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Jackson County traffic fatalities still on the rise

As I read Monday's Mail Tribune online, there were reports of both a motorcycle fatality in nearby Josephine County and a rafting shuttle bus rollover that injured 22. According to the Mail Tribune archives, there have been 15 crashes that have killed 16 citizens within Jackson County since the beginning of the year.

Death on the highway seems to be an almost every-other-week occurrence in the county, and we are not even halfway through the year. Initial reports identify “alcohol and speed” as likely causes in three crashes (May 31, May 30 and April 15). One driver was going 90 mph in a 30 mph zone on Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland while on LSD (April 7), and another was driving the wrong way on the freeway while using meth (March 15).

Two fatalities involved “failure to negotiate a curve” (June 17, Jan. 20). Four people died while on motorcycles (May 30, May 17, May 11 and March 29), and two died as pedestrians (March 27 and Feb. 8). One was attributed to “distracted driving” (April 3).

Two victims were not wearing a seat belt (April 12 and April 7). The youngest victim was only six (April 15), and the oldest was 85 (April 12). The leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 24 is from motor vehicle crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control in 2014.

When the Justice Court in Central Point was established in 2004, traffic fatalities in Jackson County were the second highest in the state, a total of 45 that year. Over the past 10 years, with a dedicated county traffic team and consistent enforcement, traffic fatalities decreased to an average of 19 per year, less than half of the 2004 total.

In November 2015, Sheriff Corey Falls announced that the traffic team was being cut in half. Apparently, the idea of a dedicated traffic team has recently been abandoned.

If the trend continues, and the county has 32 traffic fatalities at the end of the year, the total will be double the total of each of these recent calendar years: 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013. If fatalities from a medical cause were doubling in the county, an epidemic would be declared and experts would be scrambled to find solutions.

Statistical studies in Oregon establish that less traffic enforcement leads to increases in highway injuries and fatalities. Benjamin Hansen, an economics professor at the University of Oregon, studied the layoff of 35 percent of OSP troopers in February 2003 resulting from budget cutbacks in his paper, “Life and Death in the Fast Lane: Police Enforcement and Roadway Safety” (2014): see pages.uoregon.edu/bchansen. He states: “The subsequent decrease in enforcement corresponds with a 10- to 20-percent increase in injuries and fatalities on highways.”

I have observed increasing incivility and lawlessness on the roads. For example, on my way to court, I was passed at 70 mph in a 50 mph construction zone by a car weaving in and out of the lanes while workers were pouring asphalt on the Interstate 5 Phoenix off-ramp. Needless to say, that driver was not a good ambassador for the candidate displayed on his bumper.

With the Fourth of July holiday on the horizon, drivers should drive exceedingly carefully, and immediately report erratic or aggressive driving to law enforcement. Citizens, including elected officials, should consider whether consistent traffic enforcement remains an important part of public safety policy in Jackson County. In my opinion, we need to reverse this deadly trend of deaths on the highway.

Joe Charter is Jackson County’s Justice of the Peace.