Speed limits expected to drop on residential streets
Speed limits on up to 70 percent of residential Portland streets would be lowered to 20 mph under an ordinance to be considered by the City Council on Wednesday.
The decrease would be relatively small because the limit is currently 25 mph. But Mike Crebs, captain of the Portland Police Bureau's Traffic Division, says it could save lives. According to AAA, a pedestrian hit by a driver at 25 mph is nearly twice as likely to die compared to someone hit at 20 mph.
"Fatality and serious injuries go up almost exponentially when the speeds in crashes increase from 20 to 25 miles an hour. Driving just a little bit slower might add a few seconds to your drive, but it could save a life," says Crebs, adding that he already drives that slow in his neighborhood.
The 2017 Oregon Legislature gave the city the authority to lower speeds on residential streets without first seeking state approval. The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) already has purchased blank traffic signs which can be painted with the lower speed limits, says Vision Zero coordinator Donna Dickman,
The ordinance has an emergency clause, meaning it will take effect upon approval.
The decrease is intended to help reach the Vision Zero goal adopted by the council in June 2015. The goal calls for eliminating all fatal and serious injury crashes by 2025. The lower speed limit is among 32 steps in the Vision Zero Action Plan approved by the council in December 2016.
Despite the efforts, fatal accidents have continued to increase since the plan was approved. Crebs says 51 people were killed in Portland crashes last year, compared with 44 in 2016. PBOT, which uses slightly different criteria adopted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration (NTSA), says fatalities increased from 44 in 2016 to 45 last year.
Portland is far from the only city experiencing an increase in traffic fatalities. They are up across the country, according to the NHTSA. Experts say that is largely because many more people are driving because of the economic recovery and relatively low gas prices.
Crebs says the economic recovery is contributing to the increase in two ways. First, more people are driving to and from work. And second, more people are also going out for dinners, movies and other forms of entertainment.
But, according to Crebs, the biggest factors in the increase in fatalities are speed and intoxicated driving.
"If we could reduce speeds and stop people from drinking and driving, we would see a dramatic decrease in fatalities," says Crebs.
Crebs says he has personally witnessed the tragic toll taken on both victims and drivers involved in fatal crashes over the year.
"I've told familes that their loved ones have been killed, and their reaction is sudden and terrible. But for the drivers, they are either suddenly in jail or being sued. And almost all of these crashes were preventable," Crebs says.
Other Vision Zero steps include safety improvements on busy streets funded by the temporary 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase approved by Portland voters at the May 2016 primary election.
The decrease is unlikely to significantly reduce fatalities by itself, however. According to Crebs, the vast majority of fatal crashes take place on streets with higher speed limits. Officially classified as "high crash corridors," they include such major thoroughfares as Martin Luther King and Powell boulevards, Division and Stark streets, and Marine Drive. The 2017 law does not allow the city to reduce sped limits on them without state approval.
Eric Squires, a Washington County real estate agent who travels to and through Portland frequently, calls the reduction "a feel good idea" that doesn't address the problem — a rapidly increasing population putting more drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians on an existing street system with no plan to increase its capacity.
"I see people fighting for the same limited space all the time," says Squires.
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 PBOT Director Leah Treat served as managing deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. She brought the concept to town when she was hired as PBOT director in 2013.
You can read the ordinance here.