SALEM- Traffic deaths on Oregon roads increased 17 percent last year, the second-highest jump in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But locally, there were just 13 fatalities.
Oregon had 512 road fatalities in 2003, up from 436 the previous year. Only the nation's smallest state, Rhode Island, had a bigger percentage increase - 24 percent.
Umatilla County had 11 fatalities and Morrow County accounted for two fatalities.
"But if our fatalities in 2002 had not been a record low, this 17 percent jump wouldn't have made Oregon one of the top three," said Jay Remy, spokesperson for the Transportation Safety Division of ODOT.
Across the nation, 42,643 people died in traffic accidents in 2003, a 1 percent decline from the year before.
Oregon's increase was its largest since 1974, and state officials couldn't say why.
"I haven't heard anything about any trend or anything like that; there were just more fatal crashes," Remy said. "I don't think anything came out that said 'Hey, this is a specific area that we need to target more.' "
Speeders were involved in 273 fatalities, a 21 percent increase from the previous year. The Oregon State Police laid off 129 troopers in February 2003, which might have been a factor.
"What that meant is there were fewer patrols out on the road and that translates into less of a deterrent effect on traffic violations that contribute to fatal crashes," state police Lt. Dale Rutledge said. "The number of DUI (driving under the influence) arrests were down, the number of traffic citations were down and immediately we saw an increase of the number of fatalities."
Highway deaths in Oregon involving drugs and alcohol increased 5 percent.
Two of Umatilla County's road deaths were attributed to alcohol, and both of the fatalities in Morrow County were alcohol-related, Remy said.
The department has since rehired about 100 of the troopers, and Rutledge expects that about 40 new officers will be hired this fall, the first time the department has hired since 2001.
Remy said it's important to focus on the fatality figures over a number of years, instead of a single year. From 1995-1999, the average number of fatalities each year was 515, Remy said. In 2000, there were 451; in 2001 there were 488; and in 2002 there were 436 fatalities.
"Any given year, or month to month, people want to know, 'What's the answer?' and 'Why this surge this month or this year?' and often times it's just the normal statistical variation that you get," he said.
However, Remy said this morning that road fatalities nowadays are a fifth of what they were in the 1950s.
"Instead of 500 (deaths) a year, we'd expect to have something like 2,000 (deaths) a year if we were going at the same rate as we were in the 50's," Remy said. "There's more drivers out on the roads now, but we also have better drunk driving laws and enforcement, seat belts, better trauma care and cars are made better now."