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Media, law enforcement gather to improve highway safety

With radio, television and print media members in attendance Monday afternoon at Sunnyside's El Conquistador restaurant, law enforcement officials presented their vision for making roads safer in the Yakima Valley and statewide.

"The president (George Bush) is very interested in this issue," said John Moffat, Regional Administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.

The project, called Drive Safe, is a year-long effort aimed at making roads safer throughout the state, Raul Almeida, Mabton Police Chief said.

Moffat, along with state Representatives Bruce Chandler and Dan Newhouse, spoke about the need for improvement in overall safety not only in the Lower Valley, but also in the entire Yakima Valley and even the state.

In the past 30 years, Moffat said more than 1,200 people have died on roads and highways in the Yakima Valley.

"Every one of those is a preventable tragedy," he said.

Newhouse echoed those sentiments, stating he thinks this area of the state is known for such fatalities.

"We have kind of a bad reputation in our area," Newhouse said.

Part of the new Drive Safe program involves education and potential engineering projects funded by state legislators, said Lowell Porter, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Porter said the reason law enforcement and state agency directors went to the media is simple - get the message out.

"That's why we went to the media," he said. "You are the ones who get the message out."

Part of improving safety on Washington roads includes a project called Target Zero.

Porter said the goal of Target Zero is to reduce the number of traffic fatalities to zero.

He said it's impossible to reduce the number of collisions to zero, but if crashes only involve property damage, he said that's a big improvement.

"Are we ever going to get there?" Porter said. "I don't know."

Though it may seem impossible to eliminate fatalities completely, Porter said the statistics say it's possible. But for that to happen, the state still has to do many things.

"We still have a lot of work to do," he said.

Another area that needs improvement is impaired driving fatalities, Porter said.

In 2004, 203 people died state-wide from crashes involving impaired drivers. Those deaths are avoidable, he said.

That sentiment was echoed Monday by family members of victims killed by drunk drivers. One of those family members was 22-year-old Heather Klotz.

Klotz's older sister, Erin, was killed on Nov. 18, 2001 while driving on Interstate 90. A drunk diver crashed head-on into her car, killing her instantly. She was just 20 years old.

"Every time I feel this will be easier, and every time it's not," Klotz said, fighting back tears.

Her story helped to bring home for those media members in attendance what it means to lose a loved one because of a drunk driver.

"Her amazing life was cut way too short," Klotz said as she overcame the tears in order to relay her message of sorrow.

Klotz's father Duane spoke about losing one of his two daughters.

"I hate being here," Duane said. "I don't want to be here, but I have to be."

He posed a rhetorical question to the audience, asking what the difference is between waving a loaded shotgun around in a crowded restaurant and getting behind the wheel drunk.

"What is the difference?" Duane said. "What is the difference? I can't see one."

Seat belts, too were a topic of discussion.

Powell said since Washington began enforcing its primary seat belt law, meaning people not wearing them may be stopped and ticketed, 95 percent of drivers wear them.

But that 5 percent that doesn't accounts for half of all fatal crashes.

"Seat belts have saved a lot of lives," he said.

Powell also said motorcycle statistics are going in the wrong direction. While fatal crashes involving cars have gone down, fatal motorcycle crashes are on the increase, he said.

The bottom line for Powell is simple. "We're still losing too many people," he said.

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