10 deaths in 11 days

In 11 days in December, 10 people died in crashes on highways in Central Oregon.

Four of the seven fatal crashes occurred on U.S. Highway 97.

Dec. 19: Richard Mullins, 34, of Madras and a 10-year-old boy were killed while traveling as passengers in a car involved in a three-vehicle crash on U.S. Highway 97 south of Madras.

Dec. 20: Kylee Bruce, 24, of Redmond, died after she lost control of her car while attempting to pass another car on U.S. Highway 97 south of Redmond.

Dec. 21: Ryan Patrick Hunt, 26, of Bend, was a pedestrian who was struck and killed during the crash on NE Third Street near the northbound on-ramp to the Bend Parkway (U.S. Highway 97).

Dec. 23: Lola Stanphill, 57, of La Pine, died after she lost control of her car on U.S. Highway 97 near Vandevert Road north of La Pine and crashed into a semi-truck.

Dec. 26: Adam Clausen, 37, of Portland; Shannon O’Leary, 39, of Portland; Robert Burke, 34, of Reno, Nevada, were killed in a three-vehicle crash on U.S. Highway 26 near milepost 86 on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

Dec. 27: Anthony Marvin Mason, 22, of Redmond, was a pedestrian who was struck and killed by a car on state Highway 126 just east of the Redmond Airport.

Dec. 29: One person was killed in a two-vehicle collision on state Highway 126 1 mile west of Redmond.

For 11 days in December, Central Oregon highways were as deadly as they have ever been.

Between Dec. 19 and Thursday, seven crashes killed 10 people, including a father and son, a pregnant woman and two Portland physics professors.

Four of those crashes killed five people on U.S. Highway 97. That tally far surpasses most yearlong totals for the highway.

The Oregon Department of Transportation won’t have official statistics for 2016 for several months, but between 2010 and 2015 on U.S. Highway 97, 15 crashes resulted in 17 fatalities.

Weather plays a factor in some crashes, but the vast majority are caused by drivers, said Peter Murphy, spokesman for the transportation department.

In the past five years, the state transportation department reports 92 percent of all crashes on U.S. Highway 97 were driver-related. The most common causes of crashes include following too closely, driving too fast for the road conditions and not yielding to a right-of-way.

“What we have found is driver behavior is the critical factor,” Murphy said.

The family of Lola Stanphill — one of the U.S. Highway 97 fatalities — agrees that drivers are often too aggressive on the highway and said the 57-year-old woman often complained about them.

“That’s what she talked about every day was the highway, and how she didn’t like driving on it,” said her nephew, Gregory Dewitt. “Everybody is in a big rush. That’s why there are so many accidents.”

Officials do not consider Stanphill’s death a case of aggressive driving. She died Dec. 23 after losing control of her 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche while driving over ice and snow.

Dewitt, who lived with his aunt in La Pine, said she would commute each work day on U.S. Highway 97 to her job as a caregiver in Bend.

She was on her way home from work — and almost home — when she crashed about 5 p.m. near Vandevert Road north of La Pine, Dewitt said. He even called her that night because he thought she was late coming home.

Dewitt and many other Central Oregon residents believe the highway needs more medians to separate northbound and southbound traffic.

Transportation officials hear the same outcry for medians after each crash, but adding barriers on the highway is not so simple, Murphy said.

Any work would have to include public comment from affected property owners, Murphy said, and the input from Deschutes County, which coordinates with the state department on a transportation plan.

And, as always, transportation projects are at the mercy of state funding.

The hurdles are not insurmountable, Murphy said, but it takes thorough action.

“There is a public process. You can’t emotionally react and put a median barrier in. It’s not that simple. You need a plan and put that plan in place,” Murphy said. “It’s a logical argument in an emotional situation.”

Even though the Department of Transportation points to drivers’ actions in most crashes, the department still works to identify safety improvement projects on U.S. Highway 97.

This year, crews completed the U.S. 97 Romaine Village Way to Lava Butte project that widened the highway and installed concrete median barriers from Baker Road to Lava Butte.

Adding barriers near Lava Butte was in response to 87 reported crashes in the area over the past decade, according to the Department of Transportation. Of the 87 crashes, eight were head-on and three were swipe crashes, resulting in five deaths and numerous injuries.

Another safety improvement project was the U.S. 97 Lava Butte to South Century Drive, completed in 2012. The project expanded the stretch of highway from two lanes to four lanes.

As for what can be done now on U.S. Highway 97, short-term plans are in place to over the next two years to improve striping and signs on the highway, add more lighting at intersections and add driver feedback signs that shows speeds.

Long term, the Department of Transportation hopes to get funding for the proposed U.S. 97 Bend North Corridor project, a huge project to overhaul the highway between Bend and Redmond.

The total cost for the corridor project could reach $250 million, so the focus is on completing individual pieces as funding becomes available.

“We are coming up with engineering solutions,” Murphy said.

The investigations are continuing in the seven fatal crashes this month, but early reports show a similar trend of drivers at fault.

But Stanphill’s family believes it was the icy conditions that caused her to crash into the oncoming semi-truck, hauling Coca-Cola products. She was a cautious driver by all accounts.

“It was an accident and we know that,” said Franki Ambrose, Stanphill’s brother.

Ambrose, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, said he knew his sister as a caring person.

Before moving to La Pine less than two years ago, Stanphill tended to her elderly parents in her hometown outside Sacramento.

When her parents died, she moved to Oregon, where she worked as a caregiver for elderly and disabled people.

“She loved living there,” Ambrose said. “She was so thrilled to start new and live there the rest of her life.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, kspurr@bendbulletin.com