A little more than four months have passed since we wrote in this space about the troubling trend in the number of deaths on Oregon’s roads.
The situation has not improved.
Indeed it has gotten worse.
As of Oct. 10, 373 people had died in traffic crashes in the state this year, an increase of 15.5 percent for the same period a year ago. At the end of May the 2018 total was 13.7 percent higher than the previous year.
The Oct. 10 figure doesn’t include Shannon Dwinell, a Kansas truck driver who was killed Tuesday when the cattle truck he was driving crashed on Interstate 84 near North Powder.
That crash happened just a couple weeks after a Washington couple, Eugene and Ellen Rowley, were killed when their pickup truck collided with a semi truck on the freeway near Baker City.
It’s much easier with this issue to answer the “what” question than to figure out the “why.”
We don’t have enough data to potentially implicate higher speed limits, to cite one possible factor. Those didn’t take effect until March 1, 2016 (in Baker County only Interstate 84 had its limits increased). In 2016 there were seven traffic fatalities in the county, four of them on the freeway. Excessive speed was listed as a contributing factor in two of the seven deaths, although the report doesn’t say whether those two fatalities happened on the freeway. There were also four freeway fatalities in 2015 and 2014 (the 2017 report won’t be finished until next summer).
Both recent crashes closed the freeway for hours. With winter imminent, it’s hardly outlandish to imagine havoc on the interstate when storms slicken the pavement.
It might be that we’re in the midst of a statistical anomaly regarding traffic deaths. As recently as 2013, there were no fatalities on I-84 in Baker County, and just two elsewhere in the county. That year was also the safest on Oregon’s roads, statistically, since World War II, with 313 deaths. Since then the number of deaths has risen at a much faster pace than has the number of miles we’re driving.
Small consolation it might be, but typically the freeway is actually less dangerous during winter and in inclement weather. Based on Oregon Department of Transportation records from 2002 through 2011, 39 of the 51 fatal crashes on Interstate 84 between Pendleton and Ontario happened when the pavement was dry. And 30 of those 51 crashes happened from April 1 through Sept. 30.
It hardly needs to be said that drivers need to be careful no matter where they’re traveling and no matter the conditions. But both the recent crash statistics, and anecdotes such as this week’s freeway closure, remind us that a brief mistake can have long-term, even permanent, effects.
From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.