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.
Reckless driving by large trucks on Oregon’s roads is a significant problem. In 2014, the most recent year for which full data is available, there were 1420 “truck crashes in Oregon involving a fatality, injury or disabling damage to (a) vehicle” according to the Oregon DOT. That represented a more-than-eight-percent rise over the previous year. In fully 94 percent of the crashes where the truck was found to be at fault responsibility was judged to lie with the driver. In part, that may be because Federal regulations (see link below) actually allow commercial truckers to drive for as much as 14 hours at a stretch. It is important to remember, however, that this sort of dangerously industry-friendly legislation does not exempt either drivers or their employers from a broader responsibility to operate their vehicles responsibly.
Put another way, though the federal government will let someone drive a huge truck at high speeds for 14 hours that does not exempt the driver or his employers from Oregon’s reckless driving laws and the civil liability that comes with violating them. The law is very simple in this respect. Section 1 of ORS 811.140 clearly states that “a person commits the offense of reckless driving if the person drives a vehicle… in a manner that endangers the safety of persons or property.”
As a Portland attorney I have worked extensively over the years with Oregon and Washington families hoping to receive justice in the wake of accidents involving reckless drivers and trucking companies that push their employees and contractors to operate in an unsafe manner. Our courts offer an important check on irresponsibility, and are an essential tool for those who have been injured or lost a loved one through someone else’s thoughtlessness.
Bend Bulletin: Central Oregon Highway Deaths Spike in December
Oregon Department of Transportation: Motor Carrier Laws & Rules
Oregon Department of Transportation: Truck crash statistics
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association: Hours of Service Rules