Bikes / Pedestrians
As traffic crashes have increased in Oregon and nationwide after years of decline, so have injuries and deaths to pedestrians. In Oregon, about a thousand pedestrians were killed or injured in traffic collisions in 2016. Across the U.S., nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed last year, an increase of 11 percent over the previous year and the highest in decades. Nearly one in six traffic fatalities involved a pedestrian.
There were 12 collisions with pedestrians, including two that were fatal, in Tigard in 2015. The most recent pedestrian fatality occurred in May when a northbound driver on Highway 99W allegedly struck and killed a female pedestrian trying to cross the state highway near Frewing Street, around 10:25 p.m. The police report there were no signs of driver impairment. A majority of these collisions involved a vehicle making a left or right turn. Inattentive drivers account for many pedestrian deaths and injuries, but studies by the Oregon Department of Transportation have shown that pedestrian errors also contribute. The most common mistakes include crossing streets between intersections, failing to yield the right-of-way and disobeying traffic signals.
The recent increase in traffic fatalities has led to a greater focus on drivers distracted by mobile-phone apps. Does misuse of these devices by pedestrians also contribute to the rise in deaths and injuries? The combination of drivers and pedestrians looking down at their devices in traffic could be especially lethal.
If alcohol is added to the mix, the dangers become extreme: nationally, a third of all pedestrians killed in collisions were over the legal limit for blood alcohol. An impaired pedestrian crossing a street while staring at a screen may be at serious risk. If an impaired driver is approaching, and also looking down at a screen, the danger is extreme.
Share the Road
Bicycling offers a healthy and highly efficient way to get around in both urban and rural areas. The use of bicycles benefits everyone by reducing vehicle traffic on highways, lowering the demand for parking lots, and providing clean and quiet transportation that doesn’t damage streets.
Nationwide about 786,000 cyclists commute to their jobs every day, a large increase over a decade ago. With growing numbers of bicyclists on city streets, the risk of collisions with vehicles and pedestrians has risen.
National data for 2012 reveals that bicyclists constituted about 2% of all traffic fatalities and injuries. Nearly four in ten bicycle fatalities involved alcohol consumption by either a vehicle’s driver or the bicyclist. About one quarter of bicyclists involved in fatal collisions had blood-alcohol levels in excess of the 0.08% legal limit. Nearly half the collisions involving bicycles took place between 4 p.m. and midnight and the vast majority of injured victims were males.
Bicyclists are subject to the same Rules of the Road as drivers. They must come to a full stop at red lights and stop signs, signal their turns, and yield to pedestrians just like any driver. Most collisions occur at intersections, and it sometimes makes sense for bicyclists to yield to larger vehicles even when they have the legal right of way.
The most common errors by bicyclists include: failure to yield before entering a roadway, turning without signaling, riding against the flow of traffic, failure to wear helmets, and riding while impaired. Failure to observe hazards such as ruts, ice and objects on the roadway also contributes to bicycle crashes. Fortunately studies show that relatively few bicyclists use cellphones while riding.
Drivers need to adapt to the presence of bicycles by being more observant (especially when approaching turns), by slowing down, and by allowing a safe cushion between their cars and bicyclists. In a collision between a one-ton vehicle and a bicycle, the rider loses nearly every time.
Sharing the Road with Peds
With the arrival of warm weather and the extended daylight to enjoy it, expect to see more walkers and runners using our streets. It’s also a good time to review safety concerns and the laws for sharing the roadways with pedestrians.
Traffic safety is the responsibility of drivers and pedestrians. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, pedestrians contributed in some way to nearly seven out of ten fatal collisions with vehicles. In many of those incidents, the pedestrian entered the street illegally by crossing between intersections or failing to yield when the vehicle had the right-of-way.
- About one in three victims wore dark clothing at night, making them less visible;
- About six in ten had alcohol in their bloodstream; and,
- Four in ten were impaired, with blood alcohol levels of .08 percent or more.
The best advice for pedestrians?
Walk smart—use marked crosswalks and paths and wait for traffic to stop before crossing the street. Pedestrians tend to overestimate how visible they are to drivers, whose ability to see their surroundings may be limited by motion and vehicle blind spots. With more electric vehicles and bicycles using the street, pedestrians should rely on their vision more than their hearing when negotiating traffic. A pedestrian is likely to be the loser in any conflict with a vehicle, no matter who had the legal right-of-way.
Oregon law requires drivers to stop whenever a pedestrian is in a marked or unmarked crosswalk. Every intersection has a crosswalk, with or without painted marks on the street. On roads with two or more lanes in each direction, it is unlawful to pass another vehicle that is stopped for a pedestrian. At traffic lights, wait until a pedestrian has cleared your lane and at least six feet of the next lane before making a turn. At other intersections, remain stopped until the pedestrian has cleared both your lane and the lane next to it.
Sharing the Streets with Bicyclists
Bicycles are subject to the same traffic laws as motorized vehicles. But in any encounter with a fast-moving car weighing a ton or more, cyclists are vulnerable to serious or fatal injuries.
Motorists need to be aware of the following:
- “Right-hook” and “left-hook” collisions: Drivers can easily underestimate the speed of bicycles. A common cause of collisions is the failure of drivers to check the position of a bicycle after passing it. A cyclist may catch up to a car as it makes a turn, cutting off the bicycle and causing a dangerous collision. The risk is increased when the driver fails to signal a turn at least 100 feet in advance.
- Basic courtesy: Drivers should give cyclists as much room as safety allows, refrain from blowing horns and never tailgate.
- Car doors: Cyclists are frequently injured in collisions with car doors. Drivers and passengers should always check the adjacent travel lane or bike lane before opening doors. Cyclists don’t always have the option of safely riding outside the “door zone.”
- Crosswalks: Cyclists are entitled to use crosswalks in the same manner as pedestrians. On busy arterials like Tigard’s Pacific Highway, they may provide the safest way to cross.
Cyclists, in turn, should respect:
- Traffic-control devices: Cyclists are required to obey traffic lights and stop signs.
- Defensive riding: Cyclists need to anticipate the risks described above. Not all drivers obey the law.
- Visibility: Bright, reflective clothing and lights are essential. The sooner a driver becomes aware of a cyclist’s presence, the easier it is to avoid dangerous encounters.
- Scanning: Like motorists, cyclists should constantly scan their surroundings for potential dangers like speeding or turning vehicles and opening car doors. Be aware of escape routes in case of an emergency.
Here’s a workable rule of thumb for everyone: If in doubt, yield—even if you have the legal right-of-way.
Thanks to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance
Speeding Violations Top Tigard Municipal Court Caseload
In January every year, the Tigard Municipal Court begins an annual review of its activities to present to the City Council in February.
Our review for 2015 showed once again that Tigard has one of the busiest municipal courts in Oregon, with an average of about 500 cases filed each month during 2015. This comes as no surprise. Tigard is the 12th largest city in our state and experiences a high volume of traffic on its streets and highways.
The vast majority of our caseload consists of tickets issued by Tigard officers for traffic violations under Oregon’s Rules of the Road. The court also receives citations for parking violations, juvenile offenses, some adult misdemeanors and municipal code violations--mostly neighborhood nuisances.
Traffic violations are punishable by fines, but not imprisonment, within ranges set by state statute based on the seriousness of the offense. Six of every 10 traffic violations filed in our court fall into just three categories:
|Traffic control devices
Cellphone violations recently replaced seatbelt offenses on this list. After years of active enforcement and public education in Tigard and across Oregon, the compliance rate for seatbelt use is now close to 100 percent.
With growing awareness of the dangers of driving while distracted by cellphone conversations and texting, enforcement has increased in Tigard and elsewhere. Drivers with good records who commit a violation may take a class on distracted driving conducted by Tigard officers. Citations are dismissed on completion of the class.
Not all tickets are for “moving” violations. License and insurance offenses constitute 14 percent of the court’s caseload, and equipment violations are also common. More details can be found here.
Setting and Enforcing Speed Limits
Like most Oregon courts, a large portion of our traffic caseload consists of citations for exceeding the speed limit. Presumptive fines for these violations range from $110 for speeding within 10 mph of the posted speed to $1,150 for drivers exceeding 100 mph.
In court, some drivers express surprise that they would be cited for speeds less than 10 mph (or even 15 mph) over the limit. In fact, Oregon law allows no such “cushion.” Drivers risk being cited whenever they exceed posted speed limits. For obvious reasons, police officers are more likely to stop the fastest drivers. Individual officers can determine what speeds will be tolerated at any given time and location, depending on traffic conditions, weather and other circumstances.
At speeding trials, I occasionally encounter strong arguments, often well researched, that a given speed limit is too low for the design capacity of a roadway. Judges aren’t trained in traffic engineering though, and it’s not our job to second-guess the professionals who set speed limits.
Speed limits are established by the Oregon Department of Transportation and the road authority based on statutory guidelines. Factors include:
Traffic engineers are trained to balance these elements in determining safe speed limits. If the limit is set unreasonably low, more drivers are likely to ignore it, promoting disrespect for the law. If it’s too high, there will be more collisions and serious injuries. In a school zone, for example, a pedestrian struck by a vehicle going 30 mph has a 27 percent chance of surviving. At the posted limit of 20 mph, the odds increase to 87 percent.
- Overall road design, including curves, hills and sight distance;
- The density of residential and commercial development along the roadway;
- The width, surface and shoulder of the roadway;
- Pedestrian and bicycle activity;
- Prevailing speeds on the roadway;
- Speed limits on nearby streets or highways; and,
- Collision rates or risk of collision.
The High Price of Speeding
Under Oregon law, speeding is defined in two ways: exceeding the posted limit or driving too fast for conditions, including weather, traffic, visibility and the surface and width of the highway. The Oregon Department of Transportation has recently documented some of the consequences of speeding in our state:
New technologies make it easier for police officers to detect speeding and tailgating violations. Laser devices have very narrow beams that permit officers to pick vehicles out of a line of cars. At a distance of 1,000 feet, for example, a laser beam is only three feet wide. In “distance between cars” mode, a laser can accurately measure the speeds and distance between two vehicles.
- Speeding is the primary cause of traffic deaths and injuries. Last year, about 50% of the 416 traffic fatalities in Oregon resulted from speeding, far higher than the national average of 30%.
- The estimated cost of speed-related crashes in Oregon in 2008 was $700 million, not counting the loss of life.
- In 2008, 40% of those killed in speed-related collisions in Oregon were innocent victims or passengers, not speeding drivers.
- Tailgating, which often involves a speeding driver following another vehicle too closely, is the leading cause of collisions in Oregon.
- Last year, 376 drivers were cited for exceeding 100 mph, resulting in minimum fines of $1,103 and mandatory license suspensions. Since 2006, stricter laws and the threat of license suspensions may have contributed to a 30% reduction in the number of drivers who exceed 100 mph on Oregon highways.
- Airbags and seat belts become increasingly less effective as speeds exceed 35 mph.
- The time saved by speeding is negligible. If a driver travels at 60 mph in a 45 mph zone for ten miles, he or she takes additional risks for a gain of less than three minutes.
Consider the following facts from a recent trial in our court: “Dan” was stopped at a red light late at night on a city street in his new car. The speed limit was 40 mph and there were no other cars in the vicinity. When the light turned green, Dan leaned hard on the gas pedal and accelerated rapidly, but he didn’t lose control of his vehicle or exceed the speed limit.
A police officer observed the incident and issued Dan a citation under an Oregon statute that prohibits “Speed racing on a highway” (ORS 811.125), a serious traffic violation subject to a presumptive fine of $435. Dan entered a plea of “not guilty.”
At his trial, Dan testified: “But I wasn’t even speeding, and there were no other cars around.” Two of his passengers corroborated Dan’s testimony, and the citing officer agreed.
The result? Dan was found guilty and fined even though he wasn’t racing another vehicle and never went above the posted limit. Why? Because his jackrabbit start violated a subsection of the “speed racing” law that prohibits “an exhibition of speed or acceleration.”
Oregon’s “speed racing” statute is complicated, with seven subsections. In addition to the subsection that Dan violated, it also prohibits:
Fortunately, drivers in Tigard are rarely cited under the portion of the law that bans drag racing—an extremely dangerous activity on any public street. However, drivers like Dan need to be aware that any form of horseplay on the highway can be unsafe and may result in a costly citation.
- A traditional drag race, which is defined as two or more vehicles accelerating “from a point side by side” in a “competitive attempt to outdistance each other.”
- Any other speed or acceleration contest;
- Any test of a driver’s physical endurance or stamina, such as stage rallies over defined long-distance routes; or,
- Attempting to make a speed record.
Six “Non-Defenses” to Speeding Tickets
Each year the Tigard Municipal Court receives over 6,000 traffic citations, of which about 26% are for speeding. If a driver pleads “not guilty,” the case is set for trial before a judge. While every case has unique facts, drivers often raise “defenses” to speeding that are generally not recognized under Oregon law, including:
Oregon’s speed laws are found in sections 811.100 through 811.124 of the Oregon Revised Statutes. You can access these statutes through the Municipal Court’s web page, or ask at the 2nd floor Reference Desk at the Library.
- “I was going with the flow of traffic.” The fact that other vehicles may have been exceeding the limit doesn’t justify going faster than the posted speed. Also, drivers cannot legally exceed the speed limit simply because another vehicle is tailgating them.
- “I admit to speeding, but I wasn’t going 75.” You’re in violation of Oregon law whenever you exceed the limit, even if you don’t intend to speed because, for example, your speedometer was malfunctioning. The basic legal question is whether you were exceeding the limit. If you’re convicted, your speed is a factor in setting the fine.
- “I sped up to pass another car (or merge).” Oregon law doesn’t authorize exceeding the speed limit to pass or merge with other vehicles.
- “Road and weather conditions were perfect, so my speed was reasonable and prudent.” Under Oregon’s “basic rule” law, a speed above the posted limit is “prima facie evidence” of a violation. In bad weather, the appropriate speed may be less than the limit.
- “My car won’t go that fast.” This claim is generally not an effective rebuttal of the speed recorded by a laser, radar or pace.
- “I’m a careful driver and I never speed.” While a good driving record is commendable, it’s not considered (nor is a bad record) in determining whether a person is guilty of a violation at the specific time and place alleged in the citation. Your good driving record can result in a reduced fine if you’re found guilty.
Driving on Wet Roads
Drivers in northwestern Oregon face a variety of weather conditions, from summer heat to winter snow, but rain is common through most of the year. Tigard receives over forty inches of annual precipitation, for example, so streets and highways are often wet. In such a rainy climate, one would expect drivers in the Portland-Vancouver metro area to be experts in driving on slick roads.
Not so, according to insurance studies showing that drivers in the metro area, and Oregon in general, are among the most accident-prone on wet streets. The metro area rated 190th out of 200 cities, with Seattle not far behind. Even during sunny conditions, the Portland region remained at 190th on the list: it made no difference when annual precipitation was factored in. Another recent study showed that Oregon is the fifth most dangerous state for driving in the rain, despite its experienced drivers.
One measure of driving skill is the ability to avoid emergency stops, known as “hard braking events.” Portland metro drivers average 22.4 hard brakings per 1,000 miles, higher than the national average. The most common cause is tailgating, which leads to panic stops if the vehicle ahead brakes unexpectedly. Following too closely is the fifth most common cause of collisions in Oregon.
On average, U.S. drivers file an accident claim every ten years. In the metro region, the average is just 5.9 years.
Wet roads are slick and can cause aquaplaning, resulting in longer stopping distances or loss of control. If a tailgating driver is inattentive due to smartphone use or some other distraction, the risk of a rear-end collision increases enormously – whether roads are wet or dry.
Solutions to Rising Collision Rates
The officer’s report and the defendant’s courtroom statement were in agreement: At a stop sign in a Tigard residential neighborhood, the defendant had turned left in bright sunshine onto a shaded residential street, striking a woman in a crosswalk. With the late-afternoon sun facing him, he had failed to notice the pedestrian. The defendant pled “no contest” to “failure to yield to a pedestrian,” a violation subject to a $265 presumptive fine under Oregon law.
Fortunately, the injured pedestrian was not among the hundred people who die in collisions every day across the United States, which now has the highest traffic fatality rate per capita in the industrialized world — about 40 percent higher than Canada and Australia.
The Tigard defendant was driving a newer car, but it was not equipped with an automatic braking system that might have prevented the collision by detecting the pedestrian and stopping the car. Similar existing technologies, as they become more common, could reduce collisions from causes such as unsafe lane changes and following too closely. Advanced systems now under development, including driverless cars, could eventually reverse the recent increase in fatality rates.
But the development of reliable technologies takes time. Meanwhile, traffic engineers and law-enforcement agencies are developing more short-term strategies to address the causes of rising fatality rates. In the United States, for example, 74 percent of vehicles exceed posted speed limits, more than three times the rate in the United Kingdom. Speed cameras and broader enforcement could reduce the incidence of dangerous speeds on U.S. highways.
Hazards such as speeding, distracted and impaired driving, and failure to obey traffic signals can be addressed without waiting for driverless cars to be perfected.
Is 20 Plenty?
Tigard also has launched a similar campaign through its Safe Routes to Schools program, providing residents “20 is Plenty” yard signs to post in their neighborhoods to encourage voluntary speed reduction.
Will a five-mph reduction limit collisions with pedestrians, bicyclists and other vehicles? Aren't drivers likely to ignore a speed limit that many will consider unrealistically low?
In Tigard and other Oregon cities, a speed limit of 20 mph is set for school zones, some crosswalks, commercial areas, and other locations where special caution is required. Under state law, the standard residential limit of 25 mph applies unless another speed is posted.
Portland’s new 20-mph limit was founded, in part, on evidence that nearly half its annual traffic deaths over the previous twenty years were the result of speeding.
It’s true that many drivers believe they can drive from 10 to 15 mph over the speed limit without risking a traffic ticket. If you observe a traffic court in operation, including Tigard’s, you’ll quickly learn that this speed “buffer” is an urban legend.
Setting speed limits is a challenging task for traffic engineers and local jurisdictions. Unlike Portland, Washington County has taken the position that traffic conditions and the nature of the street influence drivers more than posted limits. While Vision Zero has contributed to reducing New York City’s traffic fatalities to the lowest level ever, it will take time to measure its impact on Portland.
Sharing the Road with Trucks and Buses
At trial, the patrol car’s dashcam showed lines of slow-moving traffic on Highway 217 where it merges with Greenburg Road. A white sedan, two cars ahead of the patrol car, accelerated hard from the onramp to make a sudden and unsignaled lane change into a gap separating a large semi from the cars ahead of it. The sedan nearly sideswiped the trucker’s front bumper as it swerved into his lane.
If the traffic ahead had come to an abrupt halt, the truck may have been unable to stop, resulting in a rear-end collision with the defendant. The driver of the sedan was found guilty and fined for his unsafe and unsignaled lane change.
Many drivers view trucks and buses as obstacles that get in their way and slow down traffic. The maneuver on the video is not unusual, since truckers and bus drivers are trained to leave a gap ahead of them.
Large vehicles have much greater stopping distances than cars. A fully loaded semi weighs about 20 times more than a passenger car. At 55 mph, a car can stop in about 316 feet—about the length of a football field—compared to 515 feet for a large truck.
In 2016, there were 1,507 crashes involving trucks in Oregon, resulting in 45 fatalities and 416 injuries. The most common causes were speeding, following too closely and lane violations. About half the collisions were the fault of the truck drivers. During the same year in Tigard, trucks were involved in less than 2 percent of all crashes.
