2014 in Clark County saw dramatic jump in fatal crashes

Number was twice as high as in 2013; law enforcement traffic units grapple with reduction in manpower

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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How To Help

If you see a driver who appears to be under the influence or driving recklessly, call 911 with the vehicle's description, license plate number, location and direction of travel.

Related Coverage

Expert tries to educate young drivers about importance of attention to road

How To Help

If you see a driver who appears to be under the influence or driving recklessly, call 911 with the vehicle’s description, license plate number, location and direction of travel.

Related Coverage

Expert tries to educate young drivers about importance of attention to road

Traffic fatalities ended 39 lives last year in Clark County.

The county’s traffic deaths in 2014 were twice as high as they were in 2013, and higher than any other year in the last decade. The increase in traffic fatalities also bucks the statewide trend, in which the number of deaths has stayed more or less flat in recent years, said Staci Hoff, director of research at the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

“There’s nothing out there that says why all of a sudden we took that jump,” said Marion Swendson, manager of Clark County’s Target Zero program, a statewide effort to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious-injury crashes by 2030.

Last year’s fatal crashes happened for a variety of reasons, whether it was speed, a driver mistake, the driver having a medical problem or — the top cause — driving under the influence.

For years motorists under the influence of drugs or alcohol have been the leading cause of local traffic deaths. In 2014, they accounted for at least 14 lives lost. Allegedly, two drivers in those cases were under the influence of pot, some had taken other drugs and most had been drinking.

“Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” and “Drive High, Get a DUI” are slogans that police and traffic safety organizations constantly try to reiterate to the public, though they aren’t able to reach everyone.

Driving under the influence is “like having a loaded gun going down the road. You have no idea when it’s going to go off,” said Vancouver police traffic Sgt. Pat Johns.

Investigating DUIs and fatal crashes is complex and requires a lot of expertise, Johns said, and it’s a daunting task for traffic units that are smaller than they used to be.

Officers stretched thin

Johns’ traffic unit is made up of just four people. Traffic Officer Dustin Goudschaal is on leave after he was shot during a routine traffic stop in June. So, the group is down to three.

“You can’t do more with less when you have less,” Johns said.

Twelve years ago, there were 14 officers on the traffic unit, during which time there was a 25-month stretch with no traffic fatalities in Vancouver. The number of dedicated officers made a difference, Johns said. “We see that having directed enforcement does work.”

Patrol work, regardless of whether an officer is on the traffic unit, sends police to all parts of the county. This means when the next emergency crops up an officer may be nearby — or not.

“We can’t always get to everybody. It’s the reality of our staffing,” Johns said.

Such was the case on the morning of Dec. 8. After a maroon Monte Carlo struck a car in Portland and drove away, a driver in a black pickup called 911 and followed the car to let dispatchers know what was going on. The Monte Carlo got onto Interstate 205, struck a small white truck and kept going north, according to documents filed in Clark County Superior Court.

A motorist called 911 to say the driver looked as though he was drooling and falling asleep while the vehicle weaved side to side, the documents said. Any available officers were scrambling to get to that Monte Carlo before something serious happened, but nobody was nearby at the time, Johns said.

Then, the Monte Carlo took state Highway 500 westbound. Vancouver police Cpl. Neil Martin radioed that he was eastbound on the highway when he saw the car westbound, being followed by a witness who had emergency flashers on, according to court documents.

The Monte Carlo took the Andresen Road exit, striking a light pole and knocking it to the ground, and then pinballed down the road. Near Vancouver Mall Drive, the car struck Anita Walters while she was walking on the sidewalk. The 57-year-old, who was there as part of a work crew, went limp. Walters died from her injuries.

Matthew Purifoy of Portland was charged with vehicular homicide intoxication and vehicular homicide reckless driving in connection with Walters’ death. She was one of eight pedestrians struck and killed last year in the county.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office has two detectives tasked with investigating traffic fatalities and serious-injury collisions, and both officers work a lot of overtime to close cases, sheriff’s Sgt. Dennis Pritchard said. Their investigations take away from time that could be spent on traffic enforcement and responding to traffic complaints.

