The Oregonian: Run a Red Light and Kill 3 Kids? “Just a Tragic Accident”

In February, a pickup truck driver in suburban Eugene, Oregon, ran through a red light at 40 miles an hour, killing three children — 4-year-old Tyler Hudson, 5-year-old McKenzie Hudson, and 8-year-old John Day — and critically injuring their mother. The family was walking with the right-of-way in a crosswalk, returning from getting ice cream.

Image: KMTR 16 Eugene
Image: KMTR 16 Eugene

The response to this horrible loss of life? Law enforcement and the state’s largest paper, The Oregonian, have chalked it up as a “tragic accident.”

The Lane County district attorney recently announced there won’t be any criminal charges for the driver, Larry LaThorpe, 68, formerly a commercial truck driver. LaThorpe’s defense is simple enough: He thought the light was green. And that, it seems, is all you have to say to avoid prosecution for killing three children with your motor vehicle.

LaThorpe got a ticket for running the red and has since had his license stripped for undisclosed and apparently unrelated medical reasons. That’s it.

The Oregonian editorial board was inclined to weigh in last week, defending the prosecutor’s decision in a piece headlined “Sometimes an accident is just a tragic accident.” LaThorpe, they point out, wasn’t drunk, or on his phone, or breaking any other law, besides, you know, running a red light at 40 mph.

“It was just a moment or two of inattention,” they opine, so nothing can be done:

Ultimately, you can’t prosecute away risk or engineer safety in a way that overcomes the inevitable boneheaded mistakes that people make, even when their full attention should be on the deadly weapon they are piloting down the street.

If that’s your response when a driver breaks the law and kills three children, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll never get streets engineered and enforced to prevent driver distraction if you think fatal mistakes are inevitable.

Not everyone is so complacent.

In Sweden, “We simply do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads,” Hans Berg of the national transport agency recently explained to the Economist. In 1997, the country set out to eliminate traffic deaths, and it has made significant progress. In 2012, only one Swedish child under 12 was killed in a traffic collision of any kind.

That means the number of children killed in this single Eugene traffic collision was three times higher than all the children 12 and under killed on Swedish streets in an entire year. That disparity is a failure of political will, not a law of nature.

  • Jonathan Krall

    We do solve problems by, first, accurately describing the problem. Use of misleading terminology is a handicap that can prevent a solution.

    “Collision” is a neutral term, since no sensible traffic engineer wants a collision to occur. An “accident” is a special and unusual cause of a collision.

    Finally, I’ll point out that humans evolved with a top design speed of 20 mph. Above that speed, collisions become deadly and our ability to perceive danger is impaired. These results are both well-documented. IMO, routinely piloting dangerous machinery at speeds in excess of 20 mph is a “mistake,” Designing an entire society around that mistake is an even bigger mistake.

  • Sine Metu

    The deterrent is the inability to create future victims via physical removal through imprisonment (preferred since people drive on suspended licenses habitually) or forfeiture of license.

    Neither of which happens ever. If you think I’m being dramatic, look it up.

    This problem is bigger and more pervasive than you probably realize. You seem like a good person that is somewhat conflicted as to the culpability / severity / pervasiveness of this epidemic.

  • Sine Metu

    Amen.

    I would only add that the physical removal of dangerous / incompetent drivers can only be achieved by imprisonment or license forfeiture (only if they somehow comply).

    Civil suits accomplish nothing unless they stymie the ability of the perp to continue driving through financial hardship. Then it’s an effective remedy but still highly unreliable.

    You kill someone through negligence, you lose your privilege to drive. Why on earth this is controversial is beyond me …

  • Sine Metu

    Those are just US fatalities.

    Approximately 1.24 million deaths occurred on the world’s roads in 2010. The vast majority of those were not “accidents” as such but totally preventable driver error.

  • I don’t see any reason to ever call them an accident. It’s not a very precise expression and the media aren’t investigators, might not have all the information at the get go. Call every car crash a crash or collision, that’s what the Associated Press already advises. There are all types of accidental actions that we don’t call “an accident” special noun. Just describe what happened factually.

  • Well, heck, Your Honor. I didn’t realize that was an elementary school on the other side of the fence where I set up my targets for my high powered rifle. Honest….

  • Sensu lato, an accident is something unintended (and usually unwanted) that happened. It doesn’t mean that there is not culpability involved or that there was not an underlying fault that resulted in what happened. I don’t like the word either, because it has come to symbolize the notion that these things just happen of their own accord, whereas anyone who has studied “accidents” can attest that the lion’s share have root causes, most of which involve human error, willful or otherwise.

