Bill aims to move vehicles off freeways to prevent accidents

The city has asked the 2007 Oregon Legislature to help prevent the kind of accident that recently snarled traffic on Interstate 84.

Around 6 a.m. Thursday, March 1, a trailer-truck hauling milk swerved onto the shoulder of the freeway to avoid hitting a car and plowed into a parked pickup.

Although the driver of the truck was not hurt, the collision disabled both vehicles and spilled the milk, closing two of the three lanes through the rush hour while two tow trucks cleared the wreckage.

Statistics compiled by the Oregon Department of Transportation suggest this will not be the only accident on Portland-area freeways caused by parked or abandoned vehicles this year.

Between 1995 and 2005, such vehicles have been involved in 268 accidents - an average of almost 27 accidents per year. Of the total, six resulted in fatalities and 102 resulted in injuries.

The property damage, medical expenses, economic losses and related costs exceeded $10 million, according to the statistics.

In many, if not most, of these cases - including the March 1 incident - there was nothing transportation or law enforcement officials could do to prevent the accidents. Oregon law prevents vehicles parked or abandoned along freeways from being towed except during rush hours, which are defined as occurring between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

At the urging of Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams, the city has asked the Legislature to allow such vehicles to be towed 24 hours a day.

The proposed law change, Senate Bill 567, was approved by the Senate Committee on Business, Transportation and Workforce Development on March 18. If approved by the full Senate, it soon will move to the Oregon House of Representatives.

'It's both a safety issue and a congestion issue. If we can remove these vehicles quicker, we can save lives, prevent injuries and help keep traffic flowing in the Portland area,' Adams said.

According to Portland police Lt. Mark Kruger, acting commander of the bureau's traffic division, vehicles that block freeway shoulders create a distraction for drivers and interfere with any emergency responder - including the police - trying to reach an incident.

Adams became interested in the issue after being assigned the Portland Office of Transportation in mid-2006. Around that time, he drove by the aftermath of a two-car accident that had stopped traffic on northbound I-5 near the Fremont Bridge.

Wondering how long it had taken to get traffic moving again, Adams asked the transportation office to conduct what he calls an 'autopsy of the accident.' The results surprised him.

As it turned out, it took more than an hour to tow the vehicles away. One reason it took so long is that the first tow truck did not show up for a half-hour. When Adams asked who was responsible for dispatching tow trucks for accidents on freeways within the city limits, it turned out the city was - and the contract with the tow company required the truck to arrive 10 minutes earlier.

The revelation prompted Adams to form the Portland Operations Steering Team to bring together various transportation-related agencies to see what they could do to reduce congestion caused by accidents, disabled cars or other roadway obstructions.

Its research found there are approximately 250 motor vehicle incidents of all kinds each year on area freeways, over half of which do not involve injuries. The committee also learned that every minute a lane is blocked causes six minutes of traffic delays at an estimated cost of more than $12,000 in lost productivity.

Information on accidents involving parked or abandoned cars was analyzed by the Portland State University Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science

Researchers there analyzed data provided by ODOT for the major freeways in the Portland area: I-5, I-84, I-205, I-405, Oregon Highway 217 and U.S. Highway 26. When they mapped the accidents, they found numerous accidents occured every year on all the freeways.

'These are accidents that don't need to happen. Shoulders are dangerous places to leave a vehicle. A quick removal policy wouldn't necessarily prevent them all from happening, but it would go a long way,' said Christopher Monsere, the assistant PSU professor who oversaw the research.

The committee identified several steps the city could take to reduce accidents and clear the roadway quicker. One is asking the Legislature to allow vehicles parked or abandoned on freeway shoulders to be towed 24 hours a day, the proposal Adams is pursuing.

Another is requiring motorists involved in minor accidents to move their cars instead of waiting for the police to come and take a report.

As the committee discovered, many motorists believe their insurance companies will not pay their claims without a police officer witnessing the crash scene. This is not the case for minor accidents, and the city is working on legislation to require motorists involved in freeway accidents to move their cars if they can.

The committee also recommended stationing tow trucks at strategic locations along the freeways to speed responses to accidents. Adams still is exploring what this would cost and how to pay for it.

Related graphic:

Parked vehicle crashes on Portland-area freeways

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