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Winter weather and increasing traffic leads to hundreds of accidents on Oregon roads

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Courtesy of Marion County Sheriff's Office
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OPB
The Marion County Sheriff's Department patrol team and wrecking crew respond to the scene of a crash on Sunday, Dec. 26.

ODOT officials to travelers: Use traction tires, carry chains or stay home.

Oregon recorded a stunning number of traffic accidents on roads throughout the state this holiday season. State police and transportation officials say winter weather and a return to pre-pandemic levels of traffic are to blame.

According to Oregon State Police, there were 915 traffic accidents between Thursday, Dec. 23, and Tuesday, Dec. 28. Oregon saw 365 accidents during that same period last year, and some 237 in 2019.

The agency hasn’t yet calculated how many people may have been killed or injured. A 15-year-old passenger died in a Coos County wreck Dec. 23. OSP officials said a fuller picture of the human toll will take time to verify.

David House, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said that the high number of accidents over the last week is a reminder to travelers to use caution and prepare for slick conditions.

It’s also a signal that traffic is picking back up significantly.

“We’ve heard how air travel is back up, and we’ve seen for ourselves that the freeways are full of cars again, pretty much almost back to normal,” House said.

Snow in the mountain passes hasn’t been the only concern for transportation officials this holiday travel season, with lower elevations in the Willamette Valley and even areas of the Oregon Coast receiving up to several inches in some locations.

According to House, Highway 22 near Detroit was blocked for several hours Monday with a number of vehicles sliding off the road.

On Tuesday morning, a crashed semi-truck 14 miles east of Biggs Junction along the Columbia River caused all lanes of Interstate 84 to close as crews cleared the wreckage. About an hour later ODOT reopened one lane of travel in both directions.

“When it first hits, it really catches you off guard. It only takes one car to slip and block a lane” House said.

Staffing is also playing a role with both ODOT and Oregon State Police feeling the effects of a nationwide labor shortage.

Fines for trucks that don’t carry chains doubled earlier this year. According to House, the Oregon Legislature passed a law in 2021, and in September it took effect, increasing the fine from $440 to $880.

House said ODOT is working to get the message out to truck drivers that although chaining up takes time, it saves them and thousands of other travelers time in the long run.

“Trucks from out of state who have never been to Oregon before don’t understand that this snow can be different,” House said. “It’s different when you go to the other side of the mountains, or you go to the Midwest where the snow is very dry and gritty. [In the Willamette Valley], it’s very wet and slippery.”

ODOT and State Police are continuing to push the message to travelers that they need to carry chains or use traction tires when crossing the Cascades. They’re also urging travelers to use TripCheck to ensure their route is clear.

The other biggest piece of advice for travelers this holiday season: Stay home if you can.

“If you can sit tight for a couple more days, just avoid getting out there, that’s going to be the safest thing you can possibly do,” House said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.