Trucks, buses and other large vehicles deserve respect and consideration from everyone who shares the road with them.
Distracted Driving in Work Zones
As road-construction season begins, orange warning signs, cones, barrels and barricades will become more common in Tigard and across the state. Most drivers are aware that traffic violations in work zones are subject to double penalties, but recent changes in Oregon law make it especially important to avoid the use of mobile electronic devices (MEDs) cellphones and smartphones in those locations.
Distracted drivers, including MED users, cause a crash every 2.5 hours—or about 10 per day—across Oregon. Approximately one of every 12 collisions involving serious injuries is the result of distracted driving.
Last year, Oregon legislators again increased the penalties for hands-on use of MEDs while driving. Violations are now subject to a presumptive fine of $265, which doubles to $530 in a work zone. If an MED violation contributes to a crash, the presumptive fine increases to $880. Under state statute, work-zone penalties apply 24 hours per day, “regardless of whether or not highway workers are actually present.”
On average, a work-zone collision occurs once every 17 hours in Oregon. The most common reason is distracted or inattentive driving. While highway workers are vulnerable, four out of five work zone fatalities in Oregon are drivers and passengers.
While Oregon law now prohibits the use of any hands-on MED while driving, it doesn’t apply to drivers using a “hands-free accessory,” like a Bluetooth connection, that “gives a person the ability to keep both hands on the steering wheel.”
While Bluetooth and dashboard infotainment systems have become more common, it’s clear that—in the words of the National Safety Council— “hands-free is not risk-free.” A brain engaged in a hands-free MED conversation is partly disengaged from its surroundings: a driver’s field of view narrows by up to 50 percent, which can be especially dangerous in work zones. For adult drivers, a conversation with a passenger is less distracting than a hands-free conversation on an MED.
Conflicting Trends in Traffic Safety
Interstate 5 in Tigard is among the busiest stretches of highway in Oregon and a common location for speeding violations, including occasional speeds more than 100 mph. Like Highway 217, its speed limit has been set at 55 mph for decades. Combined, Highway 217 and I-5 carry nearly 300,000 vehicles through Tigard every weekday.
In 2017, legislators passed a bill that authorized a 70 mph limit on less-traveled highways east of the Cascades. This reflects a national trend towards higher speed limits up to 85 mph in some states. Texas has led the way, but traffic its fatalities increased by 7 percent from 2015 to 2017. Drivers are demanding shorter travel times, but the cost is high: faster speeds mean more crashes.
An estimated 40,100 people died nationwide in collisions during 2017. This is comparable to 2016, but an increase of 6 percent over 2015. In Oregon, fatalities actually declined by about 13 percent during 2016-17. There were eight traffic deaths in Tigard over the same two-year period.
Fatalities could be reduced through greater use of vehicle safety measures, like automatic braking systems and stronger enforcement of laws like those prohibiting distracted and impaired driving. But these strategies could be offset by higher speed limits and wider use of sophisticated “infotainment” systems, with their distracting touchscreens. Studies confirm that all multitasking while driving, hands on or hands free, is dangerous.
Meanwhile, New York City has reduced fatalities by 15 percent during the last two years through lower speed limits, adding bike lanes, increased enforcement and adopting more safety measures for pedestrians.
Self-driving cars may dramatically increase traffic safety, but the technology is still under development and may not be widely available for a decade or more.
Targeted Enforcement at Crosswalks
Tigard police conduct routine patrols of city streets, but specific locations are sometimes targeted due to identified traffic hazards or neighborhood concerns. A recent example of focused enforcement was an operation at the intersection of Greenburg Road and Center Street, where high traffic volumes can pose risks for pedestrians.
The targeted location consists of a crosswalk through four vehicle lanes and two bike lanes on Greenburg Road. This crosswalk is marked by painted lines, but under Oregon law there’s a “crosswalk” at every intersection, with or without lines. Mid-block marked crosswalks are also common, especially in school zones.
State statute requires drivers to stop when a pedestrian enters a marked or unmarked crosswalk in their lane or the lane next to it, including bike lanes. It’s unlawful to pass another vehicle stopped at a crosswalk. Drivers must remain stopped until the pedestrian clears both the driver’s lane and the adjacent lane.
Based on testimony and other evidence in court, pedestrian enforcement operations generally involve a plainclothes officer who stands near a marked crosswalk. Other officers are stationed nearby, usually with video cameras.
As a vehicle approaches, the plainclothes officer enters the crosswalk, first making sure that the vehicle is far enough away to safely stop. If the driver fails to stop, another officer will pull over the vehicle and issue a citation for Failure to stop and remain stopped for a pedestrian, a violation subject to a presumptive fine of $260.
Some drivers argue that these “sting” operations by police are a form of “entrapment.” But the entrapment defense is not available under Oregon law when police simply give someone an opportunity to commit an offense.
Apps and Traffic Safety
A young man recently appeared in court and pleaded “no contest” to following too closely, a violation carrying a presumptive fine of $260. He explained that he was unfamiliar with Tigard and missed a turn on Durham Road. Even though he was in rush-hour traffic, he looked away from the street for a few seconds to enter his destination on his GPS app. While he was distracted, the pickup in front of him stopped and he rear-ended it, causing minor damage but no injuries. Based on his good driving record, I lowered the fine.
There are nearly 330 million mobile phones in use across the country, exceeding the entire U.S. population. Most drivers know that texting and hands-on use of a mobile phone are illegal in Oregon, and lately we have seen fewer citations filed in our court.
But, after many years of decline in Oregon and across the United States, there has been an alarming increase in fatal collisions in recent years. Oregon traffic fatalities increased by more than 12 percent in 2016 compared to last year, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Nationally, fatalities increased by more than 10 percent compared to the same period in 2015. Many experts are convinced that the increased use of mobile-phone apps has been a major contributing factor.
While improvements like Bluetooth systems and voice-activated texting have increased safety, drivers now spend more time in cars and have a wide range of apps for communication, information and entertainment. Even though the new technologies are hands-free, they can still divert a driver’s concentration from traffic at critical moments.
It is now easier to use our devices hands-free, but our brains may be focused on tasks other than safe driving.
Dangerous Driving and How to Respond
The officer’s helmet cam showed his motorcycle stopped at the light on Hall Boulevard at the busy intersection with Pacific Highway. His light turned green but the motorcycle did not budge. Instead, a large semi entered the intersection from the left and ran the red light at high speed. The light had clearly been red for two seconds before the truck even reached the crosswalk.
Fortunately, there was no collision because no other drivers had proceeded on their green light. The driver was cited, convicted and fined for failing to obey the signal.
“Dangerous driving” covers a wide range of behaviors on the highway, from crimes like reckless driving and driving under the influence to violations like speeding and running a traffic light. The most common forms of dangerous driving can be combined into a single category: distracted driving.
“Distraction” includes activities in a vehicle that cause a driver to be inattentive, even for a moment. The familiar forms can include texting and talking on cellphones, driving above (or below) the speed limit, following too closely and driving while drowsy.
Drivers who witness dangerous maneuvers should distance themselves from the other vehicle by keeping back or pulling over to let it pass. If there is a serious threat to other vehicles, pedestrians or bicyclists, try to get some identifying information and call 9-1-1 as soon as it is safe to do so. Beware of confronting the other driver by blowing your horn or gesturing, which could escalate into a road-rage incident.
Whether the truck driver on Pacific Highway was distracted or simply wanted to save time, his driving posed a serious danger to everyone near the intersection.
Motorcycle Safety Challenges
Of the six fatal crashes in the Tigard area over the last two years, three of them involved motorcycles.
While two of those crashes involved multiple vehicles, one resulted when the rider was unable to maintain control due to high speed in rounding a corner—a frequent cause of motorcycle crashes. Excessive speed can produce such errors as overcorrection, braking too hard or misjudging the arc of a curve, causing the motorcycle to leave the roadway or swerve into an oncoming lane.
Tire punctures and road hazards such as gravel can also cause a loss of control—factors that are difficult for a rider to control on a vehicle that is more unstable than cars and trucks. High speed can makes it harder for riders to respond to dangers and maintain control.
The most common reason for motorcycle crashes is the failure of other drivers to yield the right of way, in part because motorcycles are smaller than other vehicles and harder to see. At night, it is especially difficult to judge the speed of an approaching motorcycle when a driver merges into traffic from a stop sign or onramp.
Many crashes result when a driver changes lanes into a motorcycle that is in the vehicle’s blind spot. Similarly, drivers sometimes turn left in front of an approaching motorcycle after misjudging its speed or failing to notice it at all.
Motorcycles are an efficient and economical means of transportation, but riders are especially vulnerable to serious injury in a crash, even when wearing helmets and protective clothing.
The most recent national data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that 56 out of every 100,000 registered motorcycles were involved in a fatal crash, compared with only 9 out of every 100,000 passenger cars.
Riders can reduce the risk by assuming that drivers do not see them, even when they have the right of way.
Traffic Enforcement Priorities
Judges are not involved in deciding which laws are enforced or where officers go to cite drivers for traffic offenses. Officers and their supervisors must set priorities, since no police department has the resources to enforce traffic laws 24 hours a day across all the streets of a major city like Tigard.
Traffic enforcement is largely “data-driven” to promote safety and reduce congestion. Locations with the greatest number of collisions and injuries are therefore given high priority. Because traffic violations often contribute to gridlock, congested areas are often a priority.
Reviewing data from the thousands of tickets filed every year in the Tigard Municipal Court, it is possible to see how and where officers enforce the Rules of the Road. For example, the most common citations in our court involve safety-related offenses like speeding, following too closely and failing to obey red lights or stop signs on busy streets.
While the streets and intersections with the heaviest traffic are often a focus for enforcement, officers regularly stop and cite drivers wherever they observe a violation. But occasionally I see an increase in citations from a particular location that may reflect a new priority.
A case in point: Over recent months the court has seen an increase in tickets around the intersection of Summerfield Drive and 98th Avenue. Those citations are typically for speeding and failing to obey stop signs. Whenever such an increase happens, it can reflect complaints from local residents and businesses or a change in signage, such as the speed limit.
The Tigard Police Department Cmdr. Jamey McDonald has confirmed that heightened enforcement in the Summerfield neighborhood is the direct result of citizen concerns expressed to the department and the Tigard City Council.
Driving Habits Cause Traffic Crashes
Like other Oregon cities, Tigard compiles annual data about traffic crashes that provide many details about driving habits that undermine public safety.
During the five-year period from 2010 through 2014, this data show that there were more than 5,000 reported collisions within Tigard’s city limits, an average of nearly three each day. The majority of those crashes occurred on dry roads during daylight hours, when traffic is at its peak. Most involved just two vehicles, though several four-to-five vehicle crashes also took place.
More than half of the collisions in Tigard resulted in injuries, and there were three fatalities—including two pedestrians. In addition, 73 persons were injured in crashes involving bicycles.
As in other cities, the most common cause of collisions was following too closely, a violation of Oregon’s Rules of the Road. While not all crashes are the result of traffic violations, drivers are often ticketed if an officer concludes, based on an investigation, that a violation contributed to an incident. During 2015, more than 200 tickets were filed in our court for following too closely, many of them arising out of collisions.
Other frequent causes were distracted driving, excessive speed for conditions, disobeying a traffic signal, unsafe lane changes and failing to yield the right of way. Many crashes were a result of multiple factors, such as following too closely while distracted. Where multiple factors are involved, drivers are frequently ticketed for careless driving, a serious violation subject to a presumptive fine of $435.
Not surprisingly, a large majority of Tigard’s collisions occurred on the busiest streets and highways, including Highway 99W, Highway 217, Durham Road, Hall Boulevard, Bonita Road and Cascade Avenue.
Fatal Crashes Rise in Oregon
There were 442 traffic fatalities in Oregon in 2015, an increase of 24 percent over the previous year, according to state data. This total includes 28 fatalities in Washington County, a shocking 75 percent jump compared to 2014. Tigard recorded three fatalities in 2015, two from vehicle crashes and one involving a vehicle and pedestrian. Early national data reveals a rise of 8 percent in fatal crashes last year—much less than Oregon’s, but still alarming for a single year.
How could traffic fatalities increase so sharply after many years of decline?
People are on the road more, for one thing. An improving economy and low gas prices usually result in more miles driven for jobs and vacations. Impaired driving related to alcohol or drugs is a factor in about a third of fatal crashes in Oregon, but there is no evidence of a major increase in 2015.
Analysts at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) suggest that other factors played a greater role in the increase, including distracted driving related to cellphones and texting.
For example, there was a rise in crashes involving drivers who, alone in their cars, leave their lanes and hit nearby vehicles or objects. Early data indicates that 60 percent of Oregon’s fatalities are due to these “lane and roadway departures” related to inattentive driving, including cellphone conversations, texting and various other distractions.
The effect of cellphone use while driving is still under study. Research has shown, for example, that use of a cellphone—even if it’s hands-free and legal in Oregon—can cause 27 seconds of significant distraction after the call has ended.
Distractions, even on a familiar route to work, can slow any driver’s reaction time when something out of the ordinary happens, with results that may be fatal.
Traffic Safety and Aging
There are 76 million "baby boomers"— those born between 1946 and 1965—in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some 36 million boomers over the age of 65 still drive, and millions more will continue driving into old age. Census data show that more than 11 percent of Tigard residents are 65 and older.
Many seniors view driving as vital to their independence. In areas without public transportation, they may have no realistic alternative but to continue driving as long as their health allows. Seniors need to recognize when their safety, and the safety of others, requires them to surrender their licenses.
For seniors who continue to drive, improvements in technology may allow them to do so more safely. These safety devices are now, or will soon be, available options on newer cars. These include:
- Backup cameras that detect cross traffic
- Detectors that set off an alarm when a vehicle drifts out of a lane
- Warnings when vehicles are in blind spots
- Alarms that activate when entering a curve too fast
- Collision warning systems that detect and even brake for objects ahead of a car
- Automated parking
- Automatic notifications to 911 in the event of a collision
- Warnings for drowsiness or fatigue
Seniors can reduce risks by not driving during times when traffic is heavy or during periods of bad weather and darkness. Distractions such as talking on a cellphone, texting, eating or fiddling with an entertainment console are dangerous for all drivers.
Voluntary participation in a traffic safety program also can increase awareness and possibly lower insurance rates.
Safe Driving in Darkness
On Nov. 1, Oregonians will turn back their clocks one hour as daylight saving time ends. By Dec. 22, the first day of winter, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians navigating our streets will face nearly 16 hours of darkness.
While traffic volumes are lower outside the morning and evening rush hours, driving during the longer fall and winter nights poses special challenges.
Pedestrians, bicyclists and motor vehicles are harder to see even in areas with good illumination from streetlights. Vulnerable walkers can protect themselves by carrying lights and wearing light colors such as yellow rain gear. Bicyclists are required to display front and rear lights (or rear reflectors) during any period of limited visibility.
Young drivers are often unprepared for nighttime driving. In collisions involving teen drivers, 57 percent occur at night year-round. Nearly a third of those take place between 8 p.m. and sunrise the next day. The risk is greatest between 10 p.m. and midnight.
More than 60 percent of teens involved in nighttime crashes are male, and crashes are more likely on Friday and Saturday evenings. The danger is highest when male teen drivers are accompanied by other male teens. The risk decreases sharply if there is an adult passenger older than 30 in the vehicle.
Teen drinking and driving has declined by 54 percent during the last 20 years, partly due to zero-tolerance programs in all 50 states. Alcohol is now a factor in about one of every 10 collisions involving a teen driver at night. But teen texting while driving has greatly increased recently. It is now seen as a form of impairment comparable to driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Based on this kind of evidence, most states, including Oregon, have adopted graduated licensing programs that place conditions on new drivers, including nighttime hours when driving is restricted and the acceptable number and ages of passengers.
Distracted Driver Diversion Classes
For the past 16 years, our court manager and I have presented an annual report on our activities to the Tigard City Council. The report includes details on the types of traffic citations that were filed during the previous year.
In a typical year, the most common violations are speeding and failure to obey traffic control devices like stop signs and traffic lights. During 2014, though, tickets for cellphone offenses moved into second place. The number of cellphone citations exceeded 1,000, nearly doubling the total for 2013.
Why the Marked Increase?
The increase in cellphone tickets may reflect a shift in enforcement priorities based on greater knowledge about the hazards of texting and other behaviors that take a driver’s eyes off the road. With more drivers using smartphones, texting has become an even more common threat.
Studies reveal that nearly a third of adult drivers aged 18–64 had sent or read text messages while driving during the previous 30 days. More than 40 percent of teens admitted to texting while driving, and an astonishing 77 percent reported they could safely text behind the wheel.
In July 2014, the Tigard Police Department expanded its response to the threat of inattentive driving by creating a Distracted Driver Diversion Program (DDDP). The purpose of the program is to educate drivers about the many dangers of distracted driving, whether it results from texting, hands-on cellphone calls or other forms of inattention.
For adults, participation in a DDDP class must be ordered by the Tigard Municipal Court following a “no contest” plea to a cellphone violation or other form of distracted driving. During the DDDP’s first six months, a total of 225 drivers participated. Of those, 83 percent were referred by the court and the rest chose to attend through the teen driver safety program.
If you are interested in signing up your teen for a class, inquire by email at email@example.com. The class is held each month at City Hall and lasts about an hour.
The 2015 New Year began with two fatal traffic collisions in Washington County. According to news accounts, both crashes were caused by drivers passing on two-lane rural highways in no-passing zones. The first crash involved a head-on collision. In the second, the passing car clipped the front of a minivan as the driver tried to re-enter the right lane too soon.
These tragic collisions reveal one reason why, year after year, two-lane highways suffer the highest rate of injuries and fatalities in Oregon. Vehicles traveling at high speeds in opposite directions are at much greater risk than vehicles on divided highways.
Under the Rules of the Road, speeds in excess of the posted limit are not authorized even for drivers passing vehicles that are traveling below the speed limit.
Consider a scenario where many motorists may be tempted to pass. Imagine you are driving on a two-lane highway where the posted limit is 55 mph and the car ahead of you is traveling at 50 mph.
You have entered a passing zone that is about a quarter mile in length. If you accelerate to the speed limit to pass the slower car, you’ll need exactly a half mile to get past it—twice the length of the passing zone. If you speed up much more, you will be well above the speed limit, risking both a ticket and a high-speed maneuver to get back into your lane.
It can be difficult to estimate how much time you have to complete a pass. If you underestimate, you may risk a head-on collision or returning to the right lane too quickly, clipping or cutting off the other vehicle. Consider that two oncoming vehicles, 1,000 feet apart and traveling at 55 mph, can close the distance between them in about six seconds.
While frustrating, it may be safer to avoid temptation and stay behind the car in front of you if it is within 5-10 mph of the speed limit.
Safer Lane Changes on Freeways
The rules for lane changes on Oregon freeways are simple enough on paper. In fact, only two sections of the Rules of the Road deal directly with lane usage:
Failure to drive within a lane (ORS 811.370): Requires drivers to stay “as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane” and to avoid lane changes “until the driver has first made certain that the movement can be made with safety.” The best way to ensure a safe lane change is a glance at the rear-view mirrors and a “head check” to make sure no vehicles are in the blind spots. The presumptive fine for this violation is $260.
Unlawful or unsignaled change of lane (ORS 811.375): Drivers are required to make sure that a lane change can “be made with reasonable safety” and signal for at least 100 feet before changing lanes. Violations carry a presumptive fine of $110.
