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Lane leads in traffic deaths.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The debate over Lane County's threadbare public safety system has focused largely on its inadequate corrections capacity and the premature releases of offenders.

But there's not a facet of the system - from prosecution to parole and probation to juvenile services to drug and alcohol treatment - that isn't overextended and dangerously deficient.

An Aug. 22 story by The Register-Guard's Greg Bolt highlighted an aspect of the system that has received little attention to date - traffic safety. It said Lane County had the highest number of traffic fatalities of any county in the state last year.

Thirty-three people lost their lives on the county's streets, roads and freeways in 2008. That was more than any of the state's three most populous counties - Multnomah and Washington counties had 27 deaths each, and Clackamas had 30.

Double-digit traffic fatality rates are nothing new in Lane County. That's to be expected in a county that has a lethal combination of a large population and a sprawling network of roads, many of them in rural or unincorporated areas.

But the county's rate is far higher than it should be, and it shows no signs of abating. To the contrary, 41 people - eight more than died in all of 2008 - already had died on the county's roadways by the end of August. Lane County will lead the state in traffic fatalities again this year, and for years to come, unless steps are taken to remedy the situation. As if the 2008 traffic toll wasn't bad enough, consider that it doesn't fully reflect recent reductions in the county's sheriff's patrols. Due to budget cuts, only 10 deputies currently patrol the county's roads - less than half the number of a year ago. Ten deputies are not enough to patrol a sea-to-mountains county the size of Connecticut.

With fewer deputies available to issue the citations that help pay for the county's justice courts, it might be tempting for a sheriff to deploy traffic patrols in areas that generate the most revenue rather than those that are the most dangerous.

But Sheriff Russ Burger says his deputies are deployed in areas where the most fatalities occur outside the Eugene-Springfield population center. "Our philosophy, our focus, is transportation safety, not generating revenue," Burger says. "We attempt to deploy where we have the highest concentrations of bad driving behaviors."

Burger says the county lacks the money needed not only for more enforcement, but for vitally important public education, as well. The sheriff's budget has no money for public service announcements about the perils of drunk driving or aggressive driving.

Burger, along with District Attorney Alex Gardner, recently began assembling a citizens' task force that will attempt to identify the county's public safety deficiencies and to recommend long-term solutions. The two officials sent a letter last week to mayors and city managers across the county asking them to suggest three citizens, preferably people who are not involved in local government, to serve on the panel. The group will spend a year gathering information, studying alternative solutions and will make their recommendations to the Lane County Board of Commissioners.

A citizen task force with no government ties other than the sheriff's and district attorney's staffers who will provide them with information is a good idea. Voters have rejected at least 12 consecutive Lane County public safety measures, and the next proposal, whether it's for a modest property tax increase or the formation of a public safety district, must come from the grass-roots level and not county government if it's to have any chance of success.

The task force will have a difficult and lengthy assignment. But the potential payoff - including the lives of the men, women and children who travel the county's roadways - makes it worthwhile.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 6, 2009
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