Recently retired Washington State Patrol Sgt. Gib Wheeler used two concise sentences each time he had to deliver the shattering news to someone that a family member had been killed.
“I say, ‘I have some very bad news for you. So-and-so was killed in an accident,”’ Wheeler said.
The families of 60 people killed on Yakima County roads and highways heard those words from Wheeler and other law enforcement officers last year, according to figures from the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments. That figure sets a record, exceeding 1995’s toll of 56 fatalities, which was up from 41 in 1994.
Authorities blame drunken driving and a low rate of seat-belt use.
Five people died in a single accident Sept. 17 when a van full of teenagers crossed the center line and plowed head-on into a car driven by a 64-year-old woman. The woman and four teenagers were killed. The van’s driver, 16-year-old Lucio Robles, faces criminal charges in Yakima County Juvenile Court.
Compared with its neighbors, Yakima County is a much deadlier place to drive. Statewide, Yakima had the third-highest number of fatal accidents last year, according to the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission, but it is only the seventh-largest county by population.
In comparison, King County, which has a population eight times larger than Yakima County’s, had 115 fatal traffic accidents in 1995. In Benton County, just to the southeast of Yakima County, 18 people died in traffic accidents in 1995. Twelve people were killed in traffic accidents in neighboring Kittitas County that year. Figures for 1996 were not available from the Traffic Safety Commission.
Yakima County also exceeds the state average for injury accidents on the basis of both miles driven and population. The county recorded 12.1 fatal and injury accidents per 10,000 residents, while the state average is just over 11.
Traffic safety officials say the unique demographics of Yakima County, including a large Spanish-speaking population and the Yakama Indian Reservation, which does not have seat-belt or child-restraint laws, play a role in the figures.
“We need to educate the Hispanic groups on the importance of wearing seat belts,” said Lt. Bill O’Hare of the Washington State Patrol office in Yakima. “Seat-belt usage in the Lower Valley is just pathetic.”
American Indians accounted for 12 - or 20 percent - of the traffic deaths in Yakima County last year, although they constitute only 5 percent of the county’s population. Of the other fatalities, 27 of those killed where white and 18 were Hispanic.
A newly formed task force called Caminos Sanos, which means “Safe Roads,” is organizing a traffic safety information campaign aimed at Hispanics.
Dr. Abraham Bergman, head of Harborview Medical Center’s Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle, is helping coordinate the effort to increase seat-belt use, decrease drunken driving, improve driver safety practices and improve the mechanical safety of vehicles.
“The prototype of the horrifying scenario is an old car in poor mechanical condition and a lot of people in it not wearing seat belts,” Bergman said.
Meanwhile, the Yakama Indian Nation appears to be no closer to adopting a mandatory seat-belt law.
Tribal police officer Leroy Littlebull and Mike Urakawa, traffic safety coordinator for the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments, made a presentation to the Tribal Council in hopes of swaying it to adopt restraint laws, but the 14-member council which oversees daily operations of tribal government has yet to take action.
“I think at this time it’s kind of sitting in limbo,” Littlebull said.