Traffic Fatalities Rise In Portland


Photo: Brad Newgard

The Portland Bureau of Transportation urges the public to travel with care, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to produce a surge in traffic deaths across the city, mirroring a rise in traffic deaths across the nation.

In 2021, there were 61 people killed on streets and highways in Portland, significantly higher than the 54 in 2020, and more than any year since the early 1990s.+

Typically, most pedestrian fatalities occur in neighborhoods and commercial districts along Portland's high-crash corridors -- the busy, multi-lane arterial streets that are less than 10 percent of city streets but account for most of the traffic deaths in Portland. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a rising number of pedestrian traffic deaths in areas zoned for industrial land or open space. In 2021, there were 12 pedestrian deaths in these areas, compared with fewer than four on average from the prior four years.

“2021 was a tragic year for traffic related violence here in Portland. First and foremost I want to send my deepest condolences to all the families and friends who lost a loved one on the streets of Portland this year," Transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said. "Transportation in Portland has a multi-billion-dollar backlog of safety and maintenance needs that I am determined to address. We have made significant progress in making our streets safer during this last year, including the urgent safety interventions I funded through a budget amendment last Summer and with the upcoming transfer of 82nd Avenue from state to city control. While we move forward these important safety investments, everyone in Portland can take action today to make our streets safer: Slow down, look out for people walking and biking, and never drive while impaired." 

Multnomah County is a partner in the city's Vision Zero effort to end traffic deaths and plays a key role in providing services for houseless community members.

“Too often, crashes and deaths are viewed as the result of individual acts or random circumstances, but we know that we cannot improve safety without understanding the patterns, trends and disparities behind the numbers,’’ Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said.

Figures for 2021 are preliminary, and it takes years for trends to emerge, but the data available appear to point to several patterns:

  • At least nine people who died in traffic crashes were houseless at the time, according to police reports. Some were living on berms beside highways, off-ramps or high-speed corridors, and many were in areas zoned for industrial land or open space.
  • Six people died in three crashes involving vehicles traveling the wrong way on interstate freeways. With road design and signage intended to prevent such travel, this suggests impairment was a factor in those crashes.
  • Traffic deaths for drivers and passengers in motor vehicles totaled 26 -- nearly three times the number in 2018.
  • At least 14 traffic deaths were from hit-and-run drivers, compared with six in 2020.
  • 32 deaths occurred on State of Oregon highways in Portland, including 12 on interstates, compared with an average of 14 for all state facilities from 2016 to 2019.

Traffic deaths on streets controlled by the City of Portland have held roughly constant during the pandemic, and they even dropped in 2021 compared with recent history. There were 29 traffic deaths in 2021 on city-controlled streets, compared with 34 in 2020 and 33 in 2019. 

"Even amid the sad news of higher traffic deaths in 2021, we see some signs that our Vision Zero effort to end traffic deaths is saving lives," Transportation Director Chris Warner said. "Where we have made investments that transform our streets into places designed with safety first, we are seeing less of the dangerous speeding that contributes to traffic deaths. We will continue to use the best data and best practices from across the nation, so we can emerge from this pandemic with streets that are safer for everyone."

Despite a historically high number of fatalities in 2021, there are signs that the City of Portland’s adoption of Vision Zero as its traffic safety goal in 2015 is already making streets safer.

  • There were no traffic deaths among people biking in Portland in 2021, compared with an average of 2.6 traffic deaths among people biking in the previous five years (2016-2020). 
  • Recent examples demonstrate that PBOT's efforts to redesign roads to make them safer is showing results. A project on NE Glisan Street resulted in an 80 percent decline in people traveling 10 mph or more above the speed limit. Similar changes on NE 102nd Avenue resulted in a 73 percent reduction in extreme speeding. Even small changes in speed can greatly impact risk of death or serious injury.
  • 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.

PBOT and Portland Police often report different figures for traffic fatalities. PBOT uses federal and state guidance that provide a uniform definition of traffic fatalities across the nation. This excludes people who died intentionally, in an act of homicide, more than 30 days following a crash, in a crash not involving a person driving, or due to a medical event.

Fatal crash figures are preliminary for 2021. Final figures for fatalities and data for traffic injuries are expected from the state of Oregon in 2023.

Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation


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