Belmont accident galvanizes, saddens bicycling community
Local anti-drunken driving activists blame weak Oregon laws for the early Wednesday traffic accident that killed two bicyclists and left another with critical injuries.
Lindsey Llaneza had pleaded guilty to drunken driving charges in a previous accident three months before he was charged Wednesday with hitting three bike riders near Southeast 42nd Avenue and Belmont Street.
Police said that Llaneza's alcohol level on Wednesday was twice the legal limit of 0.08 and that he was driving with a suspended license because of previous traffic offenses.
Under Oregon law, even drivers repeatedly convicted of drunken driving can choose to enter counseling programs or perform community service work instead of going to jail.
'It makes me so angry. Nothing stops these people from driving. It just goes on and on and on,' said Gerrie Collins, a member of the Multnomah County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose son was killed by a drunk driver in 1993.
According to court records, Llaneza was arrested for drunken driving March 3. He pleaded guilty and was released April 1 after agreeing to enter a substance-abuse counseling program, as allowed by law.
Collins criticized the Oregon Legislature for refusing to increase the penalties for drunken driving this session.
The Legislature recently passed a bill House Bill 2885 requiring that drivers lose their licenses after a third conviction for driving under the influence of an intoxicant, or DUII.
'It's a joke. You have to kill someone before there's any jail time,' said Jim Whitehead, whose son, Mark, died in the same accident that killed Collins' child.
Gretchen McKenzie, director of the Traffic Safety Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation, said budget problems prevented the Legislature from passing a tougher law.
'They considered jail time, but there's no space,' she said.
Llaneza was scheduled to be arraigned Thursday afternoon on charges of manslaughter, assault, hit-and-run and driving under the influence of intoxicants. The 49-year-old North Portland resident was arrested after police say he hit the three bicyclists with his van about 12:20 a.m. Wednesday.
Angela L. Leazenby, 26, of California, and Orion C. Satushek, 27, of Portland, died at the scene. Caroline J. Buchalter, 23, of Portland, was critically injured.
Sheriff begins review
Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Guisto said the fatal accident is prompting a review of options for keeping drunken drivers in jail. According to Guisto, a committee that includes representatives from the courts and the district attorney's office is currently reviewing all sentencing and release policies.
'I remember when drunk drivers went to jail on the first conviction,' said Guisto, who began his law enforcement career in 1974.
Lt. Mike Shults, a sheriff's spokesman, said people charged with DUIIs now are typically cited and released, rather than jailed until their court date.
It has to do with the nature of the charge, he said. Although DUII is a Class C felony, the typical DUII offender is 'an average person who makes a stupid mistake,' he said.
Offender might be jailed until their court date if the officer deems it necessary, based on the offense, prior history and any additional charges.
Police said Llaneza was driving on Southeast Belmont Street when he came up behind four bicyclists on a recreational ride. Police said that although he swerved to miss one of them, he struck the other three.
'It was pretty horrible,' said Casey Spain, 27, who was awakened by the crash and came outside to see the aftermath, about 20 feet from his back door. 'Initially, I thought, I don't know how I'd manage to ride (my bicycle) again, but I will. It is scary.'
'I find it very disturbing'
Another bicyclist was killed last Thursday by a driver later charged with DUII. Theodore Paul Hriskos, 45, of Southeast Portland, died when the bicycle he was riding was struck by a vehicle at the corner of Northeast 148th Avenue and San Rafael Street.
The fatalities have outraged many in Portland's large and politically active bicycle community.
'It makes me angry that the man already had a DUII, was driving on a suspended license, and it was going to be a hit-and-run that he kept going. I find it very disturbing that anyone out there can be that oblivious to the world around them,' said cyclist Karen Miller, 26, who lives a block away from where Wednesday's accident happened.
The incident prompted her to take more safety precautions, she said. 'I know I'm a dangerous bike rider because I don't wear a helmet, but it made me a little more aware,' she said. 'I think I might buy a helmet, although I know it's not going to protect me if a drunk driver plows into me.'
Miller plans to participate in the monthly Critical Mass bike ride this afternoon. For the past decade, cyclists in Portland have participated in the event, designed to celebrate and promote cycling as a mode of transportation.
The ride is scheduled to leave from Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park under the Burnside Bridge at 5:35 p.m. and travel to Wednesday's crash site for a memorial.
Traffic swells in summer
Local attorney Ray Thomas, who has handled bicycle injury cases for 20 years and recently wrote the book 'Pedal Power,' said he sees hundreds of injury cases each year and has at least a dozen death and serious injury cases at any one time.
'This is so unnecessary and tragic,' he said. 'What happened was that the driver, because he was driving drunk, failed to recognize the profiles of the bicyclists in time to avoid them.'
Thomas said road safety is a bigger issue in the summer months, when not only bicyclists but skateboarders, joggers, pedestrians and in-line skaters are active.
'People get in a hurry, and they forget the road has human-powered vehicles on it, especially in the summer, at all hours,' he said. 'What we have to do in the city now is send a message to the police and court system that we think this is a big problem.'
Thomas holds a bicycle legal clinic every other month. The next one is scheduled for 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. July 16 at the office of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, 717 S.W. 12th Ave.