For years, Oregon City police have battled a traffic tidal wave that has led to three times as many crashes as any other city in Clackamas County while turning many quiet residential streets into drag-strip shortcuts.
In response, the Oregon City Police Department’s newly beefed-up Traffic Team has dialed up its efforts to protect drivers, pedestrians and residents.
Three officers have been working full-time on traffic issues since December, issuing warnings, citations and advice to offending motorists while teaching traffic-safety classes and speaking to community groups. Chief Jim Band brought the traffic issue last year to the City Commission, which unanimously agreed to hire a third officer for the 4-year-old Traffic Team.
“Before, patrol officers did traffic enforcement in between going on calls and writing reports,” said Capt. Shaun Davis, who directs the Traffic Team. “But now, with three people specifically looking for violators, we’re having a bigger effect.”
The numbers bear Davis out.
In 2016, the Traffic Team answered 3,152 calls for service, made 2,527 traffic stops and responded to 199 crashes. Through June 2017, the latest statistics available, the team already answered 4,573 calls for service, made 3,738 traffic stops and responded to 235 crashes.
The stepped-up enforcement in 2017 already has resulted in officers issuing criminal citations to 11 motorists for driving under the influence of intoxicants, four for driving after their licenses were revoked and four for reckless driving.
Meanwhile, they issued citations for violations:
· 1,271 for speeding.
· 558 for using cell phones while driving.
· 290 for failing to use seat belts.
· 271 for failing to obey traffic lights and stop signs.
Most first-time offenders will be able to attend a special traffic-safety school so they can keep the citations off their driving records. The school is designed to raise motorists’ awareness of safety issues and give them a chance to improve their performance behind the wheel.
“Frankly, our goal is to never have to write another traffic citation,” Davis said. “If we can educate the public and then never have to issue a citation or respond to a crash – that’s our goal. We’d like to work ourselves out of a job.”
Traffic Team members work overlapping shifts so they can concentrate on the morning and evening commutes, when the heaviest traffic hits Oregon City.
The team currently consists of two OCPD veterans, Officers Brian Willard and John Fetzer, along with Officer Michael Villanti, who filled the newly created third position. Villanti worked traffic patrol for the Portland Police Bureau for more than 20 years before joining OCPD in October.
Villanti, nicknamed “V” by his fellow officers, said working traffic made a deep impression on him.
“I saw the aftermath of bad decisions and bad driving,” Villanti said. “I saw how families were torn apart by it.”
Oregon City has more traffic trouble spots than most cities, largely because it encompasses several busy highways. Interstate 205 cuts through the city, along with Oregon 99E, Oregon 213 and a short stretch of Oregon 43, which carries traffic over the Arch Bridge. Heavily traveled thoroughfares connect the highways with residential, commercial and industrial areas.
Oregon City also is the county seat and sees a lot of activity at the county’s Red Soils Campus, as well as traffic generators such as Clackamas Community College, Providence Willamette Falls Hospital, the Clackamas County Jail and the county’s Parole & Probation Field Service Office.
Meanwhile, the Traffic Team regularly patrols all of the schools, concentrating on Oregon City High School, Gardiner Middle School, John McLoughlin Elementary and Gaffney Lane Elementary. The target schools have some of the highest enrollments while nearby streets have relatively high speed limits and traffic counts.
Traffic Team members also meet with school PTAs, drivers’ education classes and parent groups to warn about high-risk behavior while driving. Officer Fetzer said distracted driving is one of the most common – and most potentially dangerous – offenses among young drivers.
“We live in a social medial society,” Fetzer said. “A lot of young people re so addicted to looking at their phones that they keep right on doing it while they’re driving.”
Officer Willard agreed, saying it will take a while to educate young drivers on the dangers of using cellphones and iPads while behind the wheel.
“I think change is going to happen gradually,” Willard said. “I’m seeing fewer people on cell phones now. But that being said, I wrote a record number of cell phone citations last month.”
On Oct. 1, Oregon law will change, making it illegal for drivers to have cell phones in their hands. The law will ban scrolling and fiddling with phones, other than a quick, one-touch motion to turn a phone on or off. Motorists no longer will be able to keep their devices on their laps.
In addition, using a communications device while driving will be elevated to a Class B violation, punishable by a $260 fine.
But if stiffer penalties are the stick, OCPD is balancing its approach to traffic safety with a much gentler kind of carrot. Most first-time traffic offenders can go through a diversion program that requires attendance at a special traffic school. EVADD -- or Education on Vehicle Awareness and Defensive Driving -- is daylong class taught by Villanti, Fetzer and Willard at the Providence Willamette Falls Health Education Building.
“Hopefully,” said Capt. Davis, “when somebody goes through the class, we’ll never have to stop them again.”