I can’t stop thinking that we’ve failed Tamar Monhait.
Monhait is the woman who was killed while bicycling northbound on SE Water Avenue back in August. On that fateful night, a professional driver named Paul Thompson was operating a commercial garbage truck in the opposite direction. As Monhait crossed Taylor Street, Thompson made a sudden left turn in front of her. She died from the impact and took her last breath in the middle of that intersection.
The intersection isn’t as well-lit as it should be and Monhait did not appear to have a legally required front light. Thompson claimed he never saw her. The police say Monhait’s impairment from alcohol was a factor in the collision; but there’s no evidence she could have done anything differently to avoid the truck — especially since Thompson, according to the police, admitted he was trying to outrun an approaching train and gave no warning before making his turn.
As they always do with cases like this, the Portland Police Bureau did their initial investigation and then passed it along to the Multnomah County District Attorney. After taking a closer look at what might have happened, the DA decided they didn’t have enough evidence to convince a jury “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Thompson acted with criminal negligence. In Oregon, for driving behavior to rise to the level of criminal negligence, a person has to intend to hurt someone and/or must realize their behavior is risky, but still choose to do it anyway. If a person isn’t way above the limit in either speed or intoxicants, the chance of winning in a criminal case in court is even more remote.
In the end, the “only” things Paul Thompson did — at least in the eyes of the DA and police — is make a dangerous left turn and fail to his signal before doing so.
While Thompson’s actions weren’t deemed criminal by the DA, they still led directly to the death of another person. For that he received two traffic citations with nominal fines. He can write out a check and mail it in.
That’s not right.
This case is the textbook example of why advocates changed Oregon’s careless driving statute in 2007. That addition to the law made it a heightened offense if your careless driving — defined as driving, “in a manner that endangers or would be likely to endanger any person or property” — contributed to the serious physical injury or death of a vulnerable road user (VRU).
Thompson was driving a large commercial truck in an urban area. He made a dangerous left turn without signaling. His actions led to Monhait’s death. He should be issued a citation for careless driving and be held accountable for the added consequences that come with the death of a vulnerable road user (the law requires the offender to appear in court, take a traffic safety class, and do up to 200 hours of community service or face steep fines and a one-year license suspension).
Portland lawyer Ray Thomas was one of the primary authors of the VRU law. He told me he was “appalled” when he learned it wouldn’t be applied in this case. In an email he wrote to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office this week, Thomas wrote, “I am disappointed to see that this law has not been used in this case to further the Vision Zero goals the city has embraced. It is only by dedicating further future resources to reducing traffic injury and death that we will be able to make a difference. That opportunity presented itself in this case and was not taken.”
There’s still time to make this right. The police have six months from the date of the collision to issue citations.
Portland has adopted Vision Zero as its highest transportation priority. If we want that proclamation to have any meaning, we must apply every tool we have in seeking justice for victims of traffic violence.
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