Drivers complying with these rules, along with a good measure of common sense, can avoid conflicts and collisions with other vehicles.
Lane changes are the most dangerous near on– and off–ramps, where drivers maneuver to exit or enter the main travel lanes. Entering drivers are speeding up as exiting drivers slow down, creating potential merging conflicts during heavy traffic.
In my own experience, I have noticed that many freeway drivers constantly fine-tune distances between themselves and the vehicle ahead of them. This practice is both wise and necessary to avoid following too closely. Yet some drivers clearly make these adjustments to discourage lane changes that might require them to slow down a bit. A few even act as if that space were their personal property, resulting in road-rage incidents.
Merging at interchanges is challenging during heavy traffic, requiring constant “negotiation” with other drivers to reduce conflicts and promote smooth traffic flow. Allowing other drivers to claim part of the space in front of you is a basic courtesy that can help us all reach our destinations safely.
Trucking on Oregon’s Highways
Whether they are delivering merchandise to local businesses or simply passing through, large trucks are a familiar sight on Tigard’s major roadways.
Trucks are subject to the same Rules of the Road as other vehicles, though some state statutes only apply to them. For example, trucks are required to keep to the right on highways with more than two lanes. There are a few exceptions to the rule, allowing them to pass other vehicles going in the same direction or to make a left turn.
Trucks must follow posted truck routes unless it’s necessary to leave those routes to reach a local destination. Unless a different speed limit is indicated, trucks are also subject to a maximum speed limit of 55 mph on all state highways, including Interstate 5 and other freeways.
Professional truck drivers are held to a much higher licensing standard, including a rigorous exam and medical requirements, than ordinary drivers. A Commercial Driver License (CDL) is required for drivers of trucks weighing over 26,000 pounds or for vehicles used to transport hazardous materials.
With their disproportionate size and slow acceleration, trucks can present special road hazards. In 2012, nearly 4,000 fatalities and over 100,000 injuries resulted from collisions involving large trucks nationwide. Not surprisingly, the vast majority (73%) of the fatalities were occupants of other vehicles, while about 10% were pedestrians and bicyclists.
Due to their great mass, trucks can pose serious threats to other vehicles in rear-end collisions. Yet collisions caused by tailgating trucks are relatively uncommon, involving about 6% of truck-related fatalities nationwide. About three out of four fatal crashes involving trucks occur on weekdays during daylight hours.
Surprising Statistic: Impaired driving was a factor in about 2% of fatal collisions involving trucks, less than one-tenth the rate for drivers of other types of vehicles. The evidence suggests that truckers, despite their much higher rate of vehicle-miles traveled per year, are cited for speeding no more frequently than other drivers.
How Traffic Violations Cause Congestion
A driver on a busy two-lane street with a speed limit of 35 mph was cited for impeding traffic after traveling nearly a mile at just 20 mph. A dozen vehicles had backed up behind the slow car. At trial the defendant testified that he had been “looking for an address.” I entered a “guilty” finding but reduced the presumptive fine ($110) because he had a good record.
At another recent trial, an officer’s video showed cars stopped in a left-turn lane onto Pacific Highway. Traffic began to flow smoothly when the arrow turned green, but one of the cars didn't budge. The driver finally sped up to enter the intersection just as it turned yellow, leaving a line of frustrated drivers behind. He too was cited for impeding traffic. After I entered a “guilty” finding, the defendant admitted that he had been reading (but not sending) text messages and didn't notice the green signal.
Both these violations took place during busy times of day and contributed to traffic congestion. Similar violations include:
- Following too closely: If a vehicle is tailgating and the lead vehicle brakes, the following driver is likely to brake hard to avoid a collision. This can produce a chain reaction, or "accordion effect," that may extend for a mile or more backwards in heavy traffic, causing significant delays. Abrupt or unsignaled lane changes can have the same effect.
- Distracted driving: Drivers who use cell phones or similar devices may be so unfocused on their driving that they lose awareness of traffic conditions around them, contributing to both congestion and the risk of collisions.
- Obstructing cross traffic: Oregon law prohibits entering an intersection, even on a green light, unless there’s enough space on the far side to clear crosswalks and all lanes of traffic before the signal changes.
Many traffic violations have the same dual nature: they can present a threat to public safety while also contributing to gridlock.
The Four Most Dangerous Driving Habits
While signs of economic recovery are usually welcome news, there’s one exception: as more people find employment and spend more time driving, the number of traffic fatalities nationwide tends to go up. Last year fatalities increased by 5 percent over 2011. The National Safety Council (NSC) notes that this pattern has been visible in the data over the last thirty years.
A national survey by Consumer Reports found that the top four causes of traffic deaths in 2011 were:
1. Unbelted occupants (12,872 fatalities): For Oregonians, the good news is that our state has a seatbelt compliance rate of about 97 percent, well above the national average.
2. Speeding (9,944 fatalities): The risks of speeding are greatest on rural highways; freeways, despite heavy traffic loads, are associated with just 13 percent of speed-related deaths.
3. Driving under the influence of intoxicants (9,878 fatalities) nearly tied with speeding as a lethal factor. Alcohol was involved in about a third of all fatal and non-fatal collisions.
4. Distracted driving (3,331 fatalities): The NSC estimates that cell calls and texting were factors in one in four collisions, or about 1.3 million nationwide. Drivers under the age of 20 were most at risk, but many adults also ignore the dangers. According to Distraction.gov, “20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving.”
New technologies could lower some of the known risks and help reverse the alarming increase in fatalities. For example, safety advocates propose equipping cars with engines that won’t start unless all occupants are wearing seatbelts. An inexpensive app, already available, can disable a cell phone while a vehicle is moving. More user-friendly audio and GPS controls will reduce the distractions caused by those devices. Electronic stability control has greatly reduced the number of rollover crashes.
An even better strategy is to promote drivers’ awareness of their responsibilities to their passengers and other users of the highways.
Highway Work Zones
With various road projects well underway in the Tigard area, local courts are experiencing an increase in work zone traffic citations. Although neighborhood traffic patterns are temporarily affected by various repaving projects, the largest road project will affect the entire length of Hwy. 217 through Tigard. Contractors have been repaving, widening shoulders, improving signage, upgrading traffic signals and raising barriers on one of the busiest highways in Oregon.
Oregon’s Rules of the Road define a “highway work zone” as “an area identified by advance warning where road construction, repair or maintenance work is being done by highway workers” (ORS 811.230). The rules for such zones apply “regardless of whether or not highway workers are actually present.”
Signs near the beginning of a designated work zone usually warn drivers that “fines double” for traffic violations. Presumptive fines for all traffic violations are precisely set by state law, so let me offer some examples of how fines for work zones are determined.
The most common violations on Hwy. 217 are speeding (11-20 mph over the 55 mph limit) and following too closely. For work zone violations, the fine for speeding within the 11-20 mph range is $320. For following too closely, a more serious violation, the presumptive fine is set at $520.
To note an extreme example, a driver was cited into our court for a speed of 92 mph in the work zone on Hwy. 217. He faced a presumptive fine of $870. Drivers who fail to obey a flagger in a work zone are subject to the same $870 fine. Reckless endangerment of highway workers is a serious crime subject to a maximum fine of $6,250 and a year in jail.
Judges are granted some discretion in lowering fines based on driving records and other circumstances, but offenders can expect to pay twice as much as they would for violations outside work zones. School zone violations are subject to similar increases in fines.
Sources include: www.tigard-or.gov and www.oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/REGION1/pages/217.aspx
Quick Facts on Traffic Safety
Every spring the Oregon Department of Transportation sponsors an education program to update judges on legislation, highway safety and other issues concerning state vehicle law. The March 2013 program included data about traffic crashes and their causes as well as new data that suggests recent gains in safety may be eroding.
The 2011 figures show that:
- The number of fatal collisions in Oregon increased by six percent compared to 2010
- The number of crashes causing injuries went up by 14 percent
- The total number of crashes grew by 11 percent
- Collisions involving young drivers, motorcycles, bicyclists, pedestrians and trucks increased by five percent or more.
The most dangerous drive time (statistically) was the afternoon rush hour, especially on Fridays. November was the peak month for crashes.
The most common driver errors included: following too closely, running into fixed objects, failure to yield the right-of-way, driving too fast for conditions, failing to obey traffic signs and signals and inattention.
The most common errors by bicyclists included: failing to obey traffic signs or signals, failure to yield and driving on the wrong side of the road.
Pedestrian errors commonly involved crossing between intersections, failing to yield to vehicles and disregarding traffic signals.
The increased number of collisions in Oregon (and 12 other states) stands out in comparison with national trends, which continue to show a slow but steady decline in crashes resulting in death or injury.
While the numbers don’t directly reveal the extent of this problem, many experts believe that distracted driving may be the root cause of a growing number of crashes every year; a theory reinforced by the profusion of smartphones in Oregon.
Whether or not the 2011 data reflects a temporary setback, it’s possible that next year’s data will provide us with a better look at statewide trends in traffic safety.
When Independence and Traffic Safety Conflict
After pleading “not guilty” and appearing for trial, the elderly defendant—I’ll call him Jim—politely announced when his case was called that he wanted to change his plea to “no contest.” He explained that he had seen the officer’s videotape of the incident and decided that he had no defense to the charge of failing to obey a red light. The video showed that he had stopped at the light, as required by Oregon’s rules of the road, but made a right turn without first yielding the right of way to an approaching car. The other driver braked hard and narrowly avoided a collision. “I just didn’t see her,” Jim admitted.
This sequence of events isn’t unusual in traffic court, but this particular defendant was accompanied by his adult son. Even though Jim enjoyed good health and his record reflected a safe driving career, his son had urged him to talk to his eye doctor after receiving the ticket. The doctor found that Jim’s impaired peripheral vision had grown worse since his last examination. She recommended that he stop driving, and his family strongly agreed. Jim told me that he had already returned his license to the DMV.
This decision was clearly difficult for Jim. In our auto-centered culture, many older drivers depend on their cars to shop, socialize and make appointments. Their car can be a potent symbol of independence. Nevertheless, 600,000 drivers in the U.S. stop driving every year due to declining health.
Fortunately, Jim chose the safer alternative to driving with failing vision. According to a Canadian study, intervention by doctors may be the most effective way to catch the attention of drivers with physical impairments that may affect their driving ability. By law, doctors in Canada are required to send warnings to drivers who develop such conditions. For those who received warnings, the study showed an impressive reduction of about 45 percent in the annual rate of crashes involving injuries.
Oregon Makes Progress in Traffic Safety?
Recent data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers some encouraging news about traffic safety in Washington County and across Oregon. The number of fatalities on Oregon’s highways declined by about a third between 2004 and 2010. On urban roads, the reduction was equally dramatic: about 30 percent. Fatal crashes involving alcohol declined by more than half across the state, while speed-related fatal crashes fell by a third.
In the tri-county region, the reduction in fatal crashes per 100,000 vehicle miles was even more remarkable over the same five-year period: 30 percent in Multnomah County, 28 percent in Clackamas County and an impressive 70 percent in Washington County.
While driving on busy urban freeways can certainly be nerve-wracking at times, rural roads have proven to be far more dangerous: fatality rates are nearly twice as high compared to Oregon’s urban areas, although serious accidents have declined by about a third in rural areas as well.
While the trend is clear and encouraging, the reasons are not. Some experts believe that the struggling economy played a major role by reducing vehicle usage. Others point to the impact of the Three Flags program, a collaborative enforcement effort that has helped to increase safety-belt compliance to over 95 percent in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. (The national average is about 80 percent.) Overall, the NHTSA data shows that Oregon’s rate of traffic fatalities is about 22 percent below the national average.
The encouraging data is most likely the result of a combination of factors that can be hard to identify precisely. Enforcement of the Rules of the Road can contribute significantly to safer driving—especially laws related to impaired driving, speeding, intersections, safety belts, tailgating, and distracted driving. NHTSA estimates that 100 percent safety-belt compliance would save an additional 12 lives per year in Oregon.
However, the alarming national increase in distracted driving due to texting and cell phone use could easily unravel recent progress in highway safety.
Since 1985, total vehicle miles traveled in U.S. urban areas has nearly doubled. Still, a large majority of fatal crashes occur on rural highways. The reason? Rural traffic often travels on two-lane “secondary” highways where vehicles move at high speeds in close proximity to other vehicles and stationary objects. By contrast, 80 percent of nonfatal collisions involving injuries or property damage take place in or near cities.
The most common causes (2009) were:
- Drivers who ran red lights or stop signs;
- Rear-end impacts caused by drivers who followed too closely and were unable to stop in time to avoid a collision;
- Vehicles that veered off the roadway and hit stationary objects;
- Drivers who swerved into an oncoming or adjacent lane and collided with another vehicle; and,
- Drivers who turned left in front of an oncoming vehicle.
Most urban collisions (about 1.2 million in 2009) took place at intersections: 55 percent occurred at intersections controlled by traffic lights and another 21 percent at stop signs. Statistically, the majority of crashes occured between noon and 9 p.m. Only seven percent of crashes occured between midnight and 6 a.m., but 24 percent of those were fatal—possibly a reflection of the number of impaired drivers on the roadway and higher speeds when traffic is light.
Innovations in vehicle design and safety could help to reduce the number of injuries in both urban and rural areas. Several studies show that simply turning on one’s headlights during daylight hours can reduce the risk of collisions by about ten percent. The injury rates from “T-bone” collisions decline significantly (37 percent) in vehicles equipped with side airbags.
Some newer vehicles are equipped with forward collision warning systems that alert drivers to the presence of objects in front of them and even, in some models, automatically apply brakes to prevent a crash.
Data Source (among others): Highway Loss Data Institute
A Safety Success Story
For over twenty-five years, Oregon has required drivers and passengers to use safety belts. The law was toughened in 1990 and today, violations are subject to a fine of $110. Under the current law, Oregon has achieved a compliance rate of 97 percent; the third-highest in the nation. The national compliance rate was 84 percent in 2010.
Not surprisingly, in recent years the number of citations for safety-belt violations has declined in our court and across Oregon. More importantly, the rate of injuries resulting from collisions has declined by 49 percent since 1990; fatality rates have dropped by 44 percent.
What contributed to this success? I believe the multi-jurisdictional Three Flags Campaign deserves much of the credit. It focuses on expanding safety-belt usage in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia through two parallel approaches: education and enforcement. Its original focus was the Interstate 5 corridor from Vancouver, B.C. to Ashland, OR, but the program quickly grew to encompass the whole region. Federal grants provide dedicated funding for safety-belt “blitzes” by state and local law enforcement, along with funds for advertising and other educational efforts.
While the scale of the program has diminished the campaign’s success, the Three Flags Campaign will continue. The Tigard Police Department has scheduled its next blitz for the first two weeks in May, with another to follow in September.
Nearly all drivers and passengers cited for violations admit that they were fully aware of the law. Some believed they were still in compliance by simply wearing the shoulder strap under their arms. However, the law requires that safety belts be worn “properly.” A shoulder belt worn under the arm provides little protection in a collision. The lap belt should be worn low, at the hip, to avoid injury to the soft tissue of the lower abdomen. To get the full benefit, seatbelts should be worn as intended.
Driving Safely as We Age
By 2030, more than 70 million Americans, or one in five, will be over the age of 65. Many older citizens will continue to depend on their own cars for basic mobility, especially in areas that are underserved by public transportation. In one study, barely half the surveyed communities offered “dial-a-ride” or other door-to-door services.
Older drivers will need to maintain their driving skills in the face of a gradual physical decline that may include:
- Impaired vision, making it more difficult to see signs, lane lines, highway dividers, bicyclists and pedestrians. Annual eye exams are essential, and many older drivers wisely drive only during daylight hours. It’s important to keep windshields, mirrors and headlights clean. Larger signs would help: one study showed that only 40 percent of traffic signs meet the needs of older drivers.
- Impaired hearing, making it harder to detect sirens from approaching emergency vehicles. Drivers should limit passenger and cell phone conversations and background noise from the radio.
- Arthritis and other conditions, making it harder for drivers to take such routine precautions as turning their heads to check for other vehicles before changing lanes. Regular exercise, under medical supervision, may help older drivers maintain flexibility and alertness.
- Disorientation from sensory overload, leaving many drivers feeling overwhelmed by heavy traffic. This danger may be reduced by staying on familiar routes and avoiding rush hours.
Many older drivers voluntarily surrender their license when they realize that their driving skills have declined. Others simply don’t recognize their growing physical limitations and overlook problems until they’re involved in a crash or start receiving traffic citations. For them, the best alternative is for family members to get involved and persuade them to stop driving. (Oregon DMV will exchange a driver’s license for an ID card at no cost.)
As a last resort, Oregon DMV’s “At-Risk Driver” program can intervene, resulting in a medical determination of a driver’s abilities.
Slow Driving and Road Rage
Like most traffic courts, a large portion (26 percent in 2009) of our caseload consists of speeding tickets. Occasionally, though, drivers are cited into court for its mirror opposite: going too slowly, known under Oregon’s Rules of the Road as “Impeding traffic” (fine $110). This law prohibits driving in a manner that “impedes or blocks the reasonable and normal movement of traffic,” with a few exceptions like slowing to make a turn.
In many cases, slow or “impeding” drivers are searching for an address or business and simply fail to pay attention to their rearview mirrors. Often a long line of cars gathers behind the pokey vehicle until the driver finally pulls over or an officer is able to make a traffic stop.
Delayed drivers tend to become frustrated quickly. Some resort to provocative or dangerous behavior in response to the slow driver - from blowing their horns repeatedly to taking serious risks, like tailgating or passing in a no-passing zone. Each of these violations can expose impatient drivers to a citation with a $260 fine. Confrontations, otherwise known as road rage, can rapidly escalate into collisions or even criminal charges.
The Oregon Driver Manual recommends that slow drivers keep to the right and be aware of traffic behind them. If traffic is backing up, the manual advises drivers to “pull off the road in the first area safe to turn out and let the traffic behind them pass.” When road, weather and traffic conditions permit, drivers can reduce the risk of conflicts (and a ticket) by staying at, or not far below, the posted speed limit.
A separate provision of Oregon law requires trucks, trailers and campers to drive in the right lane on highways with four or more lanes. There are a few exceptions for passing and other maneuvers. Since these vehicles tend to be slower than others, violators are subject to higher fines ($260 and up).
Traffic Safety: It's Up to You!
According to recent data from the Oregon Department of Transportation, our state continues to show steady progress in improving traffic safety and reducing collisions. Some examples:
- While the total number of collisions went down slightly in 2009, traffic fatalities decreased by 10 percent compared to 2008.
- The trend through September 23rd of this year is even more encouraging, with a further decline of 14 percent in fatalities compared to the same period in 2009.
- One out of five collisions involved drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 during 2009, a reduction of 5 percent compared to 2008.
- There’s no such thing as a traffic “accident.” Nearly all collisions are caused by driver negligence.
Other factoids gleaned from recent data include:
- Rear-end collisions were responsible for one out of three non-fatal crashes in Oregon.
- The number of collisions in Tigard declined by 11 percent from 2008 to 2009.
- During 2008, 41 percent of the 778 crashes in Tigard were rear-end collisions, resulting in 142 injuries. Most of the drivers who caused these collisions were cited for “following too closely,” carrying a $295 fine.
- Failure to yield the right-of-way contributed to 16 percent of collisions in Tigard during 2008.
