Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Accidents

Two articles published last month in The Oregonian should be drawing our attention to safety issues for pedestrians on Portland’s streets.

Earlier this week the newspaper reported that “more than one-quarter of the pedestrians killed on Portland streets during the last five years were 65 years or older, according to city figures.” It notes that this represents “a dramatic increase from levels seen in recent years.” This followed an article earlier in the month that detailed a rise in traffic deaths in the city even as numbers are falling statewide.

The data related to deaths among elderly pedestrians is particularly alarming. The newspaper writes that roughly 12 percent of Portland’s population is age 65 or older, yet people in this age group account for 16 percent of overall traffic deaths and a shocking 26 percent of pedestrian fatalities. Critically, this is not a short-term anomaly. Those numbers cover the four-and-a-half year period beginning in January 2015, a time-frame during which the city says it has been actively working to reduce traffic fatalities, especially among pedestrians and cyclists. The article also notes that since 2010 more elderly Portlanders “died walking (28) than while driving or in a motor vehicle (23).”

One might have thought that buses – some of the largest vehicles navigating Portland’s streets on a day-to-day basis – are fairly hard to miss. TriMet, however, is experimenting with bright rooftop lights designed to make them easier to see, according to The Oregonian. “The transit agency quietly rolled out the ‘amber safety lights’ in April and, so far, 30 buses are equipped with the light bar. It’s considering installing the devices on all its buses,” the newspaper reports.

The Oregonian, citing TriMet data, writes that “buses log roughly 73,300 miles on a daily basis. In April, TriMet registered 49 collisions involving buses, 25 of which were non-injury crashes involving cars or trucks.” Put another way, that means that TriMet is averaging almost one injury crash per day systemwide. Portland is a large city and there is always going to be a human element involved, but a system in which someone gets hurt every day clearly has more safety work to do.

So, at a basic level, we should all welcome any effort by TriMet to cut its accident rate. The newspaper’s article reports that the lights on the busses are extremely hard to miss, and notes that the cost of installing then is relatively slight – less than $500 per vehicle. Considering the number of bus accidents I have reported on in this blog over the years we can probably all agree that anything which improves safety is a good thing.

An annual report compiled by Allstate insurance on driving safety across the nation has good and bad news for Portland, according to The Oregonian. The good news is that Portland jumped nine spots in the company’s ranking of driving safety in 200 American cities. The bad news is that still left us in 181stplace.

The newspaper notes that this also puts Portland “dead last among the largest cities in the Pacific Northwest based on the insurance agency’s analysis of crash frequency based on claims submitted. According to the rankings, the average Portland driver is involved in a crash every seven years, the average Seattle driver experiences a crash every 7.7 years. The average driver in Boise, which ranked second overall in the nation for safest drivers, was involved in a crash every 13.7 years. The national average is one crash every 10.6 years.” The survey identified Brownsville, Texas as the safest American city for drivers. Baltimore occupied last-place on the Allstate table.

The two other cities in the survey received notably better rankings than Portland. Eugene is number 34 on the list. Salem is number 102. Interestingly, Vancouver, Washington – just across the river from Portland – has a substantially better, if still less than stellar, ranking of 114.

As many of us prepared for this July 4 holiday week the Oregon legislature passed a key bike safety measure and sent it to Governor Kate Brown. As outlined by The Oregonian, Senate Bill 998 will “allow bicyclists to legally treat stop signs or intersections with flashing red signals as a yield sign, meaning they would not be required to come to a complete stop.”

The paper notes that similar legislation has been effect in Idaho for more than three decades and that that the measure has long been pushed by bike advocates in our state. By allowing cyclists to maintain momentum in situations where it is safe to do so it will improve the general flow of traffic on our roads and bike paths, and reduce the risk of falls at intersections for riders using clip-in pedals.

Crucially, SB 998 is not a license for riders to ignore stop signs. As The Oregonian reports, the bill says cyclists need not come to a complete stop only “as long as they slow to a safe speed, yield the right of way to pedestrians, and yield to traffic that is already in the intersection or approaching so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.”

We all know that TriMet has its issues, but this one is relatively novel: a driver in Cornelius was charged with DUII last week after “callers reported the bus was swerving” as it headed east on Southwest Baseline Road. The swerving was so bad that it forced another vehicle out of its lane as the bus headed toward Hillsboro, according to The Oregonian, citing a Washington County Sheriff’s Office report.

“No one was on the bus, and the bus was not in service,” according to the newspaper, but those may be the only ‘good’ elements of this story. To state the obvious, even an empty bus can do a lot of damage.

The Oregonian reports that TriMet has opened an investigation. After her arrest the driver “was accused of DUII, but police said alcohol was not a factor. It’s unclear what she was allegedly under the influence of. According to the (police news) release, police are continuing to investigate while toxicology tests are completed,” the newspaper notes.

A bike safety measure that The Oregonian describes as the “top priority in the 2019 legislative session” for cycling advocates has passed both houses of the legislature and is headed to Governor Kate Brown for her approval. Its core is a deceptively simple statement: “A bicycle lane exists in an intersection if the bicycle lane is marked on opposite sides of the intersection in the same direction of travel.”

That might sound like common sense, but a judge in Bend shocked the biking community last fall by ruling otherwise (click here for the blog I wrote on this case at the time). As a matter of law that case turned on ORS 811.415, a statute that defines unsafe passing on the right. In the Bend case a commercial truck driver struck and killed a bike rider in an intersection as the cyclist was following a bike lane through an intersection. The truck was turning. The court held that bike lanes do not exist in places where they are not striped or painted as they pass through intersections, therefore the obligation the truck driver would have had to signal and take due care when turning across another traffic lane did not apply (the newspaper notes that a Multnomah County court issued a similar ruling in a 2009 case). This was a dubious bit of legal reasoning at the time. The legislature has now clarified the question, and deserves credit for moving swiftly to do so.

