Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Accidents

The death of a 13-year-old girl last week in southern Oregon’s Jackson County should prompt a broader discussion about how we keep children safe as they wait for school buses, especially in rural areas.

As detailed by The Oregonian, the girl was waiting for the school bus at the end of her family’s driveway “on a rural Jackson County road… when she was struck by a passing vehicle, something attached to it or the vehicle’s load.” A search is on for the driver, whom police say may not have even been aware of having struck the child. The fact that so many questions remain unanswered about how the girl was hit, and even at a more basic level what hit her, indicates that law enforcement and school officials still have much work to do. But those essential tasks should not cause police, school officials and the wider community to miss addressing another critical question raised by this child’s death: was standing at the end of her driveway a safe and well-thought-out way for her to be waiting for a ride to school?

In an era of near-constant educational cutbacks we should start by asking whether it was really necessary to have a lone girl standing where her family’s driveway met the road? Was this the only way for the bus to pick her up, or was it just the most efficient way to plan the bus driver’s route? When those bus routes were planned how much thought was given to student safety? As winter approaches and the days continue to get shorter this is a particularly pressing question. According to The Oregonian last week’s fatal accident took place before 7:30 am (the time at which the child’s body was discovered by a passer-by). Over the next four months it will not be unusual for children to be waiting for their school buses in the dark or in half-light and for them to be walking home from their bus stops in the afternoon dusk. Such considerations need to be at the forefront of route planning, and cannot merely be an afterthought.

Families of the people killed and injured in a terrible accident almost exactly a year ago may soon take a first step toward justice with the announcement of an arrest in the case. According to television station KABC “the driver of a big-rig who allegedly caused a passenger bus crash that killed 13 people in 2016 near Palm Springs has been arrested in Georgia.”

As coverage of the accident in USA Today details, the driver “stopped for traffic in the far-right lane of Interstate 10 on October 23, 2016, and dozed off, authorities say. While (he) was sleeping, traffic began moving again, but his vehicle continued to block the westbound lane.” A tour bus hit the stopped semi-truck at a speed of 76 miles per hour the paper reports, citing court filings. The driver now faces “13 counts of felony manslaughter with gross negligence… 11 counts of felony reckless driving with injury and 18 counts of misdemeanor reckless driving with injury.”

Chillingly, USA Today adds: “Charging documents indicate he (the truck driver) has continued to work as a bus driver since the crash.” The paper also notes that the driver “violated federal regulations for truck drivers and falsified his driver’s log.” He had reportedly only had seven hours of “sleep opportunity” during the 24 hours preceding the crash, and “it is unlikely that he actually slept during those opportunities.”

From his hospital bed a Portland man gave a statement to police this week in which he acknowledged drinking, drag racing and a fatal crash that killed a cyclist in Gresham, according to The Oregonian.

The man “told police he had two alcoholic drinks before racing a random driver in Gresham early Sunday (October 8), crashing into another car, then hitting and killing another man riding his bike” the paper reported, citing court records. It notes that despite the 23-year-old man’s claim to have had only two drinks “his blood alcohol content was still above the legal limit when his blood was tested 17 hours after the crash.”

While drag racing another vehicle the man also wound up driving on the wrong side of Southeast Stark Street. According to a witness cited by the paper, the fatal crash involving the cyclist took place when the driver “went into oncoming traffic, hit a Ford Escape, spun around” and struck the bike rider.

On Thursday evening, according to Bike Portland, “a quarter-mile of Portlanders lined Southwest Naito Parkway’s temporary protected bike lane” as a form of protest at plans for its removal. The temporary lane is scheduled to be removed on Monday, October 1, but a separate blog post from the advocacy group notes that “the city has worked up a rough engineering concept that includes a bike path and protected two-way bike lanes between Salmon Street and Harrison Street.” Regardless of how one views the bike lane proposals on Naito Parkway the fact that Portland is even having civic conversations like these is a good sign for out community.

This week’s protest comes at a moment when there is a significant amount of activity surrounding bike safety here in what is often called the country’s most bike-friendly city. But it also comes at a moment when government data is reminding all of us that despite its bike-loving reputation Portland could do much better.

Chapters 814 and 815 of Oregon’s legal code (see links below) are often presented as a reminder of the obligations cyclists have when using our roads. It is important to understand, however, that they place an even more significant level of responsibility on drivers of cars and trucks. Because the legal code considers bikes vehicles it is the responsibility of all other vehicle operators (i.e. drivers) to treat them with the same caution and respect they use around cars, trucks and motorcycles. As a widely reported government study noted last month, cycling deaths have been on the rise nationwide. The 818 cyclist deaths on our nation’s roads in 2015 (the latest year for which data is available) represented a 12 percent jump from the previous year.

Over the years public awareness of the seriousness of distracted driving has only grown. In the same vein, our legal system’s efforts to address the problem have matured, reflecting both changes in communications technology and a better understanding of distracted driving as a problem.

One result, as The Oregonian reports, are new changes to Oregon’s distracted driving laws, set to come into effect on October 1. At the core of the new rules are “a stricter ban on cellphone use while driving and higher fines which escalate for repeat offenders.”

As I noted back in May when HB 2597, as the law is known, was still making its way through the legislature, there are two key elements to this law: one involving definitions and the other focusing on penalties.

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.

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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