The number of fatal and serious injury traffic crashes are rising across Oregon.
Two people died in a multiple vehicle crash that shut down all lanes of busy Oregon Coast Highway 101 just south of Lincoln City for several hours Friday, Aug. 13.
That deadly incident follows a series of traffic crashes along Highway 6 just a few weeks ago near Tillamook that left three people dead and sent several others to area hospitals. This summer, law enforcement, fire districts and emergency medical crews have also responded to traffic crashes along Highway 30 through Columbia County.
Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Public Information Representative Lou Torres said the state agency is increasingly concerned about the traffic crashes and deaths.
“We are alarmed about the overall increase in severe crashes statewide,” Torres said. “Even with fewer people driving in 2020, we saw a significant increase in severe and fatal crashes and that trend has continued in 2021. As of July 28, Oregon traffic deaths were 22% higher than in 2020.”
Oregon State Police report that the investigators preliminary findings show that in the Aug. 13 Highway 101 crash a Dodge Durango,was northbound when it crossed into the southbound lane and collided with a Chevrolet Silverado. OSP said both drivers sustained fatal injuries and were pronounced deceased. Highway 101 was closed for approximately four hours.
Torres said the cause of that double fatal crash was similar to the three recent fatal crashes on Highway 6.
“We do know that in each one was the result of a vehicle crossing over into the other lane of traffic and colliding with an oncoming vehicle,” Torres said. “These lane departure type crashes are becoming more common and can be caused by a variety of reasons including speeding, distracted and inattentive driving, impairment and fatigue.”
According to Torres, in the fatal crash areas of Highway 6, drivers encounter challenging conditions.
Highway 6, the Wilson River Highway, is a road that follows the Wilson River in a canyon where the hillsides are steep on one side and a river running on the other side.
“It is a narrow canyon in places and has a lot of curves,” Torres said. “It is the kind of road that requires the full attention of the motorist.”
Torres added that ODOT has been trying to find ways to increase safety and reduce the number of lane departure crashes along Highway 6.
In 2016, ODOT installed updated and enhanced curve warning signs along the entire Highway 6 corridor.
“A significant number of these signs were added to help get motorists attention and keep them focused on staying in their lane,” he said
ODOT is taking other steps over the next few years, including installation of rumble strips to further prevent lane departure crashes. The strips are grooves in the pavement that make a rumbling sound and cause physical vibration that immediately warns inattentive drivers that they are leaving their driving lane. The rumble strips are considered for placement on the centerline to reduce head-on and crossover crashes and on the shoulder to reduce run off the road crashes.
Following the last fatal crash on Highway 6, Torres said ODOT has added variable message signs (VMS) at two locations where there have been severe crashes. The signs read, “STAY ALERT. DRIVE SAFELY”
“We are also working with Tillamook County to allow the county to also post VMS at different locations,” he said. “Since these crashes are caused by driver behavior and poor decisions, we are trying to get their attention through the extra signage.”
ODOT, law enforcement agencies and other first responders have partnered over the years to advocate driver safety with specific educational campaigns to help reduce the number of traffic crashes, injuries and fatalities.
“The most difficult and challenging issue to address is driver behavior and the poor decisions made by motorists that result in severe crashes,” Torres said. “Aggressive driving and unsafe passing on rural highways in Oregon is more common, along with driver inattention and impairment that are also factors that lead to crashes. As you are probably aware, people are less patient and in a big hurry these days.”
According to Torres, there has been a significant driving cultural shift in Oregon and America.
“It is not a good thing,” he said. “These driver actions are really law enforcement issues, not something that can be easily fixed with engineering. Also important to note, a reduction in law enforcement staff impacts driver behavior.”
Law enforcement has also conducted additional patrols, when staffing permits, along areas where there have been frequent traffic fatalities.
“We realize that these crashes can be devastating to families and communities,” Torres said. “We care about each and every life lost on our highways and that is why ODOT strives to prevent crashes like these from happening. Know that we share the public’s concerns and will continue to monitor Highway 6 and other roads.”