In these times of the COVID-19 virus, many of us were seldom leaving our homes. But now things are beginning to open up and we are once again driving.
Often, we don't even use more than a half tank of gasoline in a month, as we limit our driving to just around town. We now are starting to reexperience the freedom of the open road and are traveling outside our county more. We feel safe because there are few cars on the road.
So that slight tap on the gas pedal exhilarates us, and we add just a little more pressure to that pedal and the speed creeps up. That posted speed of 55 mph slowly creeps up and we start pushing our comfort zone. Suddenly, U.S. 30 feels like a freeway and we are averaging much higher speeds.
We see no law enforcement for several miles and suddenly, flashing red and blue lights make an appearance. The officer stops you and lets you know that you were speeding 20 mph over the posted speed. You are cited for going 75 in a 55 zone.
Unfortunately, that is a more common speed in recent months. It is a costly experience, but not as much as a crash would cost.
But what you have experienced is not uncommon. We have slowly seen driver behavior become more aggressive and potentially deadly. Many drivers complain about the lack of enforcement or plain absence of officers on the road. Columbia County has several jurisdictions who are responsible for law enforcement coverage.
In the early 1980s, there were 12 Oregon State Police Troopers assigned to the local worksite, plus other staff. Then came budget cuts that slowly reduced the number of law enforcement personnel in our area. Those cuts have resulted in a progressive reduction in OSP Troopers on the road, while we have experienced a population increase, becoming a "bedroom" community of Portland. There are now just five troopers to cover all of Columbia County, including Highway 202, Highway 47 and Highway 30 on a 24/7 rotation. Their territory includes part of Sauvie Island and extends to the St. John's Bridge.
The frightening part of this is that there is talk at several levels of not reducing, but closing the St. Helens worksite completely. We now may not have any Oregon State Police coverage at all in just a few short months. That will mean that local law enforcement (municipal police) and the Columbia County Sheriff's Office will need to pick up the slack. And they are also undermanned and have limited coverage.
We are headed for major problems unless we can get our state legislature to: 1) Keep the St. Helens worksite open. 2) Increase the number of troopers available so we have increased coverage. And 3) Provide adequate mental health coverage to reduce the stress of the types of law enforcement actions they have to take.
It is a high-risk job, mentally and physically. It will take increased funding to train new OSP Troopers to meet the needs. So please write to our State Emergency Board and ask that we have adequate coverage for our area. Keep the St. Helens worksite open.
We personally need to do our part as well by slowing down, putting down our phones, being attentive and remembering that other drivers share the road with us. Our personal actions affect other drivers. It is not all about "you." It is "we" who share the road and responsibility.
Lynn Chiotti lives in St. Helens.
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