Under Oregon law a bike lane is just as much a ‘lane’ as one dedicated to cars. ORS 814.400 is titled “Application of vehicle laws to bicycles.” It gives cyclists rights, and just as it requires them to respect the rules of the road in their interactions with cars it requires motorists to respect the rights of cyclists. Indeed, a related law, ORS 814.420, requires that cyclists use bike lanes where they are available. Taking those as a starting point why would one not assume that a bike lane extends across an intersection? To believe it does not would imply that cars need not keep to their lane or turn only in a legal manner when they cross intersections. No one who has passed a driving test would ever believe that is the case.

Portland rightly enjoys a reputation as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. But fatal accidents still take place, drivers still are not as aware of cyclists as they should be. Even when drivers are trying to do the right thing (as many in Portland are) riders often find themselves struggling through nearly impossible situations.

Take, for example, NW 10thStreet. As a recent article posted on the BikePortland website demonstrates, it is hard for a rider in this part of downtown Portland not to feel endangered. A photo accompanying the article shows a narrow thoroughfare that contains on-street parking, a traffic lane and a streetcar track (with the streetcar and the cars moving in opposite directions). Any cyclist following the law and riding with auto traffic is immediately placed in a highly dangerous situation (as BikePortland notes, the law does allow cyclists to use the streetcar lane, but for obvious reasons many hesitate to do so). The gap between the traffic lane and the parked cars is uncomfortably narrow leaving riders dangerously exposed to drivers who might pull out or open car doors abruptly. There is more space on the opposite side, beyond the streetcar, but that is an area reserved for pedestrians and, in any case, there would usually be no safe place for a cyclist to go in the face of an oncoming tram.

Oregon law is quite explicit about the rights and responsibilities of bike riders. ORS 814.400 begins: “Every person riding a bicycle upon a public way is subject to the provisions applicable to and has the same rights and duties as the driver of any other vehicle.”

In the early part of last week six people died on Portland’s streets over the course of just a few days. At one point, according to The Oregonian, “emergency personnel responded to fatal accidents in North, Southeast and Northeast Portland” in a span of just 11 hours. Going into this holiday week, the newspaper reports, “14 people have died on Portland streets (in 2019), up from 10 deaths at the same time last year.”

City officials urged drivers to slow down, and the police chief announced on Twitter that “I am directing officers to increase enforcement.” “But,” she added, “this is everyone’s responsibility.” The newspaper quotes a city transportation official offering some advice that bears repeating: drivers “need to be alert and to look out for people walking, not drive distracted, not under the influence.”

I have used this space on many previous occasions to note Portland’s efforts to reduce pedestrian and cyclist deaths. A big part of that has been Portland’s participation in the global Vision Zero program (see links below). As The Oregonian explains, Vision Zero aspires to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025 through a combination of “redesigning streets, educating the public about safety concerns and enforcing traffic laws.” As part of Vision Zero Portland has both stepped up enforcement efforts and lowered the speed limit on key streets and roads around the city.

A two-vehicle accident involving a Portland police officer earlier this month merits special attention because of what it can teach us about civil options beyond workman’s comp available to people injured on the job.

The Oregonian reports that “a Portland police officer and another driver were seriously hurt” in a crash in I-205 earlier in March. “The officer was working a ‘static detail’ at a construction site on the northbound interstate south of Southeast Division Street when a driver hit the officer’s vehicle from behind. The officer was pinned in the vehicle and was extracted,” the newspaper writes. Injuries to both the officer and the driver of the SUV that allegedly struck his car are described as serious but not life-threatening.

From a legal perspective the officer now has some important choices to make. At this point most readers will rightly assume that the officer, having been injured on the job, will be covered under the police department’s workers’ compensation insurance program. That is true, but it is not the whole story. Under Oregon law the officer also has the right to hire his own attorney and can seek to recover non-economic damages related to the accident. “Non-economic damages” is a broad legal category that includes things such as pain and suffering and changes to the victim’s life. They do not include things like medical bills and lost wages and, as the legal resource website Justia explains “are less concrete than economic damages and are subjectively evaluated” whether by a judge or jury. (see link below) This element of subjectivity makes it especially important for anyone who has been injured in an accident to consult an experienced attorney who can walk victims and their families through the options and the evaluation process.

The Associated Press recently reported on the sentencing of a woman in Deschutes County to more than 12 years in prison following a December 2017 incident in which she struck and killed a 38-year-old Bend woman who was riding a bike.

The news agency, citing local TV station KTVZ, quotes the Deschutes County Circuit Judge overseeing the trial calling it “the most extreme reckless endangerment case:” he had ever seen. The defendant was convicted “for hitting and killing a cyclist while driving under the influence (of)… nearly a dozen prescription drugs, including her dog’s anxiety pills, at the time of the crash,” the AP reports. Clearly there is a case to be made for punitive damages here.

Though the criminal trial is now over, the question of civil damages is one that may still need to be addressed. Obviously there is a strong case to be made for a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the victim’s estate. It is also worth noting that, according to media reports, the woman was “riding with two friends” on a road east of Bend at the time of the accident. The survivors, even if they were not physically injured, may have a strong case to make for damages based on the mental distress they have suffered in the wake of their friend’s death. All of these parties – the decedent’s beneficiaries as well as the other two people impacted by the accident – have a strong claim to punitive damages.

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