first offense that causes a traffic collision, would result in higher fines that could not be waived.”

A recent article in the Salem Statesman-Journal outlined a distracted driving conviction in Keizer that was a first for Oregon. According to the newspaper “a Medford woman became the first person ever to be convicted of causing another person’s death by driving while distracted by her cell phone.”

The 50-year-old woman pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide earlier this month “and was sentenced to three years of supervised probation,” the newspaper reported. The September 2015 accident took the life of a 68-year-old man who was crossing the street when struck by the woman’s car.

The case highlighted a significant loophole in Oregon’s distracted driving statute. As the Statesman-Journal reports, a 2015 Oregon Appeals Court ruling (State v Rabanales-Ramos – 273 Or App 228 (2015)) took a narrow view of the Oregon distracted driving law (ORS 811.507), essentially creating a loophole for all forms of distracted driving other than talking on the phone or texting. Under this interpretation, for example, using an eReader such as a Nook or Kindle would have been permitted while driving.

The death this month of a 15-year-old Grant’s Pass boy as he waited for his school bus raises serious legal questions that I would like to take a moment to explore. As reported recently in The Oregonian, the boy “was waiting on the sidewalk at his bus stop around 6:50 am” when a pick-up truck “drove over Redwood Avenue’s center turn lane, into the opposite lane of travel and onto the sidewalk, hitting him.”

The driver of the pick-up was a 21-year-old man from Central Point. After hitting the boy, the paper reports, he “drove off the sidewalk and stopped nearby, authorities said.” He is now being held in a local jail and faces both a criminally negligent homicide charge and separate drug possession charges. The Oregonian reports that heroin was found in the pick-up though it does not say whether blood tests indicate that the driver was under the influence of drugs or any other substance at the time of the accident.

Beyond the criminal charges the driver faces this is exactly the sort of case where civil liability is justified to help family members know that justice has truly been served. To that end, it is instructive to examine Oregon’s Wrongful Death statute (ORS 30.020) in greater detail.

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.”

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.”

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.