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Fifty-four people died in Portland traffic crashes last year, the most since 1996.

COURTESY PPB - Five people were injured in this traffic crash on Southeast Division Street.Speeding and impairment drove an increase in traffic fatalities in 2020, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Fifty-four people died in crashes Portland last year, the most since 1996, when 59 people were killed. The jump is similar to increases in other metropolitan areas across the county, PBOT said in a Wednesday, Jan. 6, press release.

The increases seem unlikely because traffic counts fell last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But PBOT said an analysis of the local crashes reveals that a high percentage of drivers were engaging in risky behaviors. According to PBOT, drivers crashed into fixed objects, including parked cars and utility poles, at high rates — 11 last year, compared to about eight most years. Speeding and impairment are believed to contribute to those kinds of crashes.

Alcohol consumption, as well as rates of anxiety and depression are up nationwide, according to surveys and media reports, PBOT said. The death rate — an indicator of how safely drivers are using the roadways — jumped 20 percent between January and June 2020, compared to the same six-month period in 2019, according to the National Safety Council. That runs counter to historic trends, when fatalities drop along with driving during recessions.

Portland police also noted that even though traffic declined because of stay-at-home orders, excessive speeding increased and contributed to at least 23 fatalities, or about 45% of the total.

"We know that people are suffering, and we believe we are seeing the results of that on our streets," Portland Transportation Director Chris Warner said. "We are also seeing some hopeful signs that our safety improvements are reducing crashes in some areas and saving lives, and we will continue to do more. We need everyone's help to stay safe this winter season: slow down when you're driving, and encourage your family and friends to make sure they have a safe ride home."

In addition, 20 deaths occurred on State of Oregon highways in Portland, including eight on interstates, compared with an average of 14 from 2016 to 2019.

The increase occurred despite the City Council approving a Vision Zero Action Plan that calls for all fatal and major injury crashes to be eliminated by 2025. Despite the setback, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty called for investments in traffic safety. Mayor Ted Wheeler assigned her PBOT as an area of responsibility on Jan. 1.

"As the new Commissioner of PBOT, I am eager to continue to look at reinvestments that can be made to our infrastructure to build systems that can truly keep Portlanders safe," Hardesty said. "What we know from public health experts, such as Dr. Jon Jay from Boston University, is that traffic enforcement does not necessarily improve safety outcomes, but technology and infrastructure upgrades do. Our local outcomes also show that these improvements save lives and Portlanders can expect that under my leadership in the bureau we will continue to move in that direction."

In the release, PBOT said the Vision Zero goal is making streets safer. Examples include:

• In 2019, the odds of people driving 30 mph or faster dropped by more than one-third on residential streets where PBOT changed the speed limit to 20 mph, down from 25 mph.

• PBOT has installed dozens of left-turn calming improvements at high-crash intersections that normally account for 20 percent of pedestrian fatalities in Portland. No pedestrians have been killed in Portland at intersections equipped with the yellow-and-black plastic dividers.

• High-risk speeds have dropped significantly following corridor safety projects recently completed on Southwest Capitol Highway, and in East Portland on Northeast Glisan Street and Northeast 102nd Avenue. People driving 10 mph or more above the speed limit declined by 73 percent to 87 percent after safety improvements were installed.

• Crashes resulting in injuries have dropped by more than one-third following design changes and installation of speed safety cameras on Southwest Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway.

PBOT said fatal crash figures are preliminary for 2020. Final figures for fatalities and data for traffic injuries are expected from the state of Oregon in 2022.

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