King Solomon did not return our calls when we left messages asking for his wisdom on the topic of how to tweak open range laws in Idaho and the West.
As it stands, the owners of livestock are not liable for any damages when cattle and cars collide in areas designated as open range. In fact, it is more likely that the motorist will get the bill if a bull or cow is killed or injured during such an incident. The damage to the vehicle and its occupants will be something the driver’s insurance company will have to take up.
We sympathize with anybody who has encountered a black bull on a black road on a dark night. Whereas people who live in ranching areas in Idaho — and there are plenty of those — might be on the lookout for such hazards because of their experience driving in rural areas, unsuspecting urban motorists are more likely to be caught off-guard.
Such might have been the the case on Nov. 1 when a Nampa motorist struck a 2,000-pound bull in Adams County. The driver’s vehicle was seriously damaged. The driver and passenger were seriously injured.
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An altercation involving two Adams County deputies and the bull’s owner, who had been summoned to the scene, resulted in the shooting death of rancher Jack Yantis. While that shooting is still under investigation and its findings are the No. 1 priority, there are going to be more open range encounters involving livestock and motorists. There are hundreds a year.
In Statesman reporter Bill Dentzer’s report on Nov. 22, we learned about 300 accidents involving domestic animals in 2014. Two of those resulted in human fatalities (one in closed range). Another 1,100 collisions with wildlife occurred that same year. Exposure to road hazards is part of the reality of traveling in Idaho or anywhere else.
We agree that fencing all the open areas — were it even possible or affordable — would not stop all livestock from wandering onto roadways. But we can do something, and we urge our local, county and state officials to begin discussions with ranchers and farmers about how we can reduce the hazards.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little’s warning to his fellow ranchers and Idahoans is not something we want to deal with after the fact: “I tell my cattlemen friends, ‘You have a school bus hit a bull, you’re not going to like the way the open range laws in Idaho are changed.’ ”
Setting aside for the time being the question of who is liable for damages, let us consider:
▪ What can we do to reduce the number of accidents in open range areas?
▪ How can we better educate motorists about the serious responsibility of driving in those areas? That sign, “Open Range,” does not tell us much. Out-of-state drivers could have no idea what it means or how they should adjust their driving accordingly.
▪ Is speed a factor? Is swerving out of the way the best — or worst — response?
▪ Is it possible to close or fence more areas nearest to the busiest and fastest highways? Texas made adjustments to close ranges along its interstates decades ago.
▪ What role could “warning technologies” in cars or other devices play in alerting drivers to the presence of livestock on the road ahead? Will smarter cars come with an “open range” mode to select in rural parts of the West?
Looking at the maps of incidents with domestic animals in 2014 in Dentzer’s report, it is obvious that there are larger clusters of accidents closer to more densely populated areas. Those seem like the places to start talking about.
Saying nothing and doing nothing will get us nothing — except more accidents. It’s time to look at how the old open range code of the West stands up to the modern realities and safety scrutiny that can save lives.
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