winter weather

Winter conditions create hazards for residents, law enforcement

With some of the worst weather in recent memory, car accidents increase

By Aubrey Wieber, The Bulletin

With potentially the deepest snow accumulation Central Oregon cities have seen in decades, local law enforcement is seeing a spike in accidents and stranded motorists.

And while residents are struggling in the snow and ice, emergency responders are faced with the same issues.

“The biggest challenge for us, take away the volume of calls, is our response time is lowered,” said Capt. Bill Fugate, spokesman for Oregon State Police. Fugate said state troopers respond to a lot of calls in rural parts of the region, and it can take a while during winter conditions.

While the Bend Police Department has a smaller service area, it is also seeing diminished times.

“Our response times are a little different, because we need to drive slow, too,” Lt. Clint Burleigh said. “We need to be as safe as possible. We want to make sure we get there.”

To prepare, OSP’s fleet is almost completely all-wheel or four-wheel-drive vehicles with snow tires. Similarly, the Bend Police Department has upgraded about 75 percent of its fleet from Ford Crown Victorias to all-wheel drive Tauruses and various Ford SUVs outfitted with traction tires.

Fugate and Burleigh said their agencies’ officers are still able to do their jobs, but this winter has presented challenges.

Burleigh has lived in Central Oregon during two stints for a total of 29 years, and called this year “unprecedented.”

“I haven’t seen weather like this since I was a kid back in the ’80s,” he said.

Burleigh said the department is seeing more people getting stuck in the snow than ever before, and as a result officers are spending an increased amount of time trying to get the public to drive slower.

Fugate said people are lured into a false sense of confidence by their four-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive or chained-up vehicles.

“When the roads are bad, just because you can go 65 (mph), doesn’t mean you should go 65,” Fugate said. “We can still cite you for going 50 mph in a 60­­ — we can cite you for going faster than the conditions allow, because it’s dangerous driving.”

Fugate said OSP troopers see speeders all the time, but stopping them can be tough. Oftentimes, they would have to turn around and accelerate to catch up to the speeder, possibly creating the scenario for a crash.

“We can’t put the public at greater harm just to stop someone, so it’s harder for us to enforce it,” he said.

Stopping impaired drivers can also be more difficult when the roads are slick.

“Obviously it probably masks some of the impaired driving, because we are all driving kind of poorly,” Burleigh said. However, Burleigh and Fugate said officers are trained to hone in on other indicators of impairment — speeding, not signaling for a turn or driving in the wrong lane — rather than pulling over every car fishtailing in the snow.

And while some drivers blatantly cause dangerous situations, others can do so accidentally. Fugate said he frequently encounters motorists stopping to chain up as road conditions worsen without fully pulling off the roadway.

“We see that quite often with people, and it’s just not a safe situation,” he said.

Burleigh and Fugate said motorists need to understand the consequences of driving fast in poor conditions. When the roads are bad, drive slow and prepare for traffic. Pull off the road to chain up, and stay off of bad roads if possible.

­— Reporter: 541-383-0376, awieber@bendbulletin.com

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