County sees drop in traffic deaths

Following increases every year since 2012, deaths from traffic accidents in Jackson County have dropped to virtually none in the first third of 2017.

Two fatal crashes have occurred in Jackson County since January, but Sheriff Nathan Sickler said at a county Budget Committee meeting Monday that both deaths were "likely self-harm."

On Jan. 27, a woman crashed her Acura SUV into a wall at a high rate of speed near the intersection of Wilson and Upton roads, and on March 29, a pedestrian stepped in front of a semitrailer on I-5 near Central Point. The latter case has been officially ruled a suicide based on a note left behind, according to Jackson County Justice of the Peace Joe Charter.

By this time last year, 10 traffic fatalities had been recorded.

Sickler said the reduction in deaths can be at least partly attributed to renewed traffic patrols targeting drivers who are impaired. The sheriff's department made 250 arrests for driving under the influence of intoxicants in 2016, a 66 percent increase from 2015.

Former Sheriff Corey Falls placed the department's six-deputy traffic enforcement team on hiatus in November 2015 because of a shortage of deputies. In October, Falls moved two deputies back to traffic enforcement, focused primarily on DUII. In January, Sickler devoted two more deputies who watch for distracted and aggressive driving.

The sheriff's department has nearly doubled the number of DUII arrests since the traffic team started back up, according to Sickler. There were 168 DUII arrests between October 2016 and April 1, compared to 87 between Oct. 1, 2015, and April 1, 2016.

Fatal crashes are also down statewide by more than a third, according to Shelley Snow with the Oregon Department of Transportation. Crashes are down 35.7 percent from the same time in 2016, with 46 fewer deaths than the 126 recorded by this time last year.

It's too soon to pinpoint the reasons behind the statewide decline, according to Snow. Analysts are still months away from finishing the preliminary report breaking down factors in 2016 crashes, typically released in July, and the full report for 2015 was only released in February.

ODOT rolled out awareness-raising campaigns this year about "the need to make good decisions behind the wheel," such as a "Messages from Mom" campaign that uses freeway reader boards for motherly reminders not to text and drive. But Snow said treacherous road conditions make the numbers a mystery until analysis can be finished.

"We've had a particularly severe winter, with snow, rain, storms, so why aren't there more crashes?" Snow said. 

The drop in fatal crashes follows years of increases locally and statewide.

The county had 33 traffic fatalities in 2016, the highest number since 45 deaths in 2004, according to numbers from Charter. 

In 2016, 496 traffic fatalities were recorded in Oregon, with 445 in 2015, according to ODOT. The 2015 total was 25 percent higher than the 356 reported in 2014, which was the most significant one-year increase Oregon has experienced since 1946.

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

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