Winter Driving

A vehicle navigates a partially snow-covered road on Old Highway 30 west of Meacham in 2018.

It’s been a beautiful fall in the Columbia Basin so far, but it feels inevitable that the first icy roads of the season for Hermiston aren’t far off. Already, the mountain passes east of Pendleton have closed at least twice for crashes in snowy weather.

As more people stay home than usual this winter and meetings over video chat have become the norm, we have an opportunity to reduce traffic fatalities this winter.

According to preliminary data released in October by the Federal Highway Administration, traffic fatalities were down by about 2% in the first six months of 2020, compared with the first half of 2019. That’s good news, but less positive when considering the same time period in 2020 saw a 16.6% decrease in overall traffic. That means while there were fewer fatalities total, there were more per miles traveled.

Experts have offered up several theories on this. People who are spending more time at home and are feeling higher levels of stress may be drinking and consuming drugs more, causing more impaired driving. Less traffic may also be encouraging people to feel comfortable engaging in other risky behaviors, such as speeding.

That’s why it is important that we don’t let down our guard this winter. All driving is a serious responsibility that, when taken lightly, can have disastrous consequences — death, injury, hospitalization, prison or large financial costs — but driving on slick roads and/or in poor visibility increases the danger.

In my decade as a journalist, I’ve seen the consequences firsthand. I’ve seen gruesome crash scenes with details I wish I could forget. I’ve seen the outline of the body under the sheet on the road, or the drips of blood left behind as someone was loaded into an ambulance.

In both my personal and professional life, I’ve seen what is left behind, too. I’ve interviewed victims’ loved ones as they cried. I’ve interviewed people left paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of their life, or written about people going to prison for accidentally killing someone while driving drunk.

I’ve seen friends and relatives commemorate the anniversary each year of the family member who was killed by an intoxicated or distracted driver. When I write about someone being killed in a crash, I usually seek out their Facebook page to see if we have any mutual friends in common, so I can be prepared for the conversation that often follows as that friend seeks me out to ask hard questions like, “Do you know if she suffered before she died?”

I know it’s easy to rationalize that it won’t be you. Many years ago I used to text and drive occasionally, before this job cured me of it. It is true that most of the time those who think, “I won’t crash if I look down at my phone for 5 seconds to send this text,” or “I’m steady enough to make it home without a taxi,” do make it home safe. But for about 40,000 people in the United States each year, that thought is their last thought.

A state trooper once told me he had responded to a fatal crash and found the dead woman’s phone among the wreckage. Front and center was a grocery list she had been making as she drove, a half-completed word marking the last moment of her life.

There are no do-overs when it comes to car crashes. There is no, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in this chronic pain from my accident so I’m going to go back in time and put on a seat belt.”

So please, while you’re driving, wear a seat belt. Drive the speed limit. When bad weather or icy patches hit this winter, slow down and leave more room for stopping. Keep your eyes on the road at all times. Turn your phone on silent and throw it in the back seat if it’s too much of a temptation. Make sure any time you get behind the wheel of a car you’re sober and wide awake.

When in any doubt, pull over and get some sleep, call a taxi, or call a friend who would rather pick you up at 2 a.m. than get a 3 a.m. call about your death.

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