Rising Death Toll on Oregon Roads Should be a Call for Action

The Oregonian puts it bluntly in the very first sentence of a recent article: “The number of people killed on city streets and country roads in Oregon is 13 percent higher so far this year, a death toll driven upward this summer by one of the deadliest crashes in state history.”

The single crash mentioned in that last sentence was an eight-fatality incident last month in Harney County, but, as the article goes on to detail, rather than viewing that crash as a statistical outlier police are concerned because they see it as “part of a worrisome trend this year: Multiple people dying in a single incident.” In all, the state “has seen 12 more fatal crashes than last year, but the number of people killed has increased by 37.” The article (linked below) also includes a table that dramatically illustrates how both road deaths and the number of crashes producing them has changed over the last few years. The increase in both the number of crashes and the number of deaths compared to last year is striking, as is the up-and-down (yet consistently high) nature of the numbers themselves over time.

There are a variety of reasons for this. The newspaper notes that over the last three decades the number of troopers patrolling Oregon’s roads has declined in absolute terms even as the state’s population has grown. The officers who are available focus their efforts on I-5 and other major roads and highways, despite the fact that an increasing number of fatal crashes take place on smaller roads, particularly in rural areas. A state official also tells the Oregonian that “while it’s difficult to prove, distracted driving is likely leading to more deaths and serious injuries.” This is in spite of both education campaigns and recently toughened state laws against distracted driving. And, of course, there is alcohol.

It might be tempting for some readers to conclude at this point that education campaigns do little good. A variety of outlets from the media to schools to law enforcement have emphasized the dangers of distracted driving and DUII for years (in the case of DUII, decades). Education has become better. Cars have become safer. Yet the problem never seems to go away.

As a Portland attorney whose practice, in both Oregon and Washington, has long focused on auto accidents I strongly reject this line of thought. Our roads will never be perfectly safe because people are both fallible and unpredictable. But that does not mean we should give up on our efforts to teach people – of all ages – how to drive safely. And it certainly does not mean that we should take a low-key approach to enforcement. It’s also important to remember that “enforcement” is not a term we should apply only to the police and state patrol. Our courts – both civil and criminal – play an important role in ensuring the safety of our streets and roads and everyone who uses them. Via our dram shop laws that responsibility also extends to friends and parents, to social hosts and to people who sell or serve alcohol.

Education and enforcement are both important, but social pressure also plays a role. We all know what is right and what is wrong when it comes to getting behind the wheel. It is important that we remind others of that before they endanger themselves or someone else.


The Oregonian: ‘Horrific summer’ pushes Oregon’s traffic fatalities upwards

ORS 813.810: Driving under the influence of intoxicants

ORS 811.140: Reckless driving

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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