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Traffic fatalities down so far this year
Despite three horrific traffic crashes in recent days, the number of fatalities has fallen to amost half of last year's pace — a sign of hope for the city's Vision Zero safety policies.
"I believe we're making progress, I really do," says Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman, referring to the City Council's efforts to eliminate all fatal and serious injury crashes by 2020.
Late Wednesday, two people were killed in a two-car crash in North Portland. And last week, a pedestrian and a bicyclist were critically injured in separate crashes in East Portland. But 23 people had died in traffic crashes at this point in 2016, compared to 14 people so far this year.
According to the 2016 Portland Traffic Safety Report released last month by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, 44 people were killed in crashes last year — the highest number since 2003. That compares to 37 fatalities in 2015 and 28 fatalities in 2014.
Last year's increase happened even though the city has been implementing some changes to achieve the Vision Zero goal of no traffic fatalities. However, an action plan with 32 specific recommendations was not adopted until last November.
One recommendation was installing cameras that automatically ticket drivers for speeding, which the city has begun doing. The first were installed on Beaverton Hillsdale Highway last year. The next were installed on Southeast Division Street and 122nd Avenue in March. The city now is seeking approval from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to install them on Marine Drive, which runs on top of the Columbia River levees overseen by the federal agency.
The report for 2016 found the number of pedestrians killed in traffic crashes increased from 10 in 2015 to 13 last year. Motorcycle fatalities increased from five to six, and bicyclist fatalities grew from two to five. The number of motorists killed in crashes remained the same at 20.
Saltzman says he's confident Portland will meet its Vision Zero goal when more of the recommendations are enacted. The council approved millions of dollars in new funding for Vision Zero projects in the budget that took effect July 1, including $1.4 million in continuing general fund dollars generated by the city's marijuana tax. Specific projects include enhanced crossings and new sidewalks on several busy streets, including outer Division.
"It's an ambitious goal, but we can meet it. The City Council is making investments that will produce results, and people are becoming much more aware of the need to increase traffic safety," Saltzman says.
Hard to interpret trends
Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera says the agency is reluctant to take credit for the reduction in fatalities this year because numbers historically have varied so much. And the recent PBOT report underscores the many challenges the city faces to achieve its Vision Zero goal.
The report concluded the biggest reason for last year's increase in fatalities was lower gas prices, which prompted more people to drive. Traffic fatalities increased nationally last year, too. Motorists tend to focus less on gas-saving techniques, such as driving more slowly, when prices are low.
The most significant factor in last year's traffic-related deaths was speed, with about 80 percent of the fatalities occurring on city streets posted at 30 miles per hour or higher. The report notes a person is 25 times more likely to be killed on a Portland street posted at 35 or higher, compared to a street posted at 25 or lower, on a per-mile-of-street basis.
Some driving while stoned
Another big factor was the influence of intoxicants, detected in 24 of the 44 deaths, or 55 percent. Alcohol alone was a factor in 13 of the DUII crashes. Marijuana or concentrated THC products alone were involved in another six. Two involved both alcohol and marijuana/THC. Another two involved illegal drugs alone, and one involved a combination of legal and illegal drugs.
"If we could reduce speed and eliminate intoxicants, we would prevent most fatal and serious injury crashes," Saltzman says.
Other factors include street and lane departures, traveling in low-light conditions when visibility is poor, and distractions. Surprisingly, police did not find cell phone use to be a factor in any of last year's fatal crashes.
A high number of fatal crashes — 24 — occurred in East Portland, which is bisected by 15 of the city's High Crash Corridors and lacks sidewalks and marked crosswalks on some of its busiest streets. These deaths involved 11 people in vehicles, seven people walking, three people riding motorcycles, and three people on bicycles.
Last year's traffic deaths included three teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17: Fallon Smart, 16, who was killed by a speeding motorist crossing Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard; Samuel Chiriac, 16, who died when the car he was riding in left the road on a sharp curve; and Austin Hrynko, 17, who was killed by a drunken driver as he rode his bike on a residential street.
Projects in the works
The Vision Zero concept originated in Sweden in 1997, with the idea being that government agencies can work together to improve traffic safety through increased enforcement, engineering and education. It since has been adopted in numerous American cities, including Chicago, where Leah Treat served as managing deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. Treat brought the concept to town when she was hired as PBOT director in 2013.
The policies gained more support in 2015 as fatalities began increasing. Following a series of high-profile crashes, then-Mayor Charlie Hales convened a traffic safety meeting, bringing activists, city officials and other stakeholders together to talk about how to respond. He and former Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick emerged from the meeting as champions for Vision Zero. The council adopted the goal in July 2015, but by the end of the year, traffic fatalities increased from 28 to 37.
It took 18 months to draft and adopt the Vision Zero Action Plan. During that time, traffic fatalities continued increasing.
PBOT says many of the plan's 32 recommendations are now being enacted. In addition to the speed cameras, they include speed limits and improved crossings on high-crash corridors such as Southeast Division Street and partnering with the Portland Timbers on a Safe Routes to School education program.
With new funding from the council and in partnership with the Oregon Department of Transportation, PBOT will upgrade five high-crash intersections with safety improvements by the end of the year. Teams also are being formed with community partners to raise awareness of Vision Zero and run traffic safety campaigns.
Cellphones not a culprit
Police found that cell phones were not to blame for any of the 44 traffic fatalities last year, according to the 2016 Portland Traffic Safety Report released in May. That's surprising, considering the many news stories and public service campaigns about how much they distract drivers.
On person surprised is Derek Wing, communications director for PEMCO Insurance. His company just released a survey about how many people admit to being distracted in Oregon and Washington, including pedestrians.
"Maybe it's just hard to prove someone was distracted, especially if they won't admit it," Wing says.
According to the PEMCO survey, 53 percent of pedestrians in Washington and Oregon say they use their phones to talk, text or read while on foot, but only 39 percent admit to being distracted on sidewalks or in crosswalks at least sometimes while walking.
Nine in 10 drivers say they witness distracted walkers not paying attention to their surroundings, often or sometimes. And 77 percent of drivers are at least a little bothered by it.
"As frustrating as it is to see a pedestrian engrossed in their phone instead of their surroundings, the bigger concern is for the safety of both drivers and pedestrians who are sharing the road. It's troubling to hear more stories about injuries and accidents among pedestrians who simply aren't paying attention," Wing says.