- More than three out of four collisions in Tigard occurred on dry pavement during 2009.
- Crowded urban freeways have a reputation for being dangerous, but the rate of crashes causing deaths and injuries is nine to ten times higher on Oregon’s rural highways.
- Data shows the most dangerous time of year for collisions in Oregon are Fridays in December from5-6 p.m.
What accounts for the improvements in traffic safety that many of these figures reflect? Oregon’s graduated licensing program for younger drivers may be one factor. Another may be Oregon’s success in improving safety belt compliance rates through public education and targeted enforcement. Safety belts increase the chance of survival in a collision, but the real key to traffic safety is greater driver awareness. There’s no such thing as a traffic “accident.” Nearly all collisions are caused by driver negligence.
Learning From Older Drivers
About 40 million Americans, or one-eighth of our population, are 65 years of age or older. As still more members of the baby-boomer generation cross that threshold, we’ll all have to adjust to the effects of aging on our vision, hearing, reaction times and general driving ability.
About one-fifth of licensed drivers in the U.S. are 65 or older, and they have a certain reputation for being inattentive and even unsafe. Yet many studies suggest that these older drivers are safer and more responsible than their younger (and less experienced) counterparts.
According the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 183,000 older drivers were injured, and about 10,000 killed, in traffic collisions in the U.S. during 2008. When older drivers are involved in fatal crashes, however, the younger driver is twice as likely to be at fault. Female drivers over 65 had by far the lowest fatality rate of any group surveyed in the NHTSA analysis. Male drivers aged 20 to 24 were twice as likely to be involved in fatal collisions than men over 65, and nine times more likely than women over 65.
The NHTSA study also concluded that “older drivers involved in fatal crashes… had the lowest proportion of intoxication [5 percent] of all adult drivers.” About 60 percent of all impaired drivers involved in fatal collisions were under the age of 34.
One reason for the higher survival rate of older drivers is the greater likelihood that they’ll use safety belts. Nationally, about 78 percent of drivers over 65 used safety belts, compared to 63 percent for younger adults.
Of the 519 Oregon drivers involved in fatal collisions in 2008, 65 (or 12.5 percent) were older drivers. The vast majority (80 percent) of these collisions took place during daytime hours and on weekdays (72 percent), perhaps because older drivers are less likely to drive at night and on weekends.
Despite the familiar stereotypes about older drivers, the numbers show that younger drivers might learn something from them.
The Perils of Aggressive Driving
A few weeks ago, I was driving from Tigard to Portland on I-5. The afternoon rush hour was well underway, but traffic was moving along at the speed limit. In my rearview mirror, I saw a white sedan switch abruptly into my lane and edge close to my rear bumper. When a small opening appeared in the left lane, the driver accelerated, passed me and moved back into my lane for a few seconds before swerving into the right lane and passing several other cars. I never saw him signal a lane change.
Unfortunately, such aggressive driving is common on busy highways. The symptoms are familiar: tailgating, cutting off other vehicles, weaving through traffic, speeding, angry gestures, refusing to let other vehicles merge, honking and flashing lights. Aggressive or impaired drivers might even brandish firearms, ram other vehicles or try to force them off the road.
If faced with an aggressive or impaired driver, the best response is to avoid a confrontation. Get out of the way as quickly as possible and don’t challenge the other driver with aggressive driving of your own. Avoid eye contact and don’t respond to gestures or other provocations. Report extremely dangerous or impaired drivers by stopping at a safe location and calling 9-1-1, or have a passenger make the call.
Aggressive driving is often the result of frustration with traffic delays that can aggravate personal or job-related stresses. You can reduce the risk of becoming an aggressive driver by planning ahead and allowing extra time. You can avoid provoking aggressive drivers by simply paying attention to traffic conditions and going the speed limit, if possible. Riding the bus, or the efficient WES/MAX light-rail system, may be the best option.
And the white sedan? A few miles later, approaching downtown Portland in crawling traffic, my line of cars caught up with it. Despite his aggressive behavior, the driver had gained no advantage over the rest of us.
Dangerous Driving's "Top Ten" List
According to AAA and a survey by Forbes magazine, the ten most deadly driving practices include:
- Texting and cell phones: The use of cell phones while driving increases the risk of a collision by 400 percent. Texting and the use of handheld cell phones while driving have been banned in Oregon and several other states. A California study suggests that the ban may be effective: texting while driving has decreased by 70%.
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs: Alcohol abuse contributes to 40 percent of the nation’s 40,000 annual traffic fatalities and 60 percent of fatal collisions involving drivers aged 16–24.
- Bad weather: Failure to adapt to bad weather is the cause of about 1.5 million collisions, 7,000 fatalities and 800,000 injuries each year in the U.S.
- Speeding: Speeding is a factor in 13 percent of all collisions and one-third of all traffic fatalities.
- No safety belt: Contributes to 5,000 fatalities each year. Safety belt use is especially important for children; collisions are the leading cause of death for children under the age of 14.
- Understeering in corners: Speeding often contributes to this error, especially on two-lane secondary roads. Drivers entering a curve too fast often panic, lose control and swerve off the roadway.
- Oversteering in corners: Like understeering, but with the opposite result: the vehicle can spin out or swerve into an oncoming lane.
- Road rage: Tailgating, abrupt lane changes and other forms of aggressive driving often provoke responses that can quickly spiral into dangerous confrontations.
- Poor vision: Outdated lenses or bad eyesight create serious risks, especially at night when the fatality rate is three times higher than during the day.
- Drowsy driving: Distracted driving is the cause of 80 percent of all collisions, and sleepiness is one of its most dangerous forms.
These “top ten” practices are not only dangerous, they can lead to traffic citations for violating Oregon’s Rules of the Road.
Merging and Jamitons
Sometimes the cause of a traffic jam is clear: a collision, a disabled vehicle, construction or weather. But drivers often find themselves stuck in “phantom” traffic jams (called “jamitons” by researchers): long lines of vehicles that slow abruptly to a crawl, for no apparent reason, and finally accelerate back to normal speeds after lengthy delays.
In theory, a highway should be at peak efficiency when traffic volumes approach its design capacity. But even minor fluctuations in traffic flow can cause a ripple effect that spreads miles upstream into a prolonged jamiton.
For example, consider what often happens at freeway on-ramps in dense traffic. Vehicles entering the freeway are accelerating and their drivers are looking for a place to merge into the travel lanes. Drivers already on the freeway, who have the legal right-of-way, are reluctant to slow down or provide an opening for merging traffic, especially for trucks or other slow-moving vehicles. Faced with the prospect of being forced onto the shoulder as the on-ramp ends, merging drivers will often pull into one of the travel lanes even if they haven’t matched the speed of traffic.
A jamiton can quickly result as the driver behind the merging vehicle taps the brakes, or sometimes brakes hard, to adapt. Even small reductions in speed can be amplified backwards as drivers behind the merging vehicle adjust – and sometimes overreact with hard braking because they were tailgating.
Studies suggest that jamitons could be reduced if drivers:
1) Allow enough space for merging vehicles to change lanes at safe speeds; and,
2) Leave a safe “cushion” between vehicles to avoid excessive braking when traffic slows.
Drivers have a choice. We can charge ahead through traffic, seeking any small advantage in the hope of reaching our destination a few minutes sooner, or we can act cooperatively to ensure the smooth “blending” of vehicles at on-ramps, reducing the risks from unsafe merging and the avoidable delays caused by jamitons.
Although traffic violations are dispersed over many of Tigard’s streets, there are certain locations where enforcement is concentrated due to high traffic volumes, citizen requests or the frequency of crashes. These currently include:
Citations for “Following too closely” on Highway 217: This violation, often combined with excessive speed, is the most common cause of collisions. Drivers who fail to leave enough room between themselves and the vehicle in front of them will be unable to stop in time to avoid a crash.
Violations of the “Right Turn Only” signs at SW Greenburg Road and SW Center Street (near 99W): For a short side-street, this intersection has a surprisingly high incidence of collisions. Drivers who violate the well-marked turn restriction risk an accident and a citation.* They can also block the intersection and contribute to traffic congestion.
Speeding on SW Walnut Street between SW 121st and SW Gaarde Street: Excessive speeds are common in this hilly residential area despite the number of side streets and driveways, not to mention the recent opening of Fire Station 50 near Jack Park. The speed limit on this portion of Walnut is 30 mph, lowering to 20 mph on school days farther east near Fowler Middle School.
Speeding on SW Tiedeman Avenue between SW Tigard and SW Walnut streets, a residential neighborhood with a posted 25 mph limit and signs warning that it is strictly enforced.
Speeding and center left-turn-lane violations on SW 72nd.
Speeding on the 99W viaduct between SW Greenburg Road and Johnson: Although the posted limit for the viaduct is 35 mph, excessive speeds (up to 70 mph in one case) are common.
Illegal U-turns in front of Costco near SW Dartmouth and SW Atlanta, even though the area is clearly marked with signs. Oregon’s strict U-turn law would prohibit such turns at this location even without the reminder offered by the signs.
Lane violations at both ends of the southbound on-ramp from Highway 217 to Interstate 5. “Late mergers” often commit violations by making unsafe lane changes or driving over the fog line during busy periods.
Obstructing cross traffic at various locations along Highway 99W and SW Boones Ferry Road.
Please note that traffic enforcement priorities can quickly change with the needs of the community. Now that schools have reopened, for example, nearby streets are likely to receive more attention.
Let’s say you’re entering a typical urban freeway that’s congested with rush-hour traffic. You find that your acceleration lane is nearly empty for hundreds of yards before it merges with the right lane. What’s the best way to enter the flow of traffic in this situation?
You have two options:
- You can try to merge quickly into the left lane, slowing if necessary until someone lets you enter. In so doing, you may risk blocking (and annoying) drivers behind you and slowing traffic even further. Or,
- You can continue down the highway until you near the end of your lane, hoping to gain some precious time by passing some of your “competition.”
While there’s a natural tendency to view the “late mergers” as aggressive and unethical cheats, a traffic engineer might argue that they help everyone by making the most efficient use of all the available highway space. An empty lane isn’t doing its share of moving traffic towards its destination. Nonetheless, other drivers are likely to view late merging as a provocation, sometimes leading to serious incidents of road rage.
If drivers choose late merging and no one allows them to enter, they risk crossing over the fog line onto the shoulder at the “pinch point,” a violation of Oregon law. If drivers cut off another vehicle while merging, they disobey another requirement to “refrain from moving from [a] lane until the driver has first made certain that the movement can be made with safety.” Each violation is subject to a $260 presumptive fine.
The Oregon Driver Manual offers this advice: “If you are entering a freeway from a merging lane, you must yield to traffic already on the freeway. If you already are on the freeway, you are obligated to help merging traffic. Adjust your speed to permit a safe, smooth merge.” This ideal of seamless “zippering” requires a level of cooperation and communication that Oregon drivers should cultivate.
School Zones and School Buses
Q. When do I have to stop for school buses?
A. When a school bus flashes its orange lights you should prepare to stop whether you’re following or approaching the bus. When the red lights and stop arm are activated, you must stop immediately and remain stopped until the lights go off and the arm is retracted.
The rule applies on highways with two or more lanes, including Pacific Highway in Tigard, unless there’s an unpaved median strip or a barrier that divides the roadway. Violations are subject to a presumptive fine of $435.
Q. What are the penalties for school-zone speeding violations?
A. Fines double. For example, the presumptive fine for speeding 11-20 mph over the limit is $260.
Q. What is the school-zone speed limit and when does it apply?
A. The speed for designated school zones is 20 mph. It applies whenever:
- A yellow flashing light on a school speed-limit sign indicates that children may be arriving at or leaving school; OR
- A sign indicates that you’re entering a school zone and it’s between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on a day when school is in session.
- If you’re not sure whether “school is in session,” reduce your speed to 20 mph as a precaution.
Q. What about school crosswalks?
A. The 20 mph speed limit also applies at marked “school crosswalks” if children are present OR if there’s a flashing light that indicates children may be arriving at or leaving school. Note that a marked “school crosswalk” may not be adjacent to school grounds.
Q. What does “when children are present” at a crosswalk mean?
A. Children are “present” under Oregon law when:
- Children are “occupying or walking within a crosswalk;” OR,
- Children are “waiting on the curb or shoulder of the highway at a crosswalk;” OR
- When a “traffic patrol member is present to assist children” at a crosswalk.
Oregon’s Rules of the Road encourage drivers to exercise due care by driving defensively and anticipating problems. But some road hazards are so dangerous that laws have been specially devised to address them, including:
- Emergency vehicles on highway shoulders: If you’re driving on a four-lane highway and see a police vehicle or ambulance on the shoulder with its lights activated, you must move out of the lane next to that vehicle. If you can’t change lanes safely, slow down and allow plenty of room as you pass. On a two-lane highway with traffic in both directions, you must slow down. Failure to follow this rule is a frequent cause of injuries and fatalities among police officers.
- Emergency vehicles on the highway: If there’s an emergency vehicle behind you with its lights or siren activated, you must pull over to the right and stop until the vehicle passes you. Be sure to move right on freeways as well, since the left shoulder may not be wide enough to keep your car from blocking the travel lane. A life could be lost if an emergency vehicle is delayed for even a minute in reaching its destination.
- Following emergency vehicles: Aggressive drivers sometimes follow ambulances through heavy traffic, trying to take advantage of their right-of way. Oregon law requires you to allow at least 500 feet between your vehicle and any emergency vehicle whose lights are activated. At 50 mph, that equals about six seconds.
- Highway work zones: As roadwork increases over the coming months, drivers need to be aware of the dangers to construction workers and themselves in work zones. Traffic flaggers have the legal right to direct vehicles and initiate citations against violators.
Each of the above violations is subject to a $260 presumptive fine, though work-zone violations are subject to double fines. Fines also increase if a violation contributes to a collision.
Safe Driving in Heavy Traffic
Sluggish traffic quickly leads to haste and frustration, clouding a driver’s judgment. Drivers who don’t allow enough time to reach their destinations often make poor choices that result in collisions and citations. Typical violations on congested highways include:
- Failure to obey traffic lights and stop signs ($260 fine): You must stop on a yellow light if you can do so safely. If not, you may drive cautiously though the intersection. At stop signs, the law requires “the complete cessation from movement” (ORS 801.510), which only takes a few extra seconds compared to a rolling “California stop.”
- Obstructing cross traffic ($110 fine): Oregon law prohibits entering an intersection “when there is not sufficient space on the other side” to avoid blocking other vehicles or pedestrians (ORS 811.290). Obstructing an intersection delays traffic even more and creates a risk of collisions.
- Dangerous left turns ($260 fine): Many collisions occur when a driver turns left across two oncoming lanes in dense traffic. The driver in the lane closest to you may stop and wave you through, but take a few extra seconds before turning to make sure that there are no approaching vehicles in the far lane.
- Driving on the shoulder, bike lane or center lane ($260 fine): With few exceptions, Oregon law prohibits using the center lane or side of a highway as a travel lane or to pass other vehicles.
Once free of traffic congestion, drivers often speed to make up for lost time. But a car traveling the 7-mile length of Highway 217, from I-5 to Highway 26, saves only 96 seconds by speeding at 70 mph compared to obeying the 55-mph limit.
If you have an appointment during the hours of heavy traffic, pretend that it starts at least fifteen minutes earlier than the actual time. Then you’ll have a reasonable chance of getting there safely, on time—and without a citation.
U-Turns...When in Doubt, Don’t!
Suppose you’re driving down an unfamiliar residential street in Tigard and realize that you made a wrong turn at a traffic signal a few blocks back. There’s a stop sign at an intersection a quarter mile ahead of you, but there are no other vehicles on the road for at least 500 feet in either direction. Can you legally make a U-turn?
Under Oregon law, the clear answer is “no.” The Rules of the Road prohibit U-turns “between intersections” in a city (ORS 811.365). U-turns are also prohibited in intersections controlled by an “electrical signal” (traffic light) unless an official sign permits them.
Can you drive up to the stop sign and make a U-turn within that intersection? Yes, apparently, as long as approaching drivers can see you from a distance of at least 500 feet.
There are few places in urban areas where U-turns are permitted under Oregon law. Violations are subject to a presumptive fine of $160, or $260 if the illegal turn “contributes to an accident.”
In areas “outside a city,” the law is less strict. You can make a U-turn if approaching drivers can see you from a distance of at least 1,000 feet “from either direction.”
In just about every state, a U-turn is defined as turning a vehicle “so as to proceed in the opposite direction.” Compared to its neighbors, though, Oregon has a very restrictive U-turn law as well as relatively low speed limits on freeways.
Why aren’t traffic laws uniform from state to state? With a few exceptions, like the former “federal maximum speed limit” of 55 mph, traffic laws have traditionally been left to the states. In a highly mobile society, however, it may not be realistic for drivers to familiarize themselves with Oregon’s 772-page Vehicle Code before they enter its borders. The safest rule may be: if there’s even the slightest doubt that it’s legal, don’t make that U-turn.
Following Too Closely
It can happen to anyone: You’re driving down a busy freeway at 50 m.p.h. and turn your attention away from the road for just a second, maybe to insert a CD in the stereo. You look back up and see nothing but brake lights. The adrenaline surges as you move your foot onto the brake pedal. The car in front of you barely stops in time to avoid a collision. Can you?
Let’s do the math. At 50 m.p.h., you’re moving at 73 feet per second. You’ll need 1.5 seconds to react and apply your foot to the brake. During that time you’ll travel 110 feet. You’ll need an additional 119 feet to stop, for a total distance of 229 feet.
Is that enough? The answer largely depends on how closely you were following the car ahead of you. That single second of distraction could make the difference between a near miss and a collision. If you were two seconds (or 146 feet) back, you may be able to stop—on dry pavement. A separation of just one second might not be enough.
Oregon law prohibits following another vehicle “more closely than is reasonable and prudent,” considering the “speed of the vehicles and the traffic upon, and condition of, the highway” (ORS 811.485). A violation is subject to a presumptive fine of $260, even if there’s no collision. The Oregon Driver Manual suggests that a distance of at least two to four seconds is a workable rule of thumb.
The Tigard Police Department has acquired a new “distance-between cars” (“DBC”) technology that offers objective evidence of violations. It allows a laser speed-measurement device to detect the precise time and distance between two vehicles as well as their speed. To do your own low-tech “DBC” check, simply count the seconds (“one thousand one…”) that separate you from the vehicle ahead of you as you pass a fixed point on the highway.
Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII)
DUII Enforcement in Tigard
During the last two weeks of December, Tigard officers conducted an enforcement program that produced five arrests for Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII) and 61 citations for other offenses. These operations occur throughout the year, with the next scheduled for Superbowl weekend in February.
Tigard officers arrested 108 drivers for DUII in 2017, 30 percent more than the previous year. Due to the holidays, the most active month for DUII arrests is December. The consequences for impaired driving can be lethal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 people in the country die in motor vehicle crashes every day that involve an alcohol-impaired driver—or one death every 51 minutes.
DUII arrests commonly occur after a traffic stop for such violations as speeding or disobeying a traffic light. If an officer detects evidence of impairment by alcohol or drugs, like slurred or incoherent speech, the officer can ask the driver to perform field sobriety tests such as the “walk and turn” test or balancing on one leg.
Based on this investigation, an officer may have “probable cause” to arrest the driver for suspected impairment by alcohol, drugs or inhalants. The driver can then be taken to the police station for further investigation.
