Group ranks state high on traffic safety

January 19, 2010
Group ranks state high on traffic safety

Advocates' coalition wants even tighter restrictions on teen drivers, however

By Peter Wong
Statesman Journal
Oregon is ranked among the top states for traffic-safety laws by a national highway safety group.
Oregon was one of 10 states, along with California and Washington, to earn a "green" rating from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition based in Washington, D.C. The group's rating is based on 15 traffic-safety laws.
Under one of those laws, which has been in force for 10 years in Oregon, traffic deaths and injuries involving teenage drivers have dropped by almost 60 percent — from a peak of 1,195 in 1998.
But Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety is pressing Oregon and all other states to further tighten requirements for teenagers.
Troy Costales, the state's top traffic-safety official in the Oregon Department of Transportation, said the drop in injuries and deaths is far steeper than even he hoped back when lawmakers passed the law in 1999. He said he expected a drop of 12 to 14 percent, based on other states that passed such laws.
"The bottom line is the difference we made in teenage lives," he said.
Under Oregon's law, which took effect in March 2000, teenage drivers must complete a couple of stages with restrictions on driving before they can obtain unrestricted licenses.
No state fully complies with the group's new standards, which it set with this year's report card, its seventh.
Oregon allows 15-year-olds to obtain provisional instruction permits. The group's recommended age is 16.
A teenage driver may obtain a standard driver license in Oregon one year after completing a provisional restricted license. The group wants states to set a minimum age of 18.
The group also wants ignition-interlock devices required for all drunken-driver offenders — only eight states have such laws — and Oregon to conduct blood-alcohol testing on drivers who survive crashes in which someone is killed. If drivers are killed, testing is mandatory in Oregon.
"All advocacy groups have a little different twist," said Costales, who has led the state Transportation Safety Division since September 1997.
"Ignition interlocks are not a silver bullet against drunken driving. But they are something that, when used, have been successful in changing somebody's behavior — and today's interlocks are better than they were 20 years ago."
However, Costales said, there are 25,000 arrests annually for drunken driving in Oregon — and even though some of those are the same drivers, Costales said repeat offenders have dropped by about one-third in the past decade. He said lawmakers would have to grapple with issues of ownership and use of vehicles by the families or businesses of offenders.
Costales said he pays the most attention to ratings and proposals by regulatory agencies, such as the National Transportation Safety Administration, because they may influence the flow of federal grants.
As for other groups, he said, their recommendations become part of the discussion that leads to proposals ODOT presents to the Oregon Legislature.
An example is the provision in Oregon's graduated driver-licensing law that restricts nighttime driving by teen drivers between midnight and 5 a.m. in their first year. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety recommends such a restriction between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
"Back when lawmakers discussed this 10 years ago, we presented them with Oregon statistics on teen driving and when their risk of deaths and injuries start to go up," Costales said. "It was midnight. The reality is that with high-school sports and other activities, and the rural nature of many high schools, kids aren't getting home until 11."
The president of the national group, Judith Lee Stone, said her group did not propose changes in standards to qualify fewer states for the top ratings.
"Rather our intent was to highlight the documented need for more states to adopt these highly-effective lifesaving laws aimed at high-risk behaviors," Stone said.
In addition to graduated driver licensing, laws the group likes include adult and child safety protection, drunken driving responses, and distracted driving through texting responses.
Based on many of these same factors, Oregon rates high among other groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Oregon is one of three states, plus Washington, D.C., that get a "green" from the insurance institute on laws regulating licensing of young drivers, use of seat belts, child-safety restraints and motorcycle helmets, and red-light cameras. While the cameras are not in use statewide, Salem is among the cities using such cameras. or (503) 399-6745


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