Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Accidents

A recent blog post on the BikePortland website seeks to draw attention to Portland’s NW Broadway and Hoyt intersection, which the author calls “dangerous by design.” It is among the sites that BikePortland has long sought to highlight as the city continues its efforts to make one of America’s most bike-friendly cities even better.

BikePortland’s editor/publisher notes that he has been writing about the dangers posed by NW Broadway and Hoyt for several years. As May came to a close he got an email documenting a very scary incident in which a car making a right turn “tried to thread the needle between two groups of cyclists by speeding up a bit.” This forced one rider to slam on his brakes and crash into a truck (the cyclist was seen limping at the site but apparently did not require medical assistance).

As BikePortland notes “this is a very heavily-used bike route.” That would seem to make it the sort of place where drivers are particularly aware that bikes are part of their surroundings, but because of the way the intersection is laid out the intersection continues to be an especially dangerous spot. The post reminds readers that a car turning across a bike lane cannot simply put on its blinker and go. People in the bike lane have the right of way, and for a moving car to cut through groups of cyclists moving across its path is no more legal or acceptable than a driver “threading the needle” between pedestrians at a crosswalk. ORS 811.065 and ORS 811.050 specifically lay out the responsibilities of drivers when sharing the road with cyclists. The latter specifically concerns how drivers are supposed to act vis-à-vis bike lanes.

Earlier this week I wrote about the recent Portland Streetcar derailment that injured one person, damaged several cars and snarled traffic for hours. Late last night The Oregonian published comments by Portland Streetcar’s executive director that implied that no one is at fault for the accident. “It wasn’t an operator error, and it wasn’t a speeding issue,” the newspaper quoted the official saying, adding that the current focus of the investigation is on a “potential mechanical issue.”

The problem with this line of reasoning, as a matter of both law and common sense, is that mechanical issues also have causes. The officials who run the streetcar cannot evade accountability for their actions (or lack of action) by simply citing ‘mechanical issues.’

As Oregon Revised Statutes Section 30.265 clearly states: “every public body is subject to civil action for its torts, and those of its officers, employees and agents acting within the scope of their employment or duties.” In plain English this means that one can’t simply dismiss a serious accident like this as a mechanical failure. People build, purchase, operate and maintain mechanical equipment, and are, in turn, responsible when it fails.

A crash last week that, according to local TV station KOIN involved “the Portland streetcar and multiple vehicles which sent one person to the hospital… and shut down part of SE Grand Avenue” is bringing Oregon’s municipal liability laws into focus for many people.

KOIN reports that “three vehicles were wrecked in the crash, which also caused the streetcar to get knocked off its tracks. According to witnesses, a truck collided with the streetcar and then was pushed along by it – hitting two other cars, one of which was parked… Guardrails, streetlight and electric poles were also taken out by the streetcar. One of the poles involved cut power to A and B loops on the eastside.” The Oregonian reports that “the person injured was inside a car when it was hit by the streetcar. That person is expected to survive. There were 11 people on the streetcar, including the operator, and none was seriously injured.” One additional person from one of the autos went “to the hospital on their own accord.”

The first thing to be said about this is that we should all be happy that so few people were injured, relatively speaking. This is clearly one of those situations where things could have been much, much worse. That, however, does not change the fact that serious questions need to be asked – and potentially examined in court – about how the city got into this situation in the first place.

Over the last five years I have written about the danger posed by Takata airbags on more than half a dozen occasions. Recently, an article in the Washington Post brought the issue back into focus.

As the newspaper chillingly puts it: “ten years after the biggest safety recall in US history began, Honda says there are more than 60,000 vehicles on the nation’s roads equipped with what experts have called a ‘ticking time bomb’”: defective air bags. As the Post explains, the bags were installed in “37 million vehicles built by 19 automakers. At least 22 people worldwide have been killed and hundreds more permanently disfigured when the airbags that deployed to protect them instead exploded and sprayed shrapnel.”

The company that manufactured these deadly air bags, a Japanese firm called Takata, was once one of the largest car parts suppliers on earth. In the years since the scandal emerged it has acknowledged that it knew about the dangers of its air bags for years before publicly acknowledging them and faced a $1 billion fine from the US Justice Department. Three of the company’s top executives face federal indictments here in the US but have not been extradited from their native Japan.

The speed limit reductions in most of Portland’s residential areas that were approved by the city council early this year have taken effect across Portland. As I wrote at the time of the council vote this initiative – covering almost 70 percent of Portland’s streets and roads – is a key element of Vision Zero, the city’s effort to eliminate pedestrian traffic deaths.

A more recent move by the council, however, is a reminder of two key points. First, that Vision Zero is a flexible, constantly evolving initiative and not just a single set of plans and actions, and, second, that it is designed to apply city-wide: in commercial as well as residential areas.