If alcohol impairment is suspected, the driver will be asked to take a breath test for blood alcohol content (BAC). If the result shows a BAC of .08 percent or higher, the driver will be charged with DUII. A driver suspected of impairment can be charged with DUII even if the BAC is lower than .08 percent. DUII cases are filed in the circuit court in Hillsboro, not Tigard’s municipal court.
A conviction for a first offense can result in severe penalties: up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $6,250 along with probation, a license suspension, evaluation and treatment, and other sanctions.
Marijuana Impairment and Driving
Oregon voters recently approved a ballot initiative that will allow the personal possession and use of small amounts of marijuana, though public consumption will remain prohibited. The law takes effect July 1.
How will legalization of marijuana affect existing criminal statutes?
Some sections of the criminal code will be revised, but the law on driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUII) will remain unchanged. Operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol, THC (marijuana’s active ingredient) and all other drugs, legal or illegal, will still be prohibited in Oregon.
Most arrests for DUII currently involve alcohol. It is difficult to predict whether the new law will put more drivers impaired by THC on the highways. Some observers expect that Oregon’s black market in marijuana is so well established that there is unlikely to be a major increase in usage. Edible products are likely to be in high demand, even though, as noted in a recent Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) report, there is “little conclusive scientific evidence” to support a recommended serving size of 10 milligrams of THC.
Under current law, impairment by alcohol is easier to prove than impairment by drugs like THC. Someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent is presumed to be impaired by statute, but there is currently no objective standard for allowable levels of THC and many other drugs. While nearly every drug leaves a chemical trace in the bloodstream, its presence does not necessarily mean that a driver is impaired.
How is impairment determined?
To investigate the presence of non-alcoholic drugs, Oregon police agencies employ more than 200 drug recognition experts (DREs) trained to detect the signs of impairment after a traffic stop. DRE officers apply a 12-step test based on such factors as responses to questions, pulse rates, pupil responses to bright light, lab tests and field-sobriety tests like finger-to-nose and balancing.
If the evidence is strong enough to indicate impairment by an identified drug or type of drug, the driver will be prosecuted for DUII. The National Institute on Drug Abuse publishes additional information about hazards of drugged driving.
How Much Holiday Drinking Is Too Much?
Early in my career as a judge, a young man charged with driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUII) appeared in court for arraignment, an initial proceeding where defendants are asked to plead "not guilty" or "guilty." He requested more time to hire an attorney, which I allowed. He then politely asked whether it was illegal under Oregon law to have a "couple beers" over a holiday dinner and then drive home. I encouraged him to discuss his question with his attorney.
The question of "how much is enough" requires a complicated answer because there are so many factors to consider, including:
Studies also show that women absorb alcohol differently than men. Women can have higher blood-alcohol levels and become impaired more easily, even if they consume the same amount of alcohol as a man of the same size.
The test for determining if drivers are under the influence of drugs or alcohol is whether they are "affected to a perceptible degree" by what they have consumed, as measured by standard techniques like breath tests, field sobriety tests or blood tests.
It is not necessary for a person to be "drunk" or "intoxicated" in the usual sense to be DUII. In fact, a BAC of 0.08 percent or above is enough by itself to show impaired driving in Oregon. "Buzzed" driving can affect judgment, reaction times and performance on field-sobriety tests even at BAC levels below the legal limit.
Incidentally, two 12-ounce glasses of beer contain as much alcohol as an eight-ounce glass of wine or 2.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. What matters is the amount of alcohol, not how it was consumed.
Celebrate the holidays safely.
DUII Diversion Agreements
Since I started practicing law over thirty years ago, Oregon’s statutes on driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUII) have gotten much more strict. Back then, for example, a blood-alcohol content (BAC) at or above 0.10 percent met the legal standard for driving under the influence. Today a BAC level of 0.08 or higher is enough, with zero tolerance for drivers under 21. Drivers who “pass” the BAC test may still be convicted of DUII if they fail standard field-sobriety tests at the time of the traffic stop.
Despite Oregon’s stricter standards and more aggressive enforcement, the state estimates that 40 percent of traffic deaths are the direct result of DUII.
Even a first DUII conviction can result in severe sanctions, including two days in jail or community service, a minimum fine of $1,000, a one-year license suspension and many other requirements.
Drivers charged with a first DUII offense, with clean records for the previous fifteen years, may apply for a one-year diversion agreement that allows them to keep a conviction from appearing on their driving record.
While the benefits of diversion can be substantial, so can the burdens. These include:
- Drug or alcohol assessment and treatment
- Installing an ignition interlock device to prevent use of a vehicle after consuming alcohol
- Payment of fees totaling $536 and treatment costs
- Reimbursing the court for the expense of a court-appointed attorney, if appropriate
- A one-year license suspension for those who refuse to take the BAC test, or 90 days for those who take the test and fail it
If all conditions of diversion have been completed within a year, the court will dismiss the DUII charge. However, the diversion agreement will be noted on the DMV record. Those who fail to fully satisfy all conditions of their diversion agreement face all the sanctions imposed for a first DUII conviction.
Given the potential consequences, anyone charged with DUII would be wise to consult an attorney.
Evolving Standards for DUII Convictions
With an increased understanding of the effects that alcohol and drugs have on drivers, Oregon’s Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII) law has become more stringent since I began practicing law over three decades ago. At that time, Oregon prohibited driving with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .10 percent or higher. Today the legal standard is .08 percent BAC, just as it is in the other forty-nine states and the District of Columbia. About one-sixth of all drivers killed on Oregon highways are confirmed to be at or above .08 percent BAC and in the not so distant past, many states tolerated BAC levels as high as .14 percent.
The current standard reflects extensive testing of coordination, reaction time and concentration in a wide range of situations. At a BAC level of .08 percent, nearly all study participants will show significant impairment in performing the kinds of tasks routinely required of drivers.
Some reformers argue that DUII laws in the U.S. are still too lenient. For example, at .06 percent BAC, more than half the participants in several studies showed consistent impairment in coordination, reaction time and the ability to complete mental tasks. Even at .01 percent, more than half the study participants became drowsy and less vigilant. Contrary to popular opinion, at least one analysis sponsored by the U.S. government shows that differences in age, gender and drinking habits provide “no mitigation” of impairment.
In response to such studies, many other countries have adopted lower BAC limits.
France, Japan, Italy, Spain, Finland, Ireland, Egypt, Argentina and Germany use a standard of .05 percent while Sweden, China, India, Poland and Norway adopted a standard of .02 to .03 percent BAC. The U.S. is a statistical outlier: only a few countries, including the U.K. and New Zealand, share the .08 percent limit.
Even under current Oregon law, a driver with a BAC level below .08 percent can still be convicted of DUII if the driver is unable to pass standard field-sobriety tests, including the heel-to-toe walk and the finger-to-nose test.
Driving and Alcohol Don’t Mix
[Data Source: Traffic, by John Vanderbilt (2008)]
Alcoholic beverages are a traditional part of many holiday celebrations. Despite massive publicity about the dangers of alcohol, many motorists remain convinced that they can drive safely after a few drinks because they’re not “drunk.”
Oregon law prohibits “Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants” (DUII), not “drunk driving.” Drivers can be DUII without being “drunk” or “intoxicated” in the usual sense. In fact, a driver is considered DUII if a breath test reveals a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher. Alcohol or drug impairment can also be shown by standard field-sobriety tests like walking a straight line.
Decades ago, Oregon lowered its BAC limit from 0.10% to 0.08%. But a BAC of 0.08% may still be too high for safe driving. One study showed that the risk of collision increases with BAC levels as low as 0.02%, one-fourth the legal limit. A driver’s skills may be impaired by BAC levels far below what we ordinarily consider “drunkenness.”
The risk of alcohol-related collisions is greatly increased between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and on holidays. Drivers above the legal BAC limit are thirteen times more likely to be involved in fatal collisions than sober drivers during those hours. Even drivers with legally-permissible BAC levels (under 0.08%) are seven times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than nondrinking drivers.
A first conviction for DUII in Oregon can result in a maximum sentence of a year in jail, a $6,250 fine (or $10,000 if a minor was in the car) and a 1-year license suspension. For drivers under 21, Oregon has a “zero-tolerance” standard: any BAC level above 0.00% results in a lengthy license suspension even if there’s no DUII conviction.
Does $6,250 sound like an unreasonable fine for driving under the influence? Not when you consider that two economists, adding up the actual costs imposed by DUII drivers nationally, estimate that a more appropriate fine would be $8,000.
In the Courtroom...
Oregon's Insurance Requirements
“How will this affect my insurance?”
That’s a question defendants often ask before pleading to a traffic citation, but there’s no standard answer that judges can offer. Neither the courts nor the state’s Motor Vehicle Division (DMV) report convictions for minor traffic violations to insurance carriers. However, companies can obtain that information from DMV after paying a small fee.
Oregon law requires drivers to be insured at all times. The minimum requirements for each policy include:
- Liability insurance: Covers claims against a driver for bodily injury and property damage up to the policy limits.
- Personal injury protection: Reimburses the insured party and others, regardless of fault, for certain wage losses, medical expenses and other costs.
- Uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage: Protects against losses resulting from crashes in which the other driver was at fault but uninsured, or whose policy limits don’t cover all losses.
A conviction for driving uninsured can have serious consequences in Oregon. The driver of an uninsured vehicle may receive a citation with a $265 presumptive fine, and a police officer can order impoundment of the vehicle. Upon conviction, the driver will be required to provide proof of insurance (an SR-22 certificate) for three years, increasing premiums.
A driver involved in an uninsured collision, even if the driver was not at fault and no citation was issued, faces a one-year license suspension.
Many drivers fail to keep the most recent insurance card or other proof in their cars or on their cellphones. They can be cited for failure to carry proof of insurance, a separate violation. That charge can be dismissed if they present satisfactory proof of coverage for the date of the citation.
Legal Advice in the Courtroom
Most drivers who are issued a traffic ticket in Tigard choose not to contest it, though many exercise their right to explain the circumstances to a judge by appearing personally in court or by mail. A much smaller percentage choose to plead “not guilty” and go to trial.
Recently a young woman came to court for her scheduled first appearance and was unsure about how to proceed. In that situation, the judge’s responsibility is to describe her options and answer questions about legal processes.
A judge will explain, for example, that a plea of “not guilty” places the burden on the citing officer to show at trial that a traffic violation occurred “by a preponderance of the evidence.” The officer must, in everyday terms, show that it is more likely than not that a violation occurred. In response, defendants have the right to present their own evidence.
The young woman’s uncertainty is not unusual, since the legal process can be complicated even for minor traffic offenses. After hearing a description of her rights and court procedures, she asked: “What do you recommend?” But that is one question judges cannot answer, even though they’re licensed to practice law in Oregon.
A judge’s proper role is to educate defendants about their rights rather than to give legal advice, which is a lawyer’s job. In the same way, court staff can provide useful information, but not suggestions.
Courts have an ethical duty to remain fair and impartial in every case. Giving legal advice would undermine that role. Defendants in need of counsel can confer with a lawyer of their choice, who can then represent them at every stage of the process.
Neglected Tickets Result in Suspensions
A young man, “John,” came to trial in our court on two charges: speeding, which he did not challenge, and driving with a suspended license (DWS).
The officer presented her evidence, including a certified record from the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) showing that John’s driving privileges had been suspended several months before he got his ticket. The reason? He had failed to respond to another citation for a red-light violation that has issued six months earlier in Hillsboro. That court had entered a judgment against him and ordered DMV to suspend his license.
“But I never received notice of any suspension,” John protested. The evidence showed that he had moved shortly after receiving the Hillsboro ticket, but he had not changed his address with DMV within 30 days, as required by law. In that situation, the “notice defense” was not available to him and he was found guilty of DWS.
According the state figures, each year, DMV issues license suspensions to about 450,000 of Oregon’s 3.1 million drivers. Some drivers receive multiple suspensions.
The presumptive fine is $435 for most DWS offenses, though some are serious crimes punishable by jail and large fines. Most suspended drivers in Tigard’s court have lost their licenses because they neglected to follow the instructions printed on each ticket: respond either in person, by mail, online or in court by the date stated.
Tickets do not just go away if drivers choose to ignore them, and suspensions for failure to appear are indefinite. Fortunately for John, he had already taken care of the Hillsboro ticket and paid the required $75 reinstatement fee to DMV before coming to trial. It was his first ticket for DWS, so his fine was reduced substantially.
Top Eight Traffic Violations in Tigard
In 2015, the three most common traffic violations in Tigard were speeding, unlawful cellphone use, and disobeying traffic control devices like traffic signals and stop signs. These three violations comprised about 60% of our caseload, reflecting safety priorities and the kinds of offenses seen most often by officers on patrol.
About 40% of defendants were cited for other offenses. The following violations round out the “Top 8” list for 2015:
- Driving While Suspended: The right to drive in Oregon, or apply for a license, can be suspended by DMV for many reasons. These include failure to appear in court or pay a fine on a traffic ticket, and accumulating too many violations in a short time. Drivers are also cited frequently for failure to have a valid license, a less serious violation.
- Driving Without Insurance or proof of insurance: Driving uninsured, or without proof of insurance, may result in a substantial fine, a towed vehicle and increased insurance rates.
- Following too closely: The law requires drivers to maintain a "reasonable and prudent" distance from the vehicle ahead, considering circumstances such as weather, traffic and road conditions. Rear-end collisions produce many citations for this violation.
- Misuse of a center left-turn lane: Many drivers, frustrated by long lines of traffic, move into a center turn lane too early, using it unlawfully as a passing or travel lane. It also creates a risk of collision when other drivers move into the lane for a legal turn.
- Expired registration: These “fix-it” tickets may be dismissed on proof of valid registration.
Convicted drivers with good records may receive a reduction in the “presumptive fines” set by Oregon law.
Tigard Peer Court
When young people make mistakes due to immaturity or poor judgment, the legal system gets involved if those mistakes are also offenses under Oregon law.
In Tigard, teen drivers cited for minor traffic violations appear in our municipal court. If guilty, they can be ordered to pay a fine like other drivers, but first offenders can complete a diversion program that results in dismissal of their cases.
Serious crimes, including violent offenses, are referred to Washington County’s juvenile court in Hillsboro.
Less serious criminal offenses, including nonviolent misdemeanors, may be sent to Tigard’s Peer Court. This unique forum allows young first offenders who enter a guilty plea to appear before a true jury of their peers: fellow teens who determine sentences after a formal hearing before a judge. The jurors are either volunteers or previous offenders who serve as part of their sentences.
Proceedings in Peer Court are confidential and closed to the public. At each sentencing hearing, jurors hear evidence about the circumstances of the offense and any mitigating factors, including the youth’s attitude. The youth can respond with an explanation and a plea for leniency. Parents are also required to participate.
After hearing all of the facts, the jury deliberates and, by a majority, decides on a sentence. Requirements can include community service, letters of apology, restitution and service on a Peer Court jury.
During 2015, Peer Court heard 53 cases. About 75 percent of those cases involved theft offenses and 91 percent of the offenders completed their sentences successfully. Offenders performed 820 hours of required community service.
Teens who complete their sentences and stay out of trouble can have their convictions expunged from their records.
Traffic Court FAQs
What are my options if I am issued a ticket, and how is the fine determined?
Your options are described in detail on the citation.The dollar amount on the ticket, called the "presumptive fine," is determined by state statute depending on the seriousness of the violation. That amount may be reduced by court staff or a judge based on your driving record and other circumstances.
Can an officer issue a ticket if no officer witnessed the alleged violation?
Generally, no. But if there is a crash, an officer can issue a citation based on witness statements.
Is a traffic offense a crime in Oregon?
Most traffic offenses are violations because they are punishable only by a fine. Traffic crimes, like driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUll) and reckless driving, are punishable by fines, jail time and other sanctions like license suspensions.
What is a "no contest" plea, and what if I want to just plead "guilty"? Does the ticket go on my record?
'Guilty" pleas were recently eliminated for minor traffic cases. A "no contest" plea means that you choose not to challenge your ticket even though you may not agree with it. If you plead "no contest," the court will impose a fine and the conviction will be forwarded to DMV for entry on your driving record.
Will a conviction affect my insurance rates?
Neither the court nor DMV will automatically notify your insurance company of a conviction. An insurance company must inquire to obtain that information. A minor traffic violation may affect your rates depending on your driving record, including any at-fault collisions and other circumstances.
FAQs About Traffic Trials
About 7,500 traffic violations are filed with our court each year. Around 10 percent of the cases go to trial after drivers (defendants) enter a “not guilty” plea. The following questions often come up when defendants are cited for minor traffic offenses:
When, and how, should I enter a “not guilty” plea?
The instructions provided on the citation will tell you how to enter a plea of either “no contest” (if you don’t want to challenge the ticket) or “not guilty.” You may choose to plead “not guilty” and have a trial if you don’t believe you committed the violation or want to explore a possible defense.
What rights do I have at trial?
In criminal cases, where there’s a risk of going to jail upon conviction, defendants are entitled to a jury trial and a court-appointed lawyer if they can’t afford to hire one. Those rights don’t apply to minor traffic violations, though you can hire a lawyer to represent you if you wish.
What procedures are followed at traffic trials?
Trial procedures and rules of evidence are similar to criminal cases. The burden is on the police officer to prove guilt by “a preponderance of the evidence,” so the officer presents evidence to the court first. You may cross-examine the officer by asking relevant questions, but you’re not required to testify or present any evidence at all.
Most defendants choose to testify, however, and many bring in witnesses on their own behalf. It is the judge’s job to make sure you have a fair trial based on all the admissible evidence.
When will the judge decide the case? Can I appeal?
The judge will usually make an immediate decision. You have the right to appeal to a higher court and have a new trial if you wish.
How can I get more information?
If you enter a “not guilty” plea, the court will provide further information to help you prepare for trial.
Videos in Traffic Court
The SUV emerged from a row of shrubbery and approached the stop sign about forty feet ahead. Although the driver insisted that she had stopped, I could plainly see that the SUV barely slowed as it rolled over the white stop line and accelerated through the intersection. I entered a “guilty” finding on the citation and, because she had a good record, imposed the minimum fine of $195.
By now, any reader with legal training might rightly object: “How can you be the judge and a witness in the same case?” If I had seen the actual incident, of course, I’d have an ethical duty to recuse myself and refer the case to another judge. In fact, though, I “witnessed” the violation in the courtroom along with everyone else watching the crisp, high-definition color video projected onto a large screen.
Videos of traffic violations have been common in U.S. courtrooms since Pennsylvania State Police equipped its cruisers with cameras in 1996. In Tigard, video evidence has also been available for many years, but it is becoming much more common now that all the city’s police cruisers have been furnished with state-of-the-art cameras.
Like still photos, video evidence is generally admissible under Oregon’s evidence code. Videos won’t be available in every case, though, due to such factors as camera angles, weather conditions and traffic volumes.
The increased use of video cameras for traffic enforcement and general surveillance has generated growing concern about the erosion of privacy in U.S. culture. Those policy issues are best addressed by citizens, not judges, working with their elected representatives. Unless Oregon law is revised, video evidence of alleged violations will remain a useful tool in court, along with more traditional evidence such as testimony, diagrams and still photos.
For the SUV driver who disobeyed the stop sign, video evidence of the violation might help her confront and improve the driving habits that brought her into the courtroom.
