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Getting Away with It

The Portland Mercury: Getting Away with It

Want to Kill Someone in Oregon? Use Your Car
by Sarah Mirk

AT ABOUT 2:30 AM last Wednesday, November 4, two drunken drivers in two separate cars struck and killed 31-year-old Kipp Crawford on N Willamette. Three days earlier, a car struck and killed 23-year old Lindsay Leonard as she was crossing SE Foster on a marked crosswalk.

Ironically on Monday, November 9, five days after Crawford died, a national study named Portland one of the 10 safest cities for pedestrians in America. But the two tragic deaths last week highlight the dangers of being a pedestrian or cyclist—even in one of the nation’s "safest" cities.

Lents neighborhood activist Jeffrey Rose drove past the scene of Leonard’s death minutes after the crash.

"We saw a couple people lying in the street and we just sort of shook our heads. It wasn’t a real surprise," says Rose, referring to Leonard and her injured companion, Jessica Finlay. "We’ve got people coming off the freeway and tearing down Foster Road. It’s not a hospitable place for pedestrians."

Leonard, who worked at Southeast sock store Sock Dreams, and Crawford, a well-liked drummer in several local bands, are the 13th and 14th pedestrians or cyclists to die in Portland crashes this year, according to the city.

Without strict punishments and tough enforcement of dangerous driving, lawyers and alternative transportation advocates say that even fatal traffic crimes often fall through the cracks of the state’s justice system.

"If you want to kill somebody and get away with it, you should do it with your car," says Portland lawyer Ray Thomas, who has written legal guidebooks for Oregon pedestrians and cyclists, and says Oregon is one of only four states with no vehicular homicide law. Thomas notes that while there are strict punishments for people who drive drunk, drivers who kill out of pure negligence like talking on a cell phone are often quickly back in their cars with only a slap on the wrist.

The driver who accidentally killed Leonard, Tito Jose Feliciano, was released last week with no charge or citation. One of the two drivers who struck Crawford, Felisa Washington-Berry, had a string of prior traffic troubles, including getting her license suspended after crashing into another car in 2003. Washington-Berry’s license was restored in 2006.

"Unfortunately what you see time and time again is situations like this where drivers who have a history, [a history that] points in the direction of a train wreck, those are the kind of people that the system has done a horrible job of keeping off the road," says Thomas.

Portland bike attorney Mark Ginsberg echoes Thomas’ thoughts. "All the people dying because of cars are almost viewed as the cost of doing business in our society," says Ginsberg. "We need that separate law—like a vehicular homicide law—because it would give us an additional tool in holding drivers responsible for their actions."

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) spearheaded a vehicular homicide law in the legislature last spring that would have given drivers who kill someone while driving with a suspended license a felony rather than a ticket. But the bill never made it to a vote.

"People could kill someone and don’t even have to show up in court, they could just get a citation and mail it in. End of story," says BTA Executive Director Scott Bricker.

The report from transit think tank Transportation for America that ranks Portland the ninth safest city in the country for pedestrians notes with outrage that cars kill an average of 5,066 pedestrians and cyclists every year in America.

"Though these are labeled ’accidents,’" reads the report, "they usually occur on roads that are dangerous by design, streets that were engineered for speeding cars and make little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs, or on a bicycle."

Mayor Sam Adams vowed to quickly improve the design of the SE Foster intersection where Leonard died, visiting the site on Monday, November 9. In addition to installing brighter lights on the sidewalk and a "pedestrian refuge island" in the center of the street, Adams says the city has been spending $11 million to fix its 25 most dangerous intersections over the last three years. But despite the efforts, Adams notes, "We have a $400 million safety and maintenance backlog."

Mississippi Studios and Celilo will hold a memorial show for Celilo drummer Kipp Crawford on Saturday, November 21, at 9 pm. See mississippistudios.com for details.