Thank goodness for juries with good sense. Last week, a group of citizen volunteers sat patiently through a 10-day trial, the outcome of a tragic accident and the human urge to assign blame.
The case involved a terrible collision involving a dark highway, a dying elk and a motorcycle rider.
A passing motorist hit the elk and pulled over to the shoulder of the road, as the beast lay dying in the traffic lane. Several people stopped, emergency flashers blinking. One enterprising motorist even parked in the center divide and tried to shine his headlights on the scene to warn approaching motorists.
Alas, the motorcyclist didn’t see the elk lying on the asphalt and hit it. The collision catapulted the biker from his seat, causing severe injuries. The rider survived, but faced months of agony as he ran up a $2 million medical bill.
The man sued, asserting that Arizona should do more to keep elk and other animals from wandering out onto the highway. He rejected a settlement offer of $200,000, forcing the state to spend $60,000 to defend itself.
The lawsuit goes to the heart of a deadly problem. Each year, Arizona motorists hit about 1,000 elk and deer. On average, five drivers or passengers die as a result — not to mention pretty much all of the animals.
Nationally, studies put the toll in such wildlife collisions on the highway at 200 human deaths and perhaps 1.5 million elk and deer, as well as a million other vertebrates squashed flat on the nation’s highways each day.
The Arizona Department of Transportation and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have experimented with ways to reduce the carnage. For instance, ADOT took advantage of plans to widen Highway 260 to build wildlife-friendly underpasses along a stretch of road east of Star Valley.
The results proved initially disappointing, until ADOT added miles of high fences to channel the elk and deer through those wide underpasses. The project reduced elk crashes by 86 percent along a section of highway near Christopher Creek. Cameras recorded some 500 animals using the underpasses during the study period.
Lawyers for the injured motorcyclist argued that the state should apply such an approach wherever deer and elk abound.
Alas, such a solution would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The jury wisely held that this would impose an unrealistic burden on the state — and that the onus remains on drivers to avoid such collisions.
Certainly, our heart goes out to the driver in this case — and to the many other people injured by such wildlife collisions. Still, we think the jury did the right thing.
In the meantime, the case provides one more useful reminder for Rim Country motorists. We treasure our forest, we love the wildlife — but we must also accept the risk that comes attached.
Slow down. Be paranoid. The nighttime highway seems empty, but the unexpected lingers in the dark trees.
It’s not enough for juries to have good sense: Drivers need a dose themselves.
It’s up to us now
The folks who settled Rim Country had to take care of their own. The journey to the Valley took days of rough travel. We had precious few doctors, a handful of stores, no government safety net. Fortunately, the pioneers with the grit to settle this beautiful wilderness made do, made it through — and helped one another.
Well, that spirit still lives here in Rim Country. That’s a good thing: Because in many ways we’re on our own.
So the good-hearted volunteers have rushed to the aid of their neighbors once again and are staging a winter community food drive to keep the shelves of local food banks filled. In fact, they’re launching the drive a month earlier this year, alarmed that the flow of extra food from the Valley has all but ceased.
So it falls on Rim Country to take care of its own again — as we’ve done so often in the past.
We saw that marvelous spirit this summer, when people flocked to the Payson Community Garden to plant their crops. The gardeners harvested a bumper crop — and donated thousands of pounds of fresh produce to the food bank. But the harvest has gone to those in need — and hunger has returned with its dark, watchful eyes.
Far too many of our friends and neighbors remain dependent on the food bank. Mercifully, the need has ebbed a little — with fewer people lining up for their daily bread than last year at this time. Unfortunately, the food available has dropped faster than the need, as the Valley food banks find they have nothing to spare.
We know this community will respond to the need. The folks who settled Rim Country took care of their own. And more than a century later, we’re still living by that credo.