    This guy should do time, in my opinion (and we all have them, kinda like armpits). He killed people. The laws usually suck. Still, I am sure that it was unintended. Bad driving has to have consequences beyond hand-wringing.

  • Alon Levy

    The Swedish term for a traffic accident is literally “traffic misfortune” (olycka, where o = un-, lycka = luck).

  • Alon Levy

    That’s very American of you, in a thread that’s supposedly about how much better Sweden is (which it is!). Over here, there are no three strikes laws, prisons are more about rehabilitation (note: “more,” not “absolutely”), and sentences are by US standards ridiculously short. This whole concept of retributive justice, supposedly for victims’ families’ sake, is rare over here.

  • J Milan

    Did La Thorpe cry at the hearing? You left out whether he cried.

  • J Milan

    The design of the automobile power train and mass, along with the public right of way which accommodates it is no accident.

    There is no accident.

  • neroden

    I don’t really disagree. However, I consider this corruption period.

    Corruption means more than just taking bribes — it includes collecting your salary but not actually trying to do your job. I think failing to prosecute obvious cases of criminal violence caught on camera goes well beyond incompetence and goes into deliberate dereliction of duty, which is corruption.

  • neroden

    We should certainly be punishing ALL the reckless drivers, whether or not it leads to injury. You are correct about that. However, it’s usually easier to catch the ones who injure someone.

    I can’t count how many times I was tailgated or passed illegally by reckless drivers and failed to get the plate numbers.

  • neroden

    WRONG, Almondy. This could not have happend to me.

    I am completely immune to being involved in that kind of crash. As I said, this required failing to notice a red light AND failing to notice a pedestrian.

    Frankly, as a safe driver, I am careful enough that I am alert to children and dogs at the side of the road. I can stop in time if a child or dog runs out into the road — or at least get my speed waaaaay down. I would never be hitting someone at 40 mph.

    Could I have mechanical failure? Sure, but that’s not what happened in this case. Could I have a medical emergency? Sure, but that’s not what happened in this case.

    This type of crash COULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED to a safe driver.

  • Andrew

    As a competent driver who has never hit anyone or even any small mammals, I am offended by this “it could have been one of us”.

    No, it could have been one of YOU incompetent louts. It could not, under any circumstances, have been me.

    By the same token, it also couldn’t have been a pedestrian or a transit rider (and it’s highly unlikely that it could have been a cyclist).

  • J Milan

    This victim survived, and was so nice, approved a plea deal allowing this 80 year old her license back in a year.

    This car culture is truly insane:http://goo.gl/l8tyGk

  • Alicia

    I call the police on reckless drivers, as long as I can note down the license plate in time. They may not cause a crash, but hopefully if they do, then my call helps serve as evidence against them.

  • Alicia

    Running a red light is “doing something wrong.” Proceeding through an intersection without checking for pedestrians is “doing something wrong.” Cell phone use while driving is “doing something wrong” unless it’s an emergency. And so on.

    Those are all “doing something wrong”, and those kinds of wrongdoing are what we want stronger deterrents to combat.

  • Almondy

    Sorry, neroden, but unless you drive at 1mph all the time, then it is possible that you could hit a person or animal who ran out in front of you.

    I am not saying that THIS particular accident could have happened to you. But nobody is immune from being involved in an accident.

  • Broken is broken

    No your just an idiot in this particular case. This coming from one who has a huge distrust for the broken legal system, this was exactly what it looks like, an accident. Ill admit, had it been a younger male of darker ethnicity, charges probably would have been brought. Cause lets just call the elephant in tbe room out, anyone seeking authority over others for a career is already corrupt. Unless they personally commit to carrying out THE whole rehabilitative punishment based on a genuine LOVE for and concern to rehabilate you NOT just lock you in a closet, they by all means are a pawn in a system that is broken in a horrible WAY. Broken is broken. Can seettle for less in this kind of thing. If its broken, it should be a crime for ANY who still practice its use on OTHERS

  • Deindoctrination4u

    You are actually wrong on every assumption you made. Your ignorance behooves you to think you have some good ideas about how the world works out. Not being a person who can connect with others, you can act like a tool, and minion troll without knowing it. Thats whatYOU did here.

  • LutherZBlissett

    Herp derp derp.

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