Until now Vision Zero’s speed limit changes have focused on residential areas. Earlier this month, however, “Portland approved an emergency plan… to reduce by 5 mph the speed limit (from 35mph to 30mph) on a more than 50 block stretch of Stark Street in Southeast Portland,” according to The Oregonian. Noting that this particular stretch of Stark “has long been an area of concern,” the newspaper adds that “two of the city’s 10 traffic fatalities this year happened between 109thand 162ndAvenues on Stark.”

Over a two-week period earlier this month five pedestrians were killed on Portland’s streets, an extraordinary number for such a short period of time. One other pedestrian and three motorists had also died in Portland during the first 10 weeks of 2018, according to The Oregonian.

The newspaper quoted the city’s transportation director describing the middle of March as “an awful two weeks,” but also said she “remains hopeful Portland is making progress on improving safety for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.” She added that the recent spate of deaths “doesn’t discourage us and the work that we’re trying to do.” The paper quoted a representative from a local advocacy group arguing that the deaths showed the need for greater, and faster, investment in safety infrastructure.

Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that the recent pedestrian deaths in our city make Vision Zero and other safety programs even more important than ever. As I have written in earlier posts, Vision Zero is a program that strives to make the city safer for everyone, whether they are walking, riding a bike or driving a car or truck.

A recent analysis by NPR News is drawing attention to a traffic safety paradox. Pedestrian deaths nationwide are at near-record high levels and the reason may partly be because of advances in auto safety.

“After two years of marked increases, the number of pedestrian fatalities in the US is holding steady with nearly 6,000 pedestrians killed in 2017, according to estimates from the Governors Highway Safety Association.” NPR writes that these numbers, are “tapering off” over the last year or so but remain at a near 25-year high. Moreover, these high numbers come “as deaths from other types of traffic fatalities are dropping,” a situation that analysts attribute to improved vehicle safety technology. These, NPR writes, “make crashes safer for people inside cars – but just as deadly for pedestrians.”

We all know that cars are far safer than they were a generation or two ago. Better construction, anti-lock braking systems, air bags, more advanced seat belts and better child seats (along with laws requiring drivers and passengers to use them) have all made surviving a crash far more likely. But outside the car things are very different. Cyclists are far more likely to wear helmets than they were 20 or 30 years ago, but in the case of a serious crash involving a bike and a car that may not make much difference. Pedestrians, as NPR notes, are just as likely as they have always been to die or suffer serious injury when hit by a car.

Lawsuits filed in Tennessee and South Carolina against a guardrail manufacturer whose products are used throughout the country are drawing attention to a potential hazard on highways nationwide. The different reactions of the states where the suits were filed, however, also requires our attention because of the potential legal issues it may create in the months and years to come.

According to a recent article in Claims Journal the lawsuits “accuse the Omaha, Nebraska based Lindsey Corporation of negligence in the design of X-LITE guardrails. Instead of telescoping to absorb impact when vehicles hit them, the guardrails pierced through vehicles, killing one woman and injuring another so severely she had to have a leg amputated, according to the complaints.”

Though Claims Journal reports that the company maintains “that their guardrails still meet federal guidelines” it’s obvious that Lindsey faces serious legal consequences for making and selling a product that many users now believe is defective. But the different responses from Tennessee and South Carolina also deserve our attention. According to Claims Journal “scrutiny of the guardrails has prompted Tennessee and other states to remove them from their roadways, but South Carolina transportation officials said they would leave the rails in place until they are damaged or outlive their lifespan.”

Washington’s distracted driving law, formally known as the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (DUIE) Act has been in effect since July. Many state residents, however, may only see it really take effect this week. A six month grace period that has been part of the law’s implementation is ending, according to a recent article in The Seattle Times.

The paper reports that the grace period was not mandatory, meaning that “some law-enforcement agencies have been ticketing offenders for months… (while) others issued warnings to educate drivers about the law.”

Fines under the Washington law are somewhat lower than those in Oregon: $136 (as opposed to $260) for a first offense and $234 for a second infraction within five years (in Oregon it’s $435).

Earlier this month the Portland City Council voted to approve “reducing the speed limit on all residential streets to 20 mph,” according to a statement issued by the city’s Bureau of Transportation. Street signs – and with them the speed limit street by street – will begin changing next month. The PBOT statement says it expects “to complete the process by April 1.”

Lest you think this is a minor thing, by the PBOT’s own reckoning “residential streets make up around 70 percent of Portland’s street network and a large proportion of the city’s total space… Most residential streets in Portland are narrow, have few marked crosswalks, and no bike lanes; given the tight space and lack of protection for people walking, using mobility devices, and biking it is important that people drive slowly on residential streets.”

The new lower speed limit is the latest element of the city’s “Vision Zero” plan – a series of initiatives launched in Portland and other cities around the country with the goal of eliminating pedestrian traffic deaths.

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email: matthew@mdkaplanlaw.com
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