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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow ODOT Warning

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ODOT Warning

Oregon's snowplow drivers are as a rule a phlegmatic lot, daunted neither by blizzard nor jackknifed semi.

And so I was surprised by the mood of impending panic which I detected in a recent press release from the snowplowers' employer, the Oregon Department of Transportation.

This two-page missive slid from the fax machine Friday morning. Its headline is reasonable enough, given the season and the weather forecast: "Expect treacherous driving conditions through the weekend."

The release goes on to advise drivers — this part was in bold letters — "to avoid travel over mountain passes for the next 72 hours."

This seems to me pretty sage advice, although I don't see as how it's necessary.

Most drivers, I suspect, understand implicitly that in mid-winter mountain passes in the main are not, as the military might put it, traction-rich environments.

What distinguishes this ODOT press release from many others of a similar vein, though, is the graphic way in which it describes the litany of disasters that await hapless motorists who ignore ODOT's warning.

Here's an example: "High winds and heavy snow will cause trees to fall onto the highway and, at times, on vehicles."

The key word in that sentence, obviously, is "will."

Now I don't mind ODOT alerting me to the possibility that a tree could crash onto the road as I'm cruising along. (Although I managed to recognize this risk without ODOT's pointing it out, as I noticed, some years ago, that Oregon is rich in trees, and that many of them stand within range of a highway.) My car has half a dozen air bags, but if a 70-foot Douglas-fir hits the rig dead-center I know I'm not coming off without a scratch.

The thing is, ODOT isn't dealing here in hypotheticals.

According to the press release, trees will hit highways and, at times, vehicles.

ODOT's absolute certainty in this matter frightens me, frankly, which I imagine was the agency's intention.

But what scares me even more is the agency's vagueness.

What is a motorist to make of this government-endorsed guarantee that trees, at times, will topple onto cars?

I'd appreciate ODOT's advice quite a lot more if its press releases told me which trees are going to fail, and at which times, so that I can adjust my travel itinerary so as to avoid the highways subject to the heaviest tree fall.

Here's another scary scenario from the press release: "High winds have tipped over semis, torn campers off pickups and forced delivery vans outside of travel lanes."

I'm sure all of those things have happened, yet I doubt any is what you could reasonably call a common event. I'm more afraid of slipping on a damp patch in the bathroom and breaking my neck than I am of having an untethered camper smash into my windshield. I suspect the statistics would bear me out on this.

As for wind-blown delivery vans wandering into my lane, I'd argue the more insidious threat is the guy in a minivan who barges across the broken yellow line while he's groping under the seat for a mishandled French fry. And that guy's always out on the freeway, on blustery days as well as calm.

ODOT's hyperbole aside, I don't blame the agency for trying to trim traffic loads during blizzards. Warnings probably reduce the number of obstacles the plow drivers have to contend with, anyway. If I was piloting one of those behemoths I'd rack up half a dozen Camrys and a few F-150s in my first shift.

But I don't think ODOT should assume motorized mayhem, no matter how inclement the weather, is preordained.

There's something unseemly about such predictions. They remind me of the inevitable announcements, unleashed just before every extended holiday weekend, that a certain number of people are expected to die in car crashes on their way to, or from, some festivity. I can't help but feel, when I hear these foreboding forecasts, that it might be my duty as an American to conclude my weekend of revelry by steering into a bridge abutment, just to make sure the numbers come out right.

Jayson Jacoby is the editor of the Baker City Herald.

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