Fatal crashes up sharply this year

26 vehicle crash deaths in county in 2014 well above average for recent years

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

Published:

 
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Did you know?

• People killed in fatal traffic accidents so far this year were an average of 42 years old.

• The majority of fatal crashes in Clark County happen in the second half of the year, according to data from the Washington State Department of Transportation, making the spike in the first six months of 2014 unusual.

Twenty-six people have lost their lives on Clark County roadways so far this year, a number that far outpaces local traffic fatality trends over the last decade.

It’s a stark statistic without a straight explanation. The collisions followed no pattern; they happened in scattered locales around the county, and in some no cause has been determined. The people who died represent a diverse mix of people using roadways — drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists and skateboarders.

Two women were killed by a hit-and-run driver on their way home from a baby shower. A security guard found a man dead in a field after he was apparently thrown from his all-terrain vehicle. A Vancouver man was struck by a Mustang while attempting to cross six lanes of Northeast Highway 99.

The most recent death was Thursday afternoon, when Trina Wase drove her SUV into a Clark Public Utilities substation at Northeast 28th Street and 112th Avenue.

“There are no common themes,” said Clark County sheriff’s Sgt. Dennis Pritchard, who supervises the deputies that investigate traffic fatalities. “We’ve got them in every corner of the county.”

As a result, it’s difficult to say what could be done to prevent more fatal accidents, other than to increase traffic patrols everywhere.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office is the agency tasked with investigating the most such cases: 11 fatal crashes on country roads, seven of which occurred in June.

Pritchard doesn’t have any theories for the uptick in fatalities during June. It was a hectic month as deputies tried to piece the facts together. The month started out with the death of Vancouver Fire Capt. Gregg Roberts, 52, who was thrown from his Jeep when he apparently over-corrected while driving on Ward Road in Hockinson. Why was he thrown? It’s unclear.

At the end of the month, 23-year-old Luke Sperline fell out of the bed of a moving pickup in the Felida area and died. Why did he stand up and fall?

In any traffic case, there are a lot of ‘Whys’ for detectives to ask. They don’t always get answered.

Investigations take months to complete, and the more people and vehicles involved, the more complex they are. At any given time, the deputies are working six to 20 cases. Traffic investigations tend to be a revolving door, Pritchard said. As one case gets closed, another collision happens — the traffic deputies are sent out any day at any time — and the process starts all over again.

The county has two deputies who investigate traffic fatalities full time, along with collisions that result in serious injury, which are much more common. One of the deputies is currently on family leave, Pritchard said.

“We respond to all of them, and each creates a tremendous amount of work and follow-up,” he said.

I-5 collisions

When the year started off with multiple fatalities on Interstate 5 in north Clark County, Washington State Patrol troopers were baffled. “There’s no pattern with the fatalities in the north end of the county,” said Trooper Will Finn. “Why is it happening?”

If a series of collisions are primarily caused by drunken drivers, the State Patrol’s natural response is to step up DUI enforcement in those areas. In that case, the cause of the collisions is clear and prevention is somewhat tangible.

But in this case, the only common factor was location. Troopers started working that northern area of I-5 more aggressively. Even though they didn’t have one particular traffic violation to target, they upped their presence — and that, Finn said, seemingly made a difference. There haven’t been any fatalities on freeways or state highways within Clark County since June 7.

“It’s a constant adjustment of forces and resources to areas of concern,” he said.

The most notable crashes include the 28-vehicle pileup on an icy Thursday morning in February that killed a 39-year-old man from Tualatin, Ore., and strained emergency responders. Later in February, there was the wrong-way collision near the exit for Battle Ground, in which 6-year-old Henry Babitzke was killed. The driver who caused the crash, Gage Musgrave, 84, of Vancouver died weeks later in a hospice. Babitzke and Musgrave are the youngest and oldest victims of fatal crashes so far this year. Investigators are still working on that case, Finn said.

They’re also trying to figure out why a motorcyclist laid down his bike on I-5 just south of Ridgefield, where he was thrown onto the roadway and struck by a Honda Civic. Reports indicate that he was distracted by something, but investigators don’t know what it was.

Another conundrum is two separate cases where the drivers veered off the freeway for unknown reasons, crashed and died.

So many factors come into play that influence whether or not someone survives a crash, Finn said. Some people can withstand the impacts of collisions better than others. Some victims have medical conditions that are aggravated by trauma, he said. That’s caused four deaths so far this year.

“There are so many things going into a collision, you can’t predict an injury out of it,” Finn said.

It goes to show how dynamic collisions are and how — when seconds count — something can happen that completely changes the outcome of a crash.

Take the April 7 three-vehicle collision on I-5 that killed a motorcyclist. That day, Eldon L. Ford, of Ontario, Ore., was driving a pickup with extra cautionary lights and a long pole extended from the top in order to test the clearance of freeway underpasses along a potential route for a vehicle with an oversize load. When the pickup’s pole struck the Carty Road overpass just south of Ridgefield, Ford slowed to pull over and was struck by a Honda CR-V. The CR-V swerved out of control and struck a Harley-Davidson motorcycle driven by Dennis Sarton, a 60-year-old Vancouver resident. Sarton died at the scene.

Troopers noticed, however, that there wasn’t a huge dent in the Honda CR-V, suggesting that Sarton had tried to swerve at the last moment. What if he had been successful and avoided getting hit? Would he perhaps still be alive?

But troopers can’t change the past or predict the future. They patrol, Finn said, in hope that what they do helps prevent another fatality.

City ahead of schedule

One of the most recent fatal crashes almost seems like a fluke. On July 17, a 64-year-old man went on a bicycle ride through uptown Vancouver after work, carrying his dog in a basket on the bike. According to Vancouver Sgt. Pat Johns, Stephen Lewis turned a corner, struck a parked car and died. In WSDOT records, there’s no reason for the crash. Under contributing circumstances, it simply reads “none.”

“What can you do?” said Johns, who heads the Vancouver Police Department’s traffic unit. “You have to call family members, and their first question is, ‘Why?’ Sometimes, I don’t know why.”

So far this year, city streets have seen six fatal crashes, including a high-profile case. Raisa Mosh, 45, and Irina Gardinant, 28, died after a hit-and-run collision as they crossed Northeast 72nd Avenue at Vancouver Mall Drive, on their way home from a baby shower. Criminal charges against the alleged driver are pending in court.

Sometimes, Johns said, it can take a couple of years to wrap up a fatal crash investigation. “They’re every bit as complicated as homicides, but we have to do physics,” he said.

The department on average investigates about five fatalities in a year, so the police already have investigated more than a year’s worth of cases in less than eight months. Johns said he feels the pressures of having only a four-person traffic unit. Currently he’s down one officer; Dustin Goudschaal is on leave, recuperating after he was shot during a routine traffic stop at the end of June. As a result, the unit doesn’t have a lot of time to do specialized enforcement, Johns said.

From spring 2003 to mid-2005, the city of Vancouver experienced 25 months with no fatalities. At the time, the traffic unit had about 14 officers, Johns said. He believes they had the right amount of resources put in the right places. The stretch ended on June 3, 2005, when a motorcyclist who wasn’t wearing a helmet crashed on Northeast Burton Road and died.

“Anything can happen anytime while driving,” Johns said. So far this year, it has.

2014 fatal crash timeline