2017: Year of the pedestrian in local news
Reflecting on 2017 news in the Clackamas Review, many readers have expressed how grateful they are for the continuing coverage of traffic safety issues as more local pedestrians were hit by vehicles.
Advocates believe that just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving reduced death tolls on American roads by advocating for stiffer penalties, fewer local pedestrians might be hit if police and district attorneys prosecute at-fault drivers to the full extent of the law. While the pedestrians are killed or badly injured, many drivers walk away with a fine or no citation at all, sending the message that these incidents are no big deal.
A FedEx van driver paid $260 in fines for fatally injuring 83-year-old Norma Gabriel on April 26 in the Milwaukie Transit Center, and on Oct. 16, 2013, a Milwaukie police officer wasn't cited after he hit Gillian Hibbs, 70, while she biked across a marked crosswalk on the Springwater Corridor. In both cases, police didn't test drivers for drugs after the drivers were found to be at fault in hitting pedestrians in broad daylight.
Police did request a toxicology test for 45-year-old Ramon Avila-Perez, who said he may have fallen asleep when he hit Kelsey Zionskowski, 25. After the drug test proved negative, Avila-Perez paid a total of $460 on June 26, 2015, to the Milwaukie Municipal Court. Meanwhile, Zionskowski, now 28, agreed to speak with this newspaper on the three-year anniversary of her life-altering injuries, detailing in an August 2017 article how extensive physical therapy and a hard-won prosthetic leg have allowed her to walk painfully using a walker.
Without the Clackamas Review's coverage of Gabriel's death and Hibbs subsequently contacting the newspaper about seeing parallels with her own case ("Crosswalk crash deja vu in Milwaukie," July 2017), it's likely that locals would have never found out about these women who were badly injured. Milwaukie's police department didn't issue news releases for either case, and since this year's news coverage, the department has pledged to let the public know about auto/pedestrian crashes.
In naming 2017 the year of the pedestrian, this newspaper is using the term broadly to mean people who are walking, biking or waiting for buses on local sidewalks or bike lanes. Advocates say all of the cases covered by the Clackamas Review this year point to various shortcomings of our current criminal justice system.
Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba said that Gabriel's death provided an opportunity for him and former state Rep. Carolyn Tomei to request a meeting with Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote. Unless you are intending to hit someone in a crosswalk, which is pretty hard to prove, there isn't automatically a charge to go along with it, Gamba heard from Foote.
"It was very frustrating," Gamba said. "What we learned there is, if we want it to be something that is automatically prosecuted if someone is hit in a crosswalk, we're going to have to change state law."
In the meantime, Gabriel's case was one of the many recent ones in Milwaukie and Oak Grove in which police failed to check for drugs or electronic distractions that could have caused a driver to hit a pedestrian. In the absence of stronger state laws, it's up to local law enforcement to fully investigate the crimes and prosecute the laws on the books, said Cynthia Newton, attorney for injured cyclist James Lugosi.
On Aug. 1, 52-year-old Brian Dean Wright was driving his 2014 Mazda MZ5 south on Oatfield Road when he turned left across the lanes of traffic in an attempt to go up Oakland Avenue and hit Legosi, 43, who was riding his bicycle northbound on Oatfield.
Legosi's attorney said it defied logic that a driver would suffer no consequences for hitting her client in an Oak Grove bike lane, where he clearly had the right-of-way. Newton said there's often deference to a motorist since most officers drive cars themselves, but public opinion has been rapidly changing to provide more sympathy to pedestrians.
Newton believes that drivers who run over pedestrians could receive criminal charges, such as reckless driving, if police and district attorneys ever allowed the cases to reach a jury. But these cases hardly ever involve criminal charges, at least in Clackamas County.
"I'm interested in everything we can do to reduce the number of these types of crashes," Newton said. "We find in certain jurisdictions, especially with certain officers, that they're especially resistant to citing. It's not uncommon that these drivers aren't cited."
Milwaukie had three high-profile cases emerge this year of women being badly injured or killed in crosswalks, but the problem has extended to other parts of urban, northern Clackamas County.
Newton said Legosi considered pursuing a citizen-initiated citation, a process allowed under Oregon law where an average citizen — rather than the traditional citations written by police officers — can ask a judge to consider fines for a perpetrator. He declined to pursue a citizen-initiated citation, Newton said, "not because it's not a righteous cause, but due to the pressures of balancing work and home in addition to his need to attend to his injury recovery."
"It's important that those consequences are felt by the driver when there's a clear violation," Newton said.
CCSO and OSP, in two recent cases, declined to issue citations, let alone press for criminal charges. In another case, a Rex Putnam High School student was witnessed going 60 mph in a 40 mph zone, but the suspects in the cases were determined to be sober without any drug tests.
Sue Pringle, 63, was sitting at a TriMet bus shelter when she was run over by a 16-year-old Rex Putnam student. He reportedly was speeding in a black 2008 G37 Infiniti northbound on McLoughlin when he swerved to avoid a white 1999 sedan turning on to Vineyard Road. He hit Caroline Pearl Newton's sedan, sending her to the hospital with injuries, and shattering the bus shelter where Pringle sat.
On Sept. 26, 2016, he was determined to be sober simply by the OSP officer's observation of the suspect's "speech, odor, etc." As reported in the October 2017 article, "Will justice be done for Oak Grove crash victims?" the Rex Putnam student was uninjured, but Pringle's back, pelvis and ankle were broken in the crash, so she was taken to OHSU with Newton.
As the crash victims continue their slow recovery, local police departments struggle with releasing information about their pedestrian/auto crash investigations. The widow of man who died at OHSU after a bicycle crash last month had to let the local newspaper know about her husband's death because the Oregon City Police Department neglected to release Troy Eastwood's name when he died.
Oregon City did budget for a new traffic signal at 12th and Washington this year, partially in response to a previous pedestrian death on Washington Street in 2014, while Milwaukie declined to limit non-bus through traffic (like in OC's transit center) on Jackson Street after Gabriel's death, when the city attorney said that the "intersection has performed as expected and meets best practice."
In Milwaukie, the police stopped releasing detailed police reports to the Clackamas Review about a year ago, citing concerns about news coverage and costs to the city. When citizens complained that they might have known about Gabriel's death if the city had continued to release reports to the local newspaper, the city's response was that anyone can request a police report for $15.
Problems with that response include the fact that a $15 charge for comprehensive reports quickly becomes cost-prohibitive, you have to know about the existence of cases in order to be able to request them specifically, and the police department can at its discretion deny access to some or all of a police report.
This newspaper last week requested two police reports and was denied by Milwaukie's determination that they were still in an "open investigation." One of the rejected records requests was for a case on Nov. 24, when a 34-year-old woman who was driving along the 5600 block of King Road hit a 37-year-old male pedestrian who suffered life-threatening injuries and was taken to OHSU. Police are not releasing any details about who was at fault in the crash or names of people involved.
On Sept. 5, 2016, 57-year-old Phillip Gatto was found killed inside his residence at 9545 S.E. 42nd Ave. Police are still not releasing the exact cause of death or any information about progress they are making in finding his attacker.