Oregon Laws / Legislative Updates
Refresher on Parking Spaces for Persons with Disabilities
Oregon’s regulations for public and private parking lots are designed to promote access for drivers and passengers with disabilities. The number of accessible spaces in each lot is set by state statute according to its size, and they’re usually located next to building and park entrances.
Accessible-parking laws apply to all “marked or signed” spaces. The design of symbols, signs and pavement striping is standardized across the U.S., and all signs must be “clearly visible” to drivers. Most accessible spaces include a striped access aisle on the passenger side or between two accessible spaces. It is unlawful to park in any access aisle.
All users of accessible parking spaces must “conspicuously display” a special parking permit for persons with disabilities who qualify under Oregon law. Applications are available through DMV and permits can be either temporary – for six months or less – or renewable. Permits from other jurisdictions are valid for use in Oregon.
One of every eight accessible slots is marked “Van Accessible.” Any vehicle displaying a DMV permit can use these spaces. However, some “Van Accessible” spaces are specially marked for “Wheelchair Users Only.” These spaces have a striped unloading zone wide enough for the ramp of a wheelchair user, and they are reserved only for those with DMV “Wheelchair User” permits.
There are two types of accessible-parking violations under Oregon statute:
- Unlawful parking in a space reserved for persons with disabilities: This is a serious violation under Oregon law. A first offense is subject to a $165 presumptive fine, or $440 for a second offense.
- Blocking access to a parking space reserved for persons with disabilities: It’s unlawful under state statute to stop or park a vehicle “in such a way as to block access” to a space marked for persons with disabilities. Violations are subject to a $115 fine.
Vehicles in violation of accessible-parking regulations can be towed without warning to the driver or owner, and at their expense.
The Constitutional Right to Travel
Trials in traffic courts usually involve the Oregon Vehicle Code, the laws adopted by the legislature to regulate transportation. On occasion, a defendant may raise constitutional questions that challenge provisions of the Code itself.
The “right to travel” under the U.S. Constitution’s 5th Amendment is sometimes offered as a defense to such charges as Driving Without a License or Driving While Suspended. A defendant will argue that the right to travel is absolute and can never be burdened by state requirements on licenses, registrations and insurance.
But constitutional rights aren’t “absolute.” Courts have held that the right to travel is subject to the “police power” of the states, which gives states the ability to enact laws protecting the safety, health and welfare of the public. All states require that drivers be examined and licensed before operating a motor vehicle on public highways.
A license represents a contract between a driver and the state: the driver accepts certain requirements, including proof of driving skills and knowledge of traffic laws, and the state permits the driver to use public roadways. It’s a privilege that must be earned, and it can be lost if the contract is broken. States can suspend driving privileges under certain circumstances set by law, although drivers have a right to a hearing if they object.
Those who seek a change in existing law on the right to travel may find it difficult to succeed in the trial courts. Questions about regulating the use of motor vehicles are, in the words of a 1932 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, “not for the courts but for the legislature, which is entitled to form its own judgment.”
Tough New Penalties for Distracted Driving in Oregon
Based on a growing body of research on the dangers of using cellphones while driving, Oregon law has been revised, and toughened, over the last decade. The current version prohibits all use of hands-on “mobile electronic devices,” though drivers are allowed “the minimal use of a finger, via a swipe or tap, to activate or deactivate a function of the device.” The use of a Bluetooth or similar hands-free devices is still allowed.
Just five years ago, the “presumptive fine” — the amount on the front of a traffic ticket — was $110. Under the new law, effective July 1, the penalty depends on prior cellphone violations within the last 10 years and whether cellphone use “contributes to an accident,” as follows:
- $265 presumptive fine for a first cellphone conviction and no crash, with a maximum fine of $1,000.
- $440 with a crash or a prior cellphone conviction during the past 10 years, with a maximum fine of $2,000.
Three or more cellphone convictions during the previous 10 years will be treated as a criminal misdemeanor with the following consequences:
- A maximum sentence of six months in jail.
- A minimum fine of $2,000.
Drivers with cellphone convictions prior to July 1, 2018 start with a clean slate: the 10-year “lookback” begins on that date. Earlier cellphone convictions won’t be counted against them.
The legislature didn’t focus only on stiff penalties in the new law. Drivers with no prior cellphone violations can take a “distracted driving avoidance course” and avoid paying any fine in Tigard. Drivers are allowed 120 days to complete the course and pay the modest fee. However, a conviction will still appear on the DMV driving record.
Traffic School Diversion Programs
Many Oregon courts, including the Tigard Municipal Court, offer diversion programs to eligible drivers for minor-traffic violations. Drivers who successfully complete all requirements of diversion benefit by the dismissal of their cases and no entry appearing on their DMV driving records.
The rules for eligibility can vary from one court to another, and not all courts offer diversion. In Tigard, drivers must plead “no contest” and have a clear record to be eligible, with no moving violations or other diversion programs during the five years preceding the present ticket. In order to succeed, they must complete the following requirements within 120 days:
- Take a traffic-safety class approved by the court
- Pay the fee for the class, usually around $45.
- Pay a fee to the court based on the type of violation.
- Submit a certificate of completion of the class.
Drivers who fail to complete the program within the time allowed are required to pay the presumptive fine—the amount on the front of the ticket—and a record of the conviction is sent to DMV.
Due to recent changes in Oregon law, diversion is not available for drivers cited for unlawful use of mobile electronic devices.
The current diversion program was authorized by the Tigard City Council in 2015. The program is popular, with more than 1,100 participants last year. Nearly nine out of 10 participants successfully completed all requirements within the time allowed.
Most drivers are eager to take advantage of the “break” they are given through diversion programs. From a judge’s point of view, diversion is a way to expand the impact of receiving a ticket by promoting safety awareness and knowledge of Oregon law.
Move Over or Slow Down
After each legislative session, the media and state government make a concerted effort to bring Oregonians up to date on significant new laws.
A good example is the latest version of Oregon’s cellphone law, which was widely discussed before it went into effect on Oct. 1. During arraignments and trials in Tigard’s court, few cited drivers have claimed that they were unaware of the new law. It seems that the educational process worked well, at least in Tigard and the metro region.
Other measures received less notice, including changes to Oregon’s “move over or slow down” law.
Effective Jan. 1, it requires drivers to change lanes or reduce speed when approaching any stopped vehicle that “is displaying required warning lights or hazard lights, or a person is indicating distress by using emergency flares or posting emergency signs.” This is a broader version of an existing statute that referred only to certain parked emergency vehicles with flashing lights.
The new law applies to drivers nearing a vehicle on the roadside with flashing lights or other evidence of a hazard. On a road with four or more lanes, they must move into another lane or slow to at least 5 mph below the limit. On a two-lane road, drivers must slow to at least 5 mph below the limit. The law does not apply if the stopped vehicle is in a “designated parking area.”
Videos shown at trial have revealed many close calls involving drivers in Tigard who failed to slow or change lanes when approaching a stopped vehicle. The new law, subject to a $265 presumptive fine, can enhance safety for everyone.
Understanding our Municipal Courts
When Tigard voters approved the creation of a city government in 1962, the new city’s charter also established a municipal court. The court has operated continuously since that time and shares the busy Town Hall with the council, planning commission and other users.
Under the municipal code, city judges are required be licensed to practice law. Most municipal judges in Oregon are appointed by city councils, like Tigard’s, though a handful are elected.
Municipal courts are specialized courts of “limited jurisdiction” that mainly adjudicate minor traffic violations, code violations under municipal law and limited criminal offenses. Nearly all criminal charges originating in Tigard, whether misdemeanors or felonies, are filed in the state circuit court in Hillsboro. The circuit court also handles lawsuits between private parties, probate cases, family-law cases such as divorces and other civil matters.
Many Oregon counties also have justice courts, which function like municipal courts, but also have the authority to hear small-claims lawsuits.
All Oregon courts, whether municipal, justice or circuit, process large caseloads of minor traffic violations such as speeding and red-light tickets. A Tigard officer can issue a ticket for a driver to appear in any one of three courts: Tigard’s municipal court, the justice court in Beaverton or the circuit court in Hillsboro. How does an officer make that choice?
A municipal court offers several advantages over the alternatives. For example, a municipal judge is more likely to be familiar with local circumstances. Above all, it provides more convenient access for residents who appear in court for arraignment or trial. It is also more convenient for police officers and witnesses when cases go to trial.
Distracted Driving in Oregon
The role of judges is to apply policies created by legislatures and local governments through state statutes and local ordinances. Like other citizens, however, judges are curious about the reasons behind the adoption of particular laws.
A good example is the recent debate among legislators on how to address the growing problem of distracted driving. That debate resulted in the passage of a tough new law, effective Oct. 1, which prohibits all hands-on use of cellphones—referred to as “mobile electronic devices” or MEDs—by drivers.
Why was the new law adopted? Legislators were clearly alarmed that traffic fatalities in Oregon rose from 313 in 2013 to 495 in 2016—a 58 percent increase.
The largest cause of the change, according to several studies, is “lane departure due to distractions,” and the most common distraction was MEDs. A lane departure can produce anything from a collision with a fixed object by the roadside, such as a parked car, to a dangerous head-on crash with an oncoming vehicle.
The more disturbing studies suggest that MED use in cars is just an extension of “internet addiction,” defined as a constant need to be connected and available. This can dominate the lives of some drivers.
Distracted driving does not always involve an MED. A defendant in Tigard’s court recently admitted to another form of distraction: reading handwritten directions from a scrap of paper while driving in heavy traffic. The car in front of him stopped abruptly and he collided with it, causing serious damage but no injuries. No texting or other MED use was involved, but he was charged with, and convicted of, Careless Driving, subject to a $435 presumptive fine.
For more information, visit: https://www.drivehealthy.org
Stricter Laws on Mobile Devices
While Oregon is one of 14 states that ban hand-held cellphone use, 46 states have made texting illegal. As data continues to pile up about the dangers of distracted driving, laws have become stricter and enforcement has increased. In Tigard, for example, greater enforcement has doubled our caseload for mobile-device violations from 545 in 2013 to 1,044 in 2015.
Based on national studies, Oregon law on mobile devices may soon become stricter. For example, dialing a number increases the danger of a crash by 12 times. Reading and writing increase the risk by a factor of 10, while texting increases the danger six times. These uses of mobile devices are likely a major cause of the 8 percent increase in traffic fatalities in 2015, after years of decline.
It is now clear that distractions caused by mobile devices affect a driver nearly as much as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Some states are considering radical steps to deal with this growing crisis, including criminalizing cellphone offenses.
How might that work? The Textalyzer, a roadside test modeled on the Breathalyzer, allows officers to check whether a mobile device was used illegally before a driver was stopped. To protect privacy, the content of the message would not be revealed. The driver’s license would be suspended for refusal to cooperate, as with a breath test. A conviction would result in criminal penalties.
The Textalyzer is now under study by New York legislators, with many issues unresolved. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that police need a warrant to search mobile devices. Oregon legislators are likely to revisit our existing law in 2017.
Automated vehicles and Oregon law
Let’s say “Bill” is sitting in the driver’s seat of his 2018 electric SUV and reading the morning newspaper as the car turns onto a one-way street—in the wrong direction. He’s pulled over by a police officer and cited for the violation. At trial, he shows that his self-driving car, or Automated Vehicle (AV), navigates the street grid based on signals from Global Positioning Satellites. Bill claims that the map used by his AV was inaccurate, so the violation was the result of a programming error, not his inattention.
The result? Unless Oregon law changes, Bill would likely be convicted even if his AV relied on faulty data. Oregon’s Rules of the Road don’t generally require a showing of “intent” to prove a minor traffic violation. Some cited drivers already argue that flawed data from a GPS led them to make an improper turn or commit some other violation.
The legal issues become more complicated where, for example, two AV’s collide. To recover damages, an injured driver must now show that the other driver was negligent in some way. If a driver relies on AV technology that met federal standards, how could that driver be considered “negligent.” Would the automobile manufacturer be held liable instead, or the company that designed and programmed the AV system?
Legislatures and courts will eventually have to address these complex legal issues. Meanwhile, AV technology is developing rapidly. Sensors in newer cars are already able to detect other vehicles in blind spots. Forward-collision warning systems can detect vehicles and pedestrians in the road ahead in fog or darkness. With adaptive cruise control, a car can maintain a safe distance behind vehicles ahead even as speeds change.
Automated systems, in theory, are more reliable and less easily distracted than human drivers. AV technology holds the promise of making our highways safer. But AV systems are created by human programmers, whose errors can only be corrected through rigorous testing.
New Laws Affect Smoking, Distracted Driving
During the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers made a few changes to Oregon’s Rules of the Road:
Smoking prohibited in a vehicle while a person under 18 is present: This new statute prohibits smoking when a minor occupies a vehicle, and it defines smoking very broadly to include “inhale, exhale, burn or carry a lighted cigarette, cigar, pipe, weed, plant, regulated narcotic or other combustible substance.” Anyone smoking in the vehicle, not just the driver, can be cited for this offense. There’s no exception that allows smoking with a car’s windows partly or fully open.
The new smoking law is a “secondary” violation: a person can be cited for it only “if the police officer has already stopped and detained the driver operating the motor vehicle for a separate traffic violation or other offense.” A first offense carries a maximum fine of $250 and a presumptive fine (the amount on the front of the ticket) of $110. For a second and subsequent offense, the maximum fine jumps to $500 and the presumptive fine to $160. Five other states have a similar non-smoking law.
Increased fines for texting and hands-on use of a cell phone while driving: Only the amount of the fine has changed for this offense. The maximum fine was raised from $250 to $500, while the presumptive fine increased from $110 to $160. Like most other provisions of the Rules of the Road, this remains a “primary” violation, so a person can be stopped and cited for it even if no other offense is alleged.
The effective date for both measures was January 1, 2014.
Will Human Drivers Become Obsolete?
Imagine seeing two trucks and three cars traveling in a tight cluster down the freeway at 55 mph. As they come closer, it’s clear that the five vehicles are only about 20 feet, or less than half a second, apart. A typical driver with a reaction time of 1.5 seconds would not be able to brake quickly enough in an emergency. These vehicles are clearly not maintaining the “reasonable and prudent” distance required by Oregon law. All four drivers behind the lead truck could be cited for “following too closely.”
But the video I’m watching is on YouTube, not in the courtroom, and the four vehicles behind the leader aren’t under the control of human drivers. The video shows a “caravan” experiment in “connected vehicle technologies” (CVTs) that took place over a distance of 120 miles on a Spanish freeway. All five vehicles were wirelessly connected by onboard computers, GPS devices, lasers and cameras that constantly exchanged data. These devices monitor the speed, direction and distance between the vehicles to make constant adjustments to ensure safety at highway speeds.
According to proponents, CVT technologies like the caravan are safer because they eliminate human error. The caravan also reduces driver fatigue and lowers fuel costs (by 20 percent) since closer following distances reduce drag.
CVT systems are under intensive study by auto manufacturers and many governments. Some are already available to help drivers park and avoid rear-end collisions. Others can warn drivers about hazards like vehicles in their blind spot, oncoming cars in the passing zone and vehicles approaching an intersection. The more experimental CVT systems may not be available for ten years.
There are two obvious risks in relying on CVTs: they could malfunction, as computers are sometimes known to do, and drivers could become so dependent upon them that they stop paying attention to the road. CVT developers will need to overcome some healthy skepticism before their systems are accepted by drivers.
New Law for Child Safety Devices
Since it was created in 1993, the Three Flags program for international traffic safety has expanded to include hundreds of police agencies in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. In May 2012, Three Flags resumed its focus on seat-belt education and intensive enforcement in Tigard and the Portland Metro area, though drivers may also be stopped for other types of violations.
Oregon law requires drivers and all passengers to fasten their safety belts “properly,” which means that the shoulder strap should be worn over the shoulder rather than under the arm. The safety advantages of the shoulder strap may be lost if it is not worn as designed. The law also requires that safety-belt systems be maintained in working order.
During the 2011 legislative session, the law regulating child-safety devices was changed to increase the margin of safety for young passengers. Oregon law now requires that:
- Infants younger than one year, or any child weighing less than twenty pounds, must be secured in an approved rear-facing car seat.
- Rear-facing car seats should never be placed on front seats, potentially exposing children to inflating airbags.
- Children weighing over forty pounds must ride in a booster seat until the age of eight or until they reach a height of at least four feet, nine inches.
- Children over the age of eight, or taller than four feet, nine inches, must use the car’s safety belts.
- Children under age 13 are less likely to be injured in a collision if they travel in the back seat, wearing safety belts that are properly fastened at all times.
All safety devices for children must meet federal standards.
For more information about selecting and installing an approved safety system, call ACTS Oregon at 877-793-2608 or visit their website at www.childsafetyseat.org.
Skateboards and Oregon Law
The Jim Griffith Memorial Skate Park located next to the Tigard Civic Center on Hall Boulevard opened four years ago. It quickly became a magnet for skateboarders from all over northwestern Oregon. Often, after work, I watch in awe as these fine athletes perform their tricks of balance, strength and coordination.
While many skateboarders arrive by car, others ride their boards to the park on streets and sidewalks, creating occasional conflicts with pedestrians, bicyclists and motor vehicles. When a boarder was cited for a traffic violation some months back, I had to evaluate the legal status of the sport. Skateboards clearly fall within the definition of a “wheeled vehicle” under the Tigard Municipal Code. But are boarders also “afoot,” and therefore within the Oregon Vehicle Code’s definition of “pedestrian”?
Bottom line: the Municipal Code requires boarders to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians on all sidewalks, and riding on sidewalks along Main Street in downtown Tigard is specifically prohibited. Boarders aren’t permitted to ride on any street, except at crosswalks. These violations are subject to fines ranging from $110 to $260.
Even if he or she isn’t cited, a boarder who injures a pedestrian or bicyclist may face liability in a civil lawsuit. Boarders who ride on public streets face special dangers: they may be difficult for motorists to see at intersections and small rocks or other irregularities on the roadway can cause serious falls, often at high speeds.
Six out of ten victims of skateboard injuries are under the age of 15. Not surprisingly, new riders are at the highest risk. Many boarders fail to wear protective gear like helmets, slip-resistant shoes or body padding, all of which can reduce injuries significantly.
The skate park has its own set of rules, posted by the entrance. For their own safety, and the safety of others, boarders should familiarize themselves with the rules and laws that govern their sport.
Oregon Traffic Law 101
The compilation of laws known as the Oregon Vehicle Code sprawls across more than 700 pages of fine print, not counting the index. Many Oregon judges become familiar with the Code during their careers, especially the 50-page chapter entitled “Rules of the Road for Drivers.”
The bulk of the Code addresses a wide range of technical subjects like equipment requirements, vehicle titles and registration, license suspensions, insurance requirements, and weight limitations for commercial vehicles. The Code also establishes two classes of vehicle offenses: violations and crimes.
Violations are subject to a fine and, in some cases, license suspensions. Fines are heavily regulated by state law, even in county and municipal courts. For example, the presumptive fine of $260 for running a stop sign is set by statute, as are the highest and lowest fines. Some traffic violations can have serious consequences in addition to a fine. Speeding at 100 mph or faster, for instance, can result in an automatic 30-day license suspension in addition to the $1,150 minimum fine.
Traffic crimes are subject to a fine, jail time, lengthy license suspensions and probation. These include DUII, Reckless Driving, Failure to Perform the Duties of a Driver (“Hit and Run”) and Attempting to Elude a Police Officer. These offenses carry maximum penalties of a year in jail and a $6,250 fine.
Anyone charged with a violation or crime has a constitutional right to plead “not guilty” and have a trial before an impartial judge or jury. Trials for violations are conducted by a judge and the accused has a right to be represented by a lawyer at his or her own expense. Because their liberty is at risk, persons accused of crimes are entitled to a trial by jury and a court-appointed lawyer if unable to afford one. Anyone convicted of a crime or violation also has the right to appeal to a higher court.
For more information, visit the court’s website.
Suspended Licenses in OregonMarch 2014
A young man who resided in Washington came to our court for arraignment on a citation for Driving While Suspended (DWS). When I called his case, he politely asked: “How can I be suspended here when I don’t even have an Oregon license?” It turned out that he had failed to appear on another minor traffic violation in a different Oregon court, resulting in a suspension of his right to drive in this state. Until he took care of the previous ticket and paid a reinstatement fee to DMV, he would be at risk of receiving another ticket for DWS, with a presumptive fine of $435, every time he got behind the wheel in Oregon.
There are many reasons for suspending the right to drive, but the most common are failure to respond to a ticket and failure to pay fines for traffic violations. To put it simply, tickets don’t just go away for those who choose to ignore them. Most DWS offenses are violations, with no risk of jail time. But repeat DWS violators may face maximum fines as high as $2,000 along with substantial impacts to insurance rates.
The most serious forms of suspended driving are crimes—either misdemeanors or felonies. For example, a defendant who drives after losing their license for refusing to take a DUII breath test may face misdemeanor charges with a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $6,250 fine.
Some defendants cited for DWS claim that they did not receive an advance written notice of their suspension from DMV. The “notice defense” and other DWS defenses can be highly technical, and in some cases they may succeed. However, the notice defense is not available if a defendant has relocated and failed to inform DMV (and not just the post office) of the new address within thirty days.
Drivers who wish to challenge a suspension order have the right to request a DMV hearing.
DMV’s “Four Strikes” Program
“How many points will I get from DMV if I plead guilty to this ticket?”
This is a common question for judges in traffic court, and the answer is simple enough: “None, because Oregon DMV doesn’t use a point system.”
Many states, however, have adopted point systems. In California, for example, a conviction for a minor traffic offense is worth one point; reckless driving and DUII are worth two. Four points in a one-year period result in a six-month license suspension.
While Oregon hasn’t formalized this kind of point system, DMV’s Driver Improvement Program comes close: drivers who pick up too many convictions or at-fault crashes over a period of 18 to 24 months will face license restrictions and suspensions. For example, an adult’s license will be suspended for 30 days if the DMV record shows, over the preceding two years:
- Four “driver improvement” convictions, including such common moving violations as speeding, failing to obey a traffic signal and following too closely, or
- Four “preventable accidents,” or
- A combination of moving violations and preventable accidents totaling four.
Each additional conviction or preventable collision during the two-year “lookback” period results in a new 30-day suspension.
The rules are stricter for teen drivers with a provisional license who accumulate two convictions or two preventable collisions, or a combination of one conviction and one collision. For 90 days, their licenses are restricted to work-related driving and no passengers other than a parent, step-parent or guardian. Any subsequent conviction or collision results in a full six-month suspension of their right to drive.
The insurance consequences of traffic convictions and preventable collisions are determined by individual companies, which may have their own equivalents of a point system.
For any traffic violation, Oregon law gives judges the discretion to order an offender to take a driver improvement course like Trauma Nurses Talk Tough. A license can even be suspended until the driver completes the class.
Taking Care of Business
Last year, 9,165 violations of state and local laws were cited into the Tigard Municipal Court. The vast majority of the court’s caseload consisted of traffic violations under Oregon’s Rules of the Road, although the court also handles some categories of juvenile crimes and civil infractions under Tigard’s Municipal Code. The five most common categories of traffic violations during 2009 are displayed in the chart (right).
As in past years, the two most common offenses were Speeding and Failure to Obey Traffic Control Devices, including signals and stop signs. But about one-quarter of all traffic violations were not directly related to driving behavior, including Driving without Insurance (or No Proof of Insurance), Driving without a Valid License, Driving While Suspended and Expired Registration.
One common scenario goes like this: a driver is stopped for exceeding the speed limit by 11–20 mph, with a fine of $160. If the driver has no proof of insurance, or is driving uninsured, the driver can also be cited for that violation, which carries a $260 fine. Even worse for the driver, an officer can order that the vehicle be impounded if the officer has “reasonable grounds” to believe that the driver is uninsured, suspended, driving under the influence or has an invalid license. Many of these “non-moving” violations could be avoided if drivers simply paid closer attention to taking care of business by keeping their licenses, insurance documents and mailing address with DMV current. State law encourages that practice by requiring Oregon drivers to change their addresses with DMV within thirty days of relocating.
Are You Moving? If So, Tell DMV!
Oregon drivers and vehicle owners are required to change their addresses with DMV no later than 30 days after relocating. Violations are subject to a presumptive fine of $110.
While this requirement may seem unimportant, failure to comply can lead to serious consequences. Consider this example:
Suppose that “Don” moves and changes his address at the post office, but neglects to directly notify DMV. A few months later, he’s involved in a minor collision. The drivers exchange the required information but don’t file an accident report with DMV because it appears that neither car sustained more than $1,500 in property damage.
A few days later, though, the other driver learns that the damage to her vehicle exceeded $1,500. She then files a report, triggering a requirement that Don do the same. So DMV sends a letter informing Don that his right to drive in Oregon will be suspended if he doesn’t file his report by a specified date.
But Don never gets the letter, since DMV never received notice of his address change. So Don doesn’t file the report and DMV suspends his license. He is also suspended for a full year because DMV assumes that he was an uninsured driver when the collision occurred.
Don remains blissfully unaware of these problems. But then, a couple months later, he’s stopped for driving with expired tags. The result? A citation charging him with driving while suspended ($435 fine), expired registration ($110), and failure to change his address for his license ($110) and registration ($110). And his car is impounded, at an additional cost of $250 plus storage fees.
As a result of his simple failure to change his address with DMV, Don faces presumptive fines totaling $765. In court, Don can’t claim the “lack of notice” defense if he failed to inform DMV of an address change.
Enough said. The change of address form is available at DMV offices and online at:
Oregon’s Graduated Driver’s License
As a 16-year-old, many years ago, I only had to jump two hurdles to get a full driver’s license: completing a driver’s education program and passing a DMV exam. Despite my inexperience, my new license gave me the same driving privileges that my parents and other adults enjoyed.
Since then, Oregon and most other states have adopted graduated licensing (GL) programs that impose restrictions on teen drivers. Oregon law now limits the hours when teens may drive, the number and ages of their passengers, and their use of cell phones and text messaging.
GL is based on a vast body of research that shows elevated risks for teen drivers and their passengers. While teenagers have certain advantages over older drivers, including quicker reaction times and better eye-hand coordination, those advantages are offset by inexperience and social or developmental factors. Nationwide studies show that:
- For each mile driven, drivers aged 16-19 are four times more likely to crash their vehicles than older drivers. The risk is even higher during nighttime hours and weekends.
- Nearly 5,000 teenagers were victims of fatal crashes in 2007. About two-thirds of the victims were male drivers and their male passengers.
- Most teenage passenger deaths in 2007 occurred in vehicles driven by another teenager.
- 16-year-old drivers are twice as likely to be involved in a crash as 18-19 year-olds.
- Three out of four fatal crashes involving 16-year-olds are the result of driver error, far higher than the rate for older drivers.
- About 40% of fatal crashes involving 16-year-olds are caused by speeding, nearly twice the rate for older drivers.
GL is intended to reduce these disproportionately high rates of teen crashes, injuries and fatalities. And it seems to be working: since 2000, when GL was adopted in Oregon, the number of fatalities and crashes has decreased by about one-third.
[Data Sources: The Oregon Parent Guide to Teen Driving and the Highway Loss Data Institute]
Traffic Control Devices & Intersections
Building a Safer Road System
Traffic engineers have many tools available to promote safety and efficiency on city streets and highways. These include traditional measures like speed limits, traffic lights and stop signs, which are strictly regulated by state law and enforced by police officers on patrol.
“Traffic calming” refers to the engineering practice of slowing down and channeling vehicles to reduce conflicts with other users of the streets, including pedestrians and bicyclists. Traffic engineers construct streets and intersections to include devices like roundabouts, speed bumps, landscaped islands, curb extensions and narrower streets that slow traffic. Such features also free up police resources for other priorities.
Speed bumps were among the first traffic calming devices to be used in Oregon. They are unpopular with drivers and slow down emergency vehicles. Their use in Tigard has been limited in recent years.
As speed bumps become less common, more roundabouts are being added in Washington County. Studies show that their design effectively slows traffic and relieves congestion at busy intersections. Collisions, if they occur, are at low speeds unlikely to cause serious injuries or major property damage.
Most traffic calming devices are subject to familiar Rules of the Road. While curb extensions at intersections shorten transit times for pedestrians, for example, they have the usual right-of-way when entering any marked or unmarked crosswalk.
Roundabouts slow entering vehicles with their circular structures and the curves built into their approaches. Three general rules apply to entering vehicles: drivers must yield the right-of-way to vehicles already in the circle, follow the marked lane restrictions and signal their intentions.
Traffic-calming devices such as landscaped islands in intersections also can offer the added benefit of making streets more attractive.
Stopping at Yellow Lights
Most drivers understand that they are required to stop when faced with a solid yellow light at an intersection. Oregon law provides a single exception: “If a driver cannot stop in safety, the driver may drive cautiously through the intersection” (ORS 811.260).
During trials of alleged violations at traffic signals, judges sometimes hear a claim like this: “I could not stop because it was a very quick yellow.”
How do judges evaluate this argument?
Judges receive no training in traffic engineering, but as drivers we know that the duration of yellow lights is not the same at all intersections. The standard technical manual used across the United States recommends setting the length of a yellow light at three to six seconds, with longer intervals for roads with higher speeds.
The length of yellow lights is based on the speed limit, how long it takes to stop, the width of the intersection, highway grade and the time it takes for drivers to react (typically 1.5 seconds). On most urban streets, yellow lights are set within a range of three to four seconds.
How do engineers decide on the duration?
Traffic engineers have to wrestle with complex challenges. If a yellow light is set too long, some drivers will consider it to be just an extension of a green light. If it is too short, there will be more red-light violations and an increase in rear-end collisions.
As drivers, we all have to deal with what engineers call the “dilemma zone”: when a light turns yellow as we near an intersection, will we have time to safely stop? We have only a couple of seconds to make that decision. If the light turns red as a car is just past the crosswalk, there is a high risk of collision with cross traffic entering on green.
Some intersections have short green lights, depending on traffic volumes, but a properly timed yellow light should never be too quick for drivers to stop safely.
All About Roundabouts
Roundabouts, also known as circular intersections, are becoming more common in the Tigard area and across Washington County.
These roadway designs have the advantage of ensuring a smooth and steady flow of traffic compared to intersections with traffic lights or stop signs. Drivers navigate a series of curved “splitter islands” as they enter and leave the circle, resulting in both slower speeds and heightened driver alertness. The “stop-and-go” routine at conventional intersections is nearly eliminated at most roundabouts, reducing both frustration and fuel consumption.
From a safety perspective, roundabouts reduce conflicts between vehicles and, therefore, collisions. Left turns through cross traffic aren’t necessary, and all vehicles pass through and exit at about the same speed (15-25 mph). Roundabouts are designed for bicycles and pedestrians as well as large vehicles like fire engines and trucks.
Many drivers are unsure how to use roundabouts. Here are a few general rules:
- Vehicles entering the roundabout must yield the right-of-way to vehicles that are already within it.
- Vehicles are required to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks at the end of the “splitter” lanes. Pedestrians should never enter the circle itself or the central island.
- Never pass or change lanes in a roundabout.
A federal study revealed that roundabouts are associated with a 90 percent reduction in fatal crashes, a 76 percent reduction in injuries and a 35 percent reduction in collisions.
Stopping on Yellow
A driver approaches a green traffic signal at 40 mph, the posted speed limit. It turns yellow when her car is 170 feet from the stop line at the intersection. What should she do?
Oregon law states that a driver faced with a yellow light “shall stop.” But if she “cannot stop in safety, the driver may drive cautiously through the intersection.” The Oregon Driver Manual estimates that it takes about four seconds for a driver to make a decision and stop.
Assuming the light will remain yellow for four seconds, a typical length for the posted speed, our driver will need about 170 feet to react and stop for the yellow light.
Conclusion: The driver should be able to safely stop on yellow. If she had been within 130 feet, though, it might have been unsafe to stop. She could then drive “slowly and carefully” through the intersection, as the driver manual suggests.
In the real world, of course, drivers don’t have the time to do precise measurements and calculations. But with education and experience, most drivers learn to make correct judgments in responding to traffic lights.
The seriousness of the driver’s decision is reflected in the safety hazards associated with running traffic signals. Every year in the U.S., about 1,000 people are killed, and 90,000 injured, as a result of failing to stop for traffic lights.
The length of yellow lights (usually between three and six seconds) can vary from one intersection to another. Traffic engineers consider a complex set of factors in setting the yellow interval, including approach speeds, driver reaction time, braking time, the width of the intersection and general road conditions.
In ongoing experiments in several states, traffic engineers increased the length of yellow lights by one second to see how it might affect driving habits. A Texas study showed, for example, that the one-second increase reduced the number of collisions by an impressive 40 percent and violations by 53 percent.
[One source among many: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2012/rpt/2012-R-0219.htm]
Ins-and-Outs of the Turn Lane
Let’s say you’re driving down the right lane on a four-lane street. Approaching an intersection, you notice that your lane is about to be separated from the left lane by a single solid white line. In other words, it’s about to become a right-turn lane. But you want to go straight, so what are your options?
DMV’s Oregon Driver Manual states that “crossing a wide solid white line is permitted but discouraged,” though you may cross it “with caution.” It goes on to say that a double solid white line “means you are not allowed to change lanes.” Since you’re facing only a single white line, you may change lanes “with caution.” Crossing the white line is “discouraged,” so it’s preferable to make the lane change before you reach the divider.
But the situation is rarely so simple. Turn lanes are often equipped with signs or arrows in addition to painted solid lines. Under Oregon law, a sign saying “Right Turn Only,” or something similar, means that drivers are committed to staying in the lane and making the turn when they reach the sign. If there are arrows on the pavement with “ONLY” painted under them, the legal effect is the same: the turn is mandatory, not optional.
Stop signs, lane lines and traffic lights are the most common ways to regulate traffic flow. But Oregon law defines “traffic control device” to include “any sign, signal, marking or device placed, operated or erected… for the purpose of guiding, directing, warning or regulating traffic.” The definition is broad enough to include the solid white lines, signs and arrows that govern turn lanes. Failure to obey a traffic control device can subject violators to a $260 fine.
Many drivers become stranded in required turn lanes unintentionally. Others use wide-open turn lanes as a means of getting around long lines of traffic. In either case, the safest course is just to make the turn.
Changing Traffic Patterns on Pacific Highway
The intersection of Hall Blvd. and Pacific Hwy. (99W) is certainly among the busiest in Tigard. Construction and a redesign have changed the flow of traffic and alleviated much of the congestion there. However, a few of these changes require special care and attention as drivers adjust to new patterns.
Consider the following example:
Since a left turn is now prohibited from southbound Pacific Hwy. onto Garden Pl., vehicles are permitted to make U-turns on the left green arrow for Hall Blvd. southbound. This enables drivers to backtrack to businesses along Pacific Hwy. and Garden Pl. Many drivers are taking advantage of this opportunity.
In executing their U-turns, however, drivers potentially come into conflict with vehicles turning on red from northbound Hall into the right northbound lane of Pacific Hwy. Under Oregon law, such a right turn is permissible on red if the driver stops first and yields the right-of-way to other vehicles that are lawfully approaching, or within, the intersection.
In plain English: drivers making a right turn on red from northbound Hall onto Pacific must yield to vehicles making a U-turn from the left-turn lane.
The left-turn lane onto southbound Hall Blvd. from Pacific Hwy. has also been lengthened considerably as part of the redesign. As a frequent user of that intersection, I’ve noticed that some drivers tailgate as they proceed towards the green arrow. The result? If a driver slows abruptly to make a U-turn at the intersection, the following vehicle is barely able to stop in time to avoid a rear-end collision.
Oregon has a very restrictive U-turn law for urban areas. At intersections where U-turns are specifically allowed by a traffic sign, as at Hall and Pacific, drivers need to adjust following distances to avoid collisions with vehicles executing these lawful U-turns.
The safest approach may be to assume that any vehicle in the left-turn lane on southbound Pacific at Hall will make a U-turn.
Flashing Yellow Lights
Most drivers know that a solid yellow light at an intersection means “stop,” since their right-of-way is about to be terminated by a red light. If the vehicle can’t stop “in safety,” the driver “may drive cautiously through the intersection” under Oregon law.
Flashing yellow lights are less familiar and some drivers are confused about how they should respond to them. The general rule, whether the flashing yellow light is part of a standard traffic signal or attached to a sign, is simple: a “driver may proceed through the intersection or past the signal only with caution.”
The flashing yellow lights attached to school-zone signs have become very common recently. When activated, these lights indicate that children may be leaving or arriving at school, triggering a 20-mph speed limit. But traffic engineers are now using flashing yellow lights in useful ways that may not be so familiar to drivers. Two examples:
1. Flashing yellow lights at marked crosswalks. Drivers may proceed with caution when these lights are flashing, but they’re not required to stop unless a pedestrian has entered the crosswalk. Even if a pedestrian is still on the curb or sidewalk and hasn’t entered the crosswalk, the most cautious approach is to slow down or even stop until the pedestrian’s intentions are clear.
2. Flashing yellow arrows on signals for turn lanes. At many intersections, these arrows are appearing during part of a light’s usual cycle. Drivers faced with a flashing yellow arrow can turn cautiously after yielding to oncoming traffic. These lights are very effective at improving traffic flow.
In sum: drivers must stop for solid yellow lights, but not flashing yellow lights. A flashing yellow light requires drivers to yield to pedestrians or other vehicles that have the right-of-way. Caution may also require slower speeds, even outside school zones. Beyond that, drivers should avoid tunnel vision and scan the area for potential hazards as they approach a flashing light.
Stopping: An Unscientific Survey
Failure to obey stop signs is one of the most common reasons for drivers to be cited into traffic court. In pleading guilty to that charge, many drivers admit that they made a “rolling stop” or a “California stop.”
Oregon law is clear: “stop” means “complete cessation from movement.” Many police officers testify at trial that they watch a vehicle’s tires to determine whether the driver is compliant. A “rolling” stop is a contradiction in terms.
How often do drivers comply with the legal standard for a “stop?” To satisfy my curiosity, I conducted an unscientific survey of a couple hundred vehicles at several urban intersections with four-way stop signs. To ensure that my selections were impartial, none of the locations were in Tigard. The sample excluded drivers who were “forced” to stop by pedestrian or vehicle cross-traffic.
The overall compliance rate at the four locations was just 25 percent. Surprisingly, the lowest compliance rate (17 percent) was at the location with the most pedestrians.
What conclusions can be drawn from this sample? First, 75 percent of the drivers risked a ticket for Failure to Obey a Traffic Control Device, with a fine of $260. Second, most drivers treated stop signs as “yield” signs: they slowed down, scanned the intersection and proceeded without stopping. Third, the Oregon drivers in my sample were slightly more law-abiding than those in national surveys that report noncompliance rates of 80–95 percent.
Only a few of the violations posed any immediate danger to pedestrians or other vehicles, and most of the drivers slowed to 5 mph or less. So is a stop really necessary? Aside from the obvious legal requirement, about 700,000 police-reported collisions occur at stop signs in the U.S. every year. A true stop at intersections takes only 3–4 extra seconds compared to a “rolling stop.” In return for this slight inconvenience, drivers can develop safe habits that could reduce the number of stop-sign collisions and the injuries they cause.
Restricted Lanes at Intersections
Afternoon rush hour is well underway in Tigard as “Jane” drives north on Hall Boulevard, planning to turn left at the intersection with Pacific Highway. She notices that a long line of cars has backed up in the center lane for drivers planning to go left onto Pacific or straight onto Hall. Only a couple cars are ahead of her in the right lane, which becomes a signed “Right Turn Only” lane closer to the intersection.
Jane has to choose: Should she move into the center lane and follow the line of cars to the intersection, possibly waiting through several cycles of the light to get there? Or should she proceed ahead in the right lane and hope that a sympathetic driver will wave her into the center lane, thus avoiding the long delay? The risk, of course, is that Jane’s attempt to merge will fail and she’ll end up blocking the right-turn lane.
Jane faces a familiar dilemma at busy urban intersections. Once she enters a restricted turn (or straight) lane, however, she has no legal alternative but to obey the restriction. A right turn becomes mandatory as soon as Jane passes the sign and solid lane divider.
Restricted lanes are well marked according to a federal manual for road markings and devices. A restricted lane is usually defined by a solid line that begins well before the intersection. Arrows on the pavement and one or more signs alert drivers to the restriction.
A driver who ignores lane restrictions can be cited for “failure to obey a traffic control device,” with a fine of $260. A driver who blocks a lane can be cited for “impeding traffic” ($110 fine).
Jane and others who drive on Pacific Highway will soon be getting significant relief. When construction is complete, drivers will be offered three lanes at Hall Blvd.
Red Means Stop
Oregon drivers faced with an amber traffic light are required to stop, with only one exception: if they are unable to stop safely, drivers may proceed “cautiously” through the intersection. However, that exception doesn’t apply to red lights, where a full stop is always required.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that drivers who failed to obey traffic lights caused 171,000 collisions in the U.S. during 2005, resulting in 887 fatalities and 144,000 injuries. In urban areas, it’s the leading cause of fatal collisions, primarily due to the special dangers posed by broadside (“T-bone”) impacts. Since fewer than half of all vehicles are equipped with side-curtain airbags, head trauma is the most common cause of death or injury.
Red-light violations are often intentional, the result of drivers accelerating when faced with a “stale” amber light. According to one study reported in the Ladies Home Journal, a red-light violation occurs, on average, once in every three cycles of a traffic light. The most common reason, according to the researcher, was that drivers were “in a hurry.” In a 2002 national survey, one in five drivers admitted to disobeying a red light in the last ten intersections they crossed.
Not surprisingly, heavy traffic volumes are closely associated with higher frequencies of red-light violations. The reason seems clear enough: impatient drivers seek to minimize the delays caused by traffic lights, especially if they’ve already had to sit through one or more cycles at a congested intersection. These drivers may feel that they’ve “paid their dues” and don’t deserve to sit through yet another cycle.
Finally, Oregon drivers are permitted to turn right after stopping at a red light if they can do so safely. The law clearly defines “stop” as the “complete cessation from movement.” My own observation is that many drivers don’t bother to complete the required stop before turning. They should: all traffic-light violations are subject to a presumptive fine of $260.
Source: Ladies Home Journal
Doing the Math
About 45% of drivers fail to fully comply with stop signs, resulting in more than 700,000 collisions each year, according to various nationwide studies. Since these collisions are often broadside, about one-third result in injuries and more than 3,000 are fatal.
Under Oregon law, a “stop” is defined as “the complete cessation from movement.” A “rolling stop,” commonly known as a “California stop,” clearly doesn’t conform to that requirement. After you make a full stop, you’re also required to yield to other vehicles “in the intersection or approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard” before proceeding.
Stop signs and traffic lights slow us down and frustrate our natural desire to make rapid progress toward our destinations. Haste, and the frustration caused by delays, are major contributing factors in numerous traffic violations and many of the 160,000 reportable collisions that occur in Oregon each year.
How much time do drivers actually save by disobeying stop signs? Not much, if you do the math. Suppose you encounter an average of a dozen stop signs each day. Assume that you perform a “California stop” at jogging speed (about 5 m.p.h.) at each one. How much time do you gain? Less than a minute per day.
A full stop is also required before turning right on a red light, where it’s permitted. Many pedestrians are injured by drivers who look to the left, but fail to check the crosswalk to the right, before making their turn.
By fully complying with stop signs and traffic lights, you can reinforce safe driving habits and avoid a $260 ticket. A lawful stop allows you to carefully scan the intersection and assess the speed and intentions of approaching vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians before proceeding.
By obeying stop signs and traffic signals, drivers lose very little time and substantially increase the margin of safety for themselves and everyone else on our streets.
[Data Source: National Traffic Highway Safety Administration]
Turning at Intersections
With its heavy traffic load, the intersection of Hall Boulevard and Pacific Highway is the scene of frequent traffic violations and collisions. One of the most common violations is “Improperly executed left turn” (ORS 811.340), which is subject to a $260 presumptive fine. Oregon law requires drivers to “leave the intersection or other location in the extreme left-hand lane lawfully available to traffic moving in the same direction as such vehicle on the roadway being entered.”
If you’re driving south on Hall and make a left turn onto Pacific, for example, you must enter the far left (“fast”) lane and not the right (“curb”) lane. You can then, after signaling for the required 100 feet, carefully merge into the curb lane if you wish.
One purpose of the left-turn rule is to make the movement of vehicles more predictable and efficient. If you’re driving north on Hall and want to make a lawful right turn at Pacific on a red light, you can’t do so safely if vehicles turning left from the opposite direction are entering the curb lane instead of the left lane.
Note that I referred to “collisions” rather than “accidents” in the first paragraph. True “accidents” are rare. “Collisions” are far more common, and they’re almost always the result of someone’s negligent driving.
Thanks to: Tigard resident William Moss for this “Rules of the Road” suggestion.
“Special Left-Turn Lanes”
It’s a familiar temptation for anyone who drives on congested streets in Tigard or any other large urban area.
Imagine, for example, that you’re driving south around 5 p.m. on Hall Boulevard toward Pacific Highway, planning to turn left at the intersection. There’s a long line of cars ahead of you and you’re still several hundred feet from the traffic signal.
This portion of Hall has two travel lanes and a familiar “special left-turn lane,” which Oregon law defines as “a median lane that is marked for left turns by drivers proceeding in opposite directions.” These center lanes have solid lines on the outside, dashed lines on the inside and, generally, left-turn arrows in the middle.
The Law Says...
Can you lawfully use the “special left-turn lane” to pass the line of cars and avoid further delays? The clear answer is: no.
Under Section 811.346 (1) of the Oregon Revised Statutes, you can be cited for “misuse of a special left-turn lane” if you use that lane “for anything other than making a left turn.” It can’t be used as a travel lane or to pass other vehicles. (You may also enter the special lane from an intersecting street or driveway, but you must stop there before you merge with traffic in the right lane.) A violation is subject to a presumptive fine of $260.
Some cited drivers have argued that they reduced congestion by using the special left-turn lane as a travel lane. That may be true, but legislators made a policy decision to give safety more weight than expediting the flow of traffic. Other vehicles entering the roadway from the right may not be able to see cars traveling in the special lane—a frequent cause of collisions.
City planners, in partnership with representatives from other agencies and citizens, are working on the Tigard 99 Improvement and Management Plan to improve safety and mitigate the negative effects of rising trip demands. Meanwhile, drivers should remain patient and observe Oregon’s Rules of the Road.
The Challenge of Driverless Cars and the Courts
“Bill,” a visitor to Tigard, was cited after his car turned onto a one-way street in the wrong direction. Appearing in court, he entered a plea of “no contest” and claimed that his car’s navigation software directed him to make the turn. He admitted that he did not notice the large “one way” sign at the street’s entrance.
Reliance on erroneous navigation software is not a defense to a traffic violation under Oregon law. An officer does not have to prove “intent” to show a violation.
But imagine that Bill was in the driver’s seat and reading a magazine when his car made that illegal turn? As computer-operated “autonomous vehicles,” or driverless cars, become more common, that scenario might not seem so strange. Driverless cars have logged millions of miles during their development, but traffic stops have been rare.
Self-driving cars are being tested all over the country, and pilot programs may soon be coming to neighboring Portland. These systems are already very advanced and may yet prove safer than the average human driver. But crashes involving driverless cars have taken place in several states, and they are sure to increase as these vehicles become more common.
Who is legally responsible if a driverless vehicle fails to detect a pedestrian, or wanders out of its lane because the painted markings are too faded for its sensors to detect? Will drivers like Bill be liable, assuming he could override the onboard computer and take control of his car? Will it be the designer of the car’s software, or the manufacturer?
These questions will need to be answered by Congress and state legislators before driverless cars become commonplace on Oregon streets.
Oregon's New Cellphone Law
During their latest session, Oregon legislators approved a revised law on “mobile electronic devices” (MEDs) that will prohibit the use of any hands-on device while driving. It is also intended to clear up some of the uncertainties in the existing law. The new law will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2017.
The law’s broad definition of an MED includes any “device capable of text messaging, voice communication, entertainment, navigation, accessing the Internet or producing electronic mail.”
A violation will occur whenever a driver “holds” an MED or uses an MED “for any purpose” on a roadway. There are exceptions that apply to public-safety personnel, calling for help in an emergency, the use of two-way radios by bus drivers and a few other situations.
The new law, as it is currently written and still subject to later judicial interpretation, doesn't apply to drivers using a "hands-free accessory," like a Bluetooth connection, that "gives a person the ability to keep both hands on the steering wheel." It doesn't require drivers to keep "both hands on the steering wheel" at all times; only "the ability" to do so matters.
Unlike current law, penalties will increase dramatically for repeat offenders. A first offense will be subject to a presumptive fine of $265, or $440 if the violation contributes to an accident, with a maximum fine of $1,000. First offenders will be offered a class approved by the state instead of paying a fine.
For a second conviction in ten years, the presumptive fine will increase to $440, with no option to take a class. For a third conviction, the offense will be enhanced to a crime subject to a minimum fine of $2,000 and up to six months in jail.
During 2016, 301 cellphone citations were filed in the Tigard Municipal Court. The number of tickets is likely to increase statewide in coming months, reflecting a growing awareness among policymakers and law enforcement that distracted driving is a serious hazard.
Revenues from Traffic Tickets
Last week “John” appeared in court to enter a plea of “no contest” to a ticket charging him with speeding at 42 mph in a 25 mph residential zone. Based on his explanation and driving record, he was eligible for a reduction of the “presumptive fine”—the amount on the front of each ticket—from $160 to $120. Presumptive fines vary, depending on the type of offense.
John smiled and asked, “Isn’t this all about revenue?” While his perception is not unusual, it conflicts with the reality of Oregon law and how courts and law enforcement are budgeted.
Traffic tickets under Oregon’s Rules of the Road dominate the workloads of the state’s 136 municipal courts. While each municipal court is a branch of city government, state statutes define traffic violations and set the range of presumptive fines, along with maximum and minimum fines.
Speeding is the most common offense in Tigard’s court, and John’s case was typical. What happened to his $120 fine? Under Oregon law, $61 was distributed to other jurisdictions: $45 to the State of Oregon and $16 to Washington County. The remaining $59 went into Tigard’s General Fund—and not into the court or police budgets. In the fiscal year 2016-2017 budget, 2.1 percent of Tigard’s General Fund revenues comes from traffic fines.
Ultimately, fines from traffic tickets are a small portion of total City revenues.
While it is reasonable to expect offenders to contribute towards the enforcement and adjudication costs imposed on city governments, revenue collection is not the proper function of courts. The underlying purpose of traffic fines under Oregon law is to promote public safety by punishing drivers for violations and deterring future offenses.
The Role of Municipal Courts
Tigard’s municipal court is one of more than 130 courts operated by cities across Oregon. These courts offer local forums for resolving everything from traffic tickets to nuisance complaints, relieving residents and officers from long trips to state courts in the county seat.
Municipal courts are authorized to handle non-felony criminal cases and some civil matters, but traffic violations are the majority of their caseloads. Tigard’s court is no exception. Over the last four years, our average annual workload of about 6,400 cases has been largely based on traffic citations under Oregon’s vehicle code. Most criminal cases are filed in the circuit court in Hillsboro.
Judges play no role in determining what kinds of cases are filed in our courts. Those decisions are made by police officers based on factors like department priorities and personnel levels. In recent years, citations for speeding, failing to obey traffic control devices and mobile-phone violations have provided about six out of every 10 cases filed with our court.
Other common violations included improper turns, following too closely, careless driving and driver’s license offenses. The speeding violations included four cases of speeds over 100 mph, resulting in substantial minimum fines and license suspensions.
While most violations are directly related to safety, some can also contribute to gridlock. For example, drivers are often cited for entering intersections on a green light when the far side is already backed up, causing them to be stranded in the middle and block cross traffic.
Safety education is a very high priority in Tigard. Last year, about 23 percent of all violators were referred to traffic-safety classes under a program approved by the City Council in 2015.
Oregon’s Court System – An Overview
Let’s say a patrol officer stops “Marie” for driving 40 mph in a 25 mph zone here in Washington County. Depending on where the alleged violation took place, the officer may file the citation in one of three different local courts, including:
Municipal court: If the alleged violation took place within an incorporated city, Marie’s citation can be filed in a municipal court – if it has one. Like Tigard, most cities in the county operate municipal courts under their own charters and ordinances. There are approximately 150 municipal courts across Oregon. These specialized courts can hear certain types of cases, including criminal misdemeanors, traffic violations, municipal-code infractions and certain types of juvenile offenses. Tigard’s court doesn’t currently accept most adult misdemeanor cases, while Beaverton’s does. Depending on the city charter, judges in municipal courts are either appointed by city councils (like Tigard’s) or elected (like Salem’s).
Justice court: In 21 Oregon counties, including our own, an elected Justice of the Peace presides over this other type of specialized court. Justice courts are very similar to municipal courts, except they can also hear small-claims and landlord-tenant cases.
Circuit court: While municipal and justice courts are specialized and limited by law, these are state courts of “general jurisdiction” that can hear all kinds of cases arising under Oregon law, including serious felonies, dissolutions of marriage and major civil lawsuits brought by private parties. Circuit courts are generally located in county seats, like Hillsboro, and their judges are elected.
Under Oregon law, municipal, justice and circuit courts are granted “concurrent,” or overlapping, jurisdiction over traffic tickets like Marie’s. So how does the officer choose where to file? A municipal court might be the most convenient and local choice for both the officer and the cited driver, especially if Marie decides to plead “not guilty” and have a trial. In that event, she and the officer might be spared a long trip to a more distant courthouse.
The Importance of Vehicle Lights
The defendant admitted in court that he drove without headlights on Highway 217 after midnight. He explained that the lights were working properly, but he simply forgot to turn them on. Traffic was light, and the defendant had an excellent driving record, so the $165 presumptive fine under state law was reduced.
As autumn nights grow longer, vehicle lighting and visibility become more important factors in traffic safety. About half of all traffic fatalities take place at dawn, dusk or during nighttime. Darkness is especially dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Under Oregon law, vehicle lights must be turned on between sunset and sunrise and at “any other time when, due to insufficient light, persons and vehicles are not clearly discernible at a distance of 1,000 feet.” Some cars are equipped with sensors that automatically activate headlights during bad weather or at dusk. In many countries, vehicles are required to display their lights both day and night.
The quality of headlights varies widely depending on vehicle model and year. One study showed that only eight percent of the headlights on model 2018 vehicles qualified for a “good” rating. Substandard headlights were either too dim to provide adequate illumination or so bright they temporarily blinded oncoming drivers.
Many of the headlights that produce dangerous glare are after-market additions. Even without excessive glare, blue headlights are illegal in Oregon, as are nonstandard lights for fog lights, turn signals, and other lighting.
Oregon law requires drivers to dim high beams within 500 feet of an approaching vehicle or when following another vehicle by 350 feet or less. Auxiliary lights, including fog lights, must be turned off to reduce glare.
Keep equipment in working order
During the winter months, Oregon drivers have to cope with as much as 16 hours of darkness every day. With limited visibility in dark and cloudy weather, it’s especially important to make sure that vehicle lighting is in good working condition. Fines for failure to maintain a vehicle’s lights and other required equipment can be expensive, ranging from $110 to $260 depending on the type of equipment.
Oregon law requires cars to have two white headlights, two brake lights, two taillights that are visible for at least 500 feet, a rear license plate light, turn signals on the front and rear; side marker lights, and two rear reflectors. Antique cars may be exempt from some of these requirements.
Drivers can be cited for installing custom or after-market equipment that is prohibited by Oregon law. Examples include: dark window-tinting materials; tinted or clear license-plate covers that change the appearance of the plate; red lights on the front of a vehicle; and any kind of blue or green lighting. The main purpose of the lighting restrictions is to avoid confusion, since only emergency vehicles are allowed to display lights of certain colors. Packaging claiming that a product is “100% Street Legal” may not be accurate, and some types of equipment are intended only for use in auto shows or off-road.
White or amber fog lights are allowed in Oregon, but they must be used in the same way as the high beams on headlights if they are bright (over 300 candlepower).
When a driver is cited for a minor equipment violation, judges may reduce fines if the problem has been fixed before the driver appears in court. Drivers should bring a receipt, photograph or other proof of compliance. In Tigard and some other courts, a citation may be dismissed upon payment of a $40 administrative fee if the problem has been corrected and the driver has a good record, with no convictions for similar violations.
Illegal Windows, Plates and Lights
Over 6,000 traffic violations were filed in our court during 2008. About one-third were for speeding and disobeying traffic control devices, mainly red lights and stop signs. While these and various other moving violations dominate our caseload every year, drivers are often cited for offenses that are less familiar, including:
- Tinted windows ($260 fine): Oregon law prohibits tinting that allows less than 35% of visible light to be transmitted through rear and side windows. Front windshields may be tinted within a six-inch band along the top. Illegal tinting can pose a serious risk to police officers conducting traffic stops, since they may not be able to detect weapons in a car as they approach it. At night and on cloudy days, darkened windows can hinder a driver’s ability to see pedestrians, bicyclists and other vehicles.
- Failure to display plates ($110 fine): Oregon law requires license plates to be “in plain view” on the “front and rear” of all vehicles. A plate on a dashboard is not on the “front” of the vehicle. Some drivers have admitted that they removed their front plate to make it harder for photo-enforcement cameras to identify them, but that strategy is ineffective: the photos capture both the front and rear of each offending vehicle.
- Unlawful use of lights ($260 fine): Fog lights and other auxiliary lights are treated exactly like high beams under Oregon law. They must be dimmed or turned off within 500 feet of approaching vehicles and 350 feet behind another vehicle.
If you’re cited for an equipment violation, be sure to fix the problem before your court date. If you install tinting material on your windows, you should obtain and carry the certificate of compliance required by Oregon law.
Most judges will consider reducing fines for equipment violations, or in some cases even dismiss the citation, if proof of compliance is submitted to the court by mail or in person.