Johns echoed Pritchard’s concerns: “Everybody’s complaining about speeding. Everybody. … You can’t do consistent enforcement with one or two guys dedicated to an entire city.”

Looking for solutions

After Washington State Patrol troopers responded to multiple traffic fatalities on Interstate 5 in north Clark County at the start of 2014, they moved their enforcement effort over there. Troopers stopped speeders, seat belt violators, aggressive motorists and impaired drivers.

“Since adding the northern part of Clark County into the district’s target area, this stretch of Interstate 5 has not seen a traffic fatality,” Trooper Will Finn said.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver Police Department is trying to secure a state grant of up to $150,000 that would cover overtime pay to target drunk or high drivers, but it wouldn’t just be cops scouring the roads for drunks.

Johns wants to pay house visits to people who have been convicted of driving under the influence and are on probation; he’d ask how they’re doing, check any interlock devices and make sure they’re not on track to get another DUI. Also, he’d like police to do bar checks. Seeing uniformed police officers walking around bars greeting people — maybe handing out educational coasters — could make people think twice about driving home under the influence. It reminds people that police are watching the roads.

“Letting people see police presence in a positive manner will also deter some people,” Johns said.

His efforts take inspiration from an Oregon Judicial Department program that helps repeat offenders get sober and reduce their likelihood of re-offending. In exchange for participating in the three-year program, offenders get reduced jail time and the fines associated with their conviction are suspended.

In Washington state, a person’s fifth DUI conviction in 10 years is a felony. All the prior convictions are misdemeanors. Typically, DUI convictions come with at least a 90-day driver’s license suspension.

Forty-five states have felony-DUI laws. Among those, Washington has the highest felony threshold for DUIs. The other 44 states require anywhere between one and three DUI convictions before the driver is charged with a felony.

Washington state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, looks to lower the felony threshold for DUI convictions with Senate Bill 5105. When someone gets convicted for a DUI a fourth time, they would receive a felony charge and be sent to state prison rather than county jail. Last week, the state Senate Law and Justice Committee unanimously approved the bill.

Fatal ‘flukes’

In other fatal crashes last year in Clark County, it’s difficult to pinpoint what went wrong. For example, on Dec. 29, Cameron Kewitz, 18, of Woodland was riding his motorcycle west on Northeast Cedar Creek Road when it left the roadway and crashed. No one was around to witness the crash, and investigators determined the teen wasn’t speeding and wasn’t driving under the influence.

“We don’t really know what happened,” Pritchard said.

Johns calls cases like that “fluke crashes.”

Another one occurred April 26, when Debi Roynon got into a fender-bender on Fourth Plain Boulevard, and nothing seemed serious. Because of some health complications, however, she died from abdominal trauma sustained in the crash.

In another case, an Amtrak passenger train hit an SUV on a private-driveway crossing in Vancouver’s Old Evergreen Highway neighborhood on Sept. 7, killing 80-year-old Charles Kellogg, a prominent local business owner. The cause of that crash is still unknown.

In other cases, drivers might have experienced medical problems that caused them to lose control and crash. On Nov. 26, Vancouver resident Richard Barker, 64, had an apparent medical episode while merging onto Interstate 5 and crashed into a light pole, according to the Washington State Patrol. He later died in the hospital. Nicholas Logue, 36, of Kalama veered off I-5 southbound near Ridgefield and struck a pole on June 7. He died, but his daughters Nash and Nealee, ages 3 and 9, survived the crash. Both of those cases are still under investigation.

“You can’t plan for those ones,” Finn said. “We can’t plan for a medical event.”

Troopers, he said, can’t really plan for any traffic fatality, but they do targeted patrol work on state routes in hopes of preventing the next one.