Distracted driving costing lives

Inattentive or distracted driving has been deadly in the Mid-Columbia in the past month.

Six people have been killed in crashes since Sept. 27. Investigations still are pending in the collisions, but each has preliminarily been linked to a driver not paying attention, said Washington State Patrol Lt. Roger Wilbur.

"We're seeing quite a few crashes as a result of driver inattention, or they're distracted by something in the car that causes them to take their eyes off the road," Wilbur said.

The latest death was Thursday, nine days after a Umatilla woman was critically injured when she was hit by a FedEx truck that apparently ran a red light on Highway 395 at Hildebrand Road south of Kennewick, troopers said.

Karen Arbogast, 51, died Thursday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where she had been since the Oct. 19 crash.

The FedEx truck, driven by Timothy C. Rieksts, 48, of Pasco, was going north on the highway when he apparently ran the light and his truck hit a Toyota Camry before colliding with Arbogast's van, troopers said.

Rieksts and the driver of the Camry, Alex Teimouri, 53, of Kennewick, were treated at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland.

Investigators still are trying to determine why the FedEx truck ran the light. Detectives with the state patrol's major investigation team are looking for witnesses who saw the crash or events leading up to the collision.

Anyone with information can call Detective Sgt. Jerry Cooper at 360-805-1192 or Detective Curt Ladines at 360-805-1160.

Two days after the FedEx truck collision, an elderly Wallula couple were killed when their car slammed into the back of a semi-truck on Highway 12 at Humorist Road in Burbank.

Elmer Riley and his wife Mildred were in their 1991 Toyota Camry going westbound on Highway 12 when it slammed into the back of a truck and cattle trailer stopped at the traffic light at Humorist Road, troopers said.

Mildred Riley, 90, died at the scene. Elmer Riley, also 90, died seven hours later after surgery at Kadlec.

On Sept. 30, an Eltopia man was killed after the truck he was in was struck by a semi-truck and minivan off Highway 124 near Burbank.

Jeremy Horat, a 31-year-old who recently moved from Lynden, died at the scene. The driver was Horat's fiancee, Tiffany Schoenle, 23, who initially was trapped in the red Nissan pickup. She was flown to Kadlec for treatment.

The three-vehicle crash started when a semi-truck driving east on Highway 124 either didn't see vehicles stopped in front of him waiting to turn left or saw too late and hit the rear of Schoenle's pickup, troopers said.

The impact caused the Nissan to spin into the westbound lane of the highway, where it then was struck by a minivan driving west on the highway. After the second hit, the truck rolled over into a ditch and landed upside down.

The semi-truck driver, Jose Sanchez Jr., 29, of Pasco, and the driver of the minivan, Julio Cesar Lopez, 37, of Pasco, were not injured.

Wilbur said that crash appears to be caused by Sanchez not paying attention to what was in front of him or being distracted by something in the truck.

Though it hasn't been directly linked to driver inattention, two 76-year-old Sunnyside women were killed in a Sept. 27 crash after running through a stop sign on East Edison Road and colliding with a semi-truck on Bethany Road, about a mile east of Sunnyside.

Elizabeth F. Miller, the driver, died at the scene after her car went off the road, over a 20-foot embankment and ended up in an irrigation canal. Her passenger, Helena Webb, died 16 days later at Harborview.

Lt. Wilbur said drivers need to pay extra attention to what's going on around them and limit distractions inside their vehicles.

"Obviously, we want to encourage them to look farther down the road ahead of them ... so they can anticipate that danger and act accordingly," he said. "A lot of people drive (looking) 10 to 15 feet off the front of the car, but at 50 to 60 mph that doesn't give you enough time to stop."

Minimizing distractions -- such as being on the phone, eating, disciplining kids in the back seat or looking at something in the vehicle -- also will help.

"Statistics show that in 80 percent of collisions that happen, within three seconds (before) there's some kind of distraction for that driver," Wilbur said.

With harvest season in full swing, there also are more trucks on the highways and more vehicle traffic on the more rural two-lane roadways leading out to fields, so drivers need to be even more alert, Wilbur said.

And as the seasons start changing, motorists also will need to be prepared for winter driving, which means increasing distances between vehicles and slowing down for road conditions.

"Speed limits are for ideal conditions," Wilbur said. "When it starts to get slippery, wet and snowy and icy, you have to drive accordingly."

Finally, Wilbur said, motorists need to remember to buckle up. Seat belt compliance is up in the state patrol district, which extends from Yakima to Walla Walla, but Wilbur said those with vehicles that have automatic shoulder belts need to remember to use their lap belt as well.

"The lap belt is what's going to keep the person in their seat if the car rolls over, and it's also what's going to keep them from being thrown forward," Wilbur said.

-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com