Photo by Sarah Mirk

A MULTNOMAH COUNTY grand jury delivered a verdict last Wednesday, May 19, that shocked many Portlanders: A TriMet bus driver was responsible for a crash that killed two pedestrians, but will not be criminally charged.

Instead, she will likely be issued several traffic tickets and do 100-200 hours of community service.

Driver Sandi Day told the grand jury that, ironically, part of the cause of the crash was her attempt to watch out for the welfare of another passenger. An elderly man asked to be dropped off at the corner of NW Broadway and Glisan, which is not a real bus stop, just before midnight on Saturday, April 24. Day obliged, but then had to maneuver a difficult turn onto Broadway, illegally cutting across two lanes. Day did not see a group of five pedestrians in a crosswalk on Broadway until it was too late. The bus plowed into the group of friends, killing Danielle Sale, 22, and Jeneé Hammel, 26.

In response to the crash, TriMet announced this week that it will ban courtesy stops on blocks where buses must take left turns. Meanwhile, the grand jury weighed whether to charge Day with criminally negligent homicide.

"She is responsible for the crash," explains Deputy District Attorney Chuck Sparks. "The question is did she commit the crime of criminally negligent homicide or did she commit a traffic violation?"

To be charged with homicide, the law says Day would have to "grossly deviate" from a regular standard of care while driving. In most cases, that means doing something like being drunk, asleep, or texting while driving, says Sparks. The grand jury voted not to charge Day, who is still open to being sued by the victims' families.

"Having met her and talked to her, she's going to live the rest of her life with this. And she is horrified," says Sparks.

Attorney Ray Thomas, who specializes in bicycle and pedestrian cases, says the verdict did not surprise him at all.

"In Oregon, our law is not sufficient to protect people from drivers who kill just because of mistakes in judgment," says Thomas. Criminally negligent homicide is too severe a charge for accidental vehicle deaths, but the alternative is just issuing a traffic ticket. What Oregon needs is the middle tier, says Thomas: vehicular homicide. In 2009, the state legislature debated and dropped a law defining a death caused by distracted or irresponsible driving as vehicular homicide. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Willamette Pedestrian Coalition will likely push the law again in 2011.