Oregon traffic deaths are down in the first six months of 2022 compared to last year, a reprieve from 2021′s 30-year record highs.
But there’s one notable exception: Pedestrian deaths continued to rise, according to preliminary numbers from Oregon and Portland’s transportation departments.
They include a rash of hit-and-runs.
In February, a man died after two different cars struck him as he was walking alongside Southeast Foster Road. In March, a semi-truck struck and killed a man in a wheelchair whose wheel slipped off the sidewalk in North Portland. In early April, a driver struck and killed a woman as she was trying to cross Southeast Powell Boulevard. In June, two Portland pedestrians died in crashes within 24 hours of each other, along Northeast Glisan Street and Southeast 82nd Avenue.
It’s an unsettling rise in light of an already growing problem: Last year, Portland saw more pedestrian deaths than in about 50 years. The city of Portland found that 70% of those pedestrians were homeless.
State and local officials agree there’s no clear answer about why pedestrian deaths have increased even as other numbers go down.
But the deaths remain concentrated mostly along major arteries in East Portland, where safe-streets advocates have long called for more attention to the lack of safety measures and infrastructure to protect pedestrians.
The city has made moves toward reducing hazards on those roads. It recently took ownership of 82nd Avenue from the state with the stated goal of making safety improvements to the roadway. It has reduced the speed limits on dozens of residential streets since 2017. It’s also launched efforts to redesign roads with high crash rates.
Ashton Simpson, director of the pedestrian advocacy group Oregon Walks, said he recognized the city is trying to improve those areas.
“I see good things happening,” Simpson said. “But it’s like a drop of ink in a glass of water until you are really intentional about diverting resources from community projects where infrastructure already exists, into communities where there’s none.”
BY THE NUMBERS
On state-owned roads, traffic deaths are down 7.6% overall from this time in 2021. There have been 242 traffic deaths through June, compared to 262 deaths the same time last year, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Pedestrian deaths, however, are up 61%. At the end of June, 58 pedestrians statewide had died in traffic, compared to 36 at that time last year.
The state transportation department said locations and other details of the crashes would not be available until 2022 crash data is finalized next year.
Preliminary data from Portland Bureau of Transportation shows that there have been 27 deaths on city-owned roads as of July 5 — five fewer than this time last year.
Deaths of drivers or passengers in cars are down by more than half, from 19 deaths by July 5 last year to nine in the same time this year.
But pedestrian deaths have increased, from nine this time last year to 12 this year as of July 5.
Dylan Rivera, a spokesperson for the transportation bureau, said the year’s fatal crashes have followed familiar patterns. Most happen at night, he said, and many are in the city’s high-crash corridors or near freeways and ramps.
He said while it’s difficult to identify trends or patterns over such a short period of time,
transportation officials have begun to see some indications that drivers are responding to safety improvements.
“In places where we implemented redesign changes for safety or additional enforcement, particularly with cameras, we’ve seen a reduction in speeding,” he said, noting Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway and Glisan Street east of Interstate 205. “We are hopeful that will translate into fewer deaths and serious injuries, but we’re