In the eastbound lane of Interstate 84 near the Pendleton Keystone RV plant, a semi-truck has slid into the median, its trailer flipped over and completely blocking the left lane.
Emergency responders want to clear the area of traffic, but some pressing questions remain. How should firefighters position their vehicles? Where should they place the safety cones? What were the best in-the-moment decisions to avoid it from becoming infinitely worse?
Luckily for the responders, it wasn’t a real situation, but a simulation with toy cars and paper roads within the safe confines of the Pendleton Fire Station.
Guided by state officials and a towing professional, ODOT held a half-day training in Pendleton Friday on traffic impact management to a room full of area firefighters, paramedics, transportation workers and police officers.
The goal was to train this group of professionals in how to avoid second collisions, a situation where a traffic incident is made worse when another vehicle collides into the scene.
The instructors played video after video from across the country showing the pile-ups and secondary accidents that can spring from routine responses to situations like a dead animal in the road or a single-car accident off the shoulder.
Dangerous brushes with passing motorists are felt closer to home as well. Pendleton firefighter/paramedic Lorne Becker described the experience of responding to an emergency near Woodpecker Truck & Equipment on I-84.
“They get in the other lane, but they don’t slow down,” he said. “It’s difficult when you’re trying to take care of someone.”
Darin Weaver, the incident management coordinator for ODOT and called the kind of motorists who tend to be behind second collisions “D drivers,” the D standing for drunk, drugged, drowsy, districted and “just plain dangerous.”
“I think we actually have more ‘D drivers’ on the road than safe, attentive, defensive drivers,” he said.
Although police and firefighters are generally recognized for putting themselves in harm’s way, Weaver said they’re much more likely to die from a secondary collision than they are from a shooting or fire.
According to statistics provided by ODOT, five firefighters die each year and one police officer dies every month from secondary collisions.
Tow truck operators — often the last person at a highway scene — die at a rate equivalent to one per week.
Not helping the matter is an increasing number of fatal collisions, which each require attention from law enforcement and other government agencies. According to ODOT, there were 410 fatal collisions in Oregon in 2015, a huge jump from 321 in 2014 and 292 in 2013.
One factor that could help reduce secondary collisions is making the public aware of a law already on the books. Cars that get into a collision but are still operable must leave the travel lanes.
Weaver said many drivers’ failure to observe this law is less the fault of the general public and more a responsibility of public agencies to spread the word about it.
Another lesser known fact is that law enforcement has the ability to move cars and cargo involved in a collision to improve traffic safety.
Matt Zintel, a trooper with the OSP’s office in The Dalles, said safety takes priority over evidence when it comes to fatal traffic investigations.
Emergency responders are also getting assistance from a new law on the books. Drivers are required to either move to the left lane or decrease their speed to five miles per hour below the speed limit when passing by police or emergency personnel on the side of the road, but the law has been expanded to include any vehicle with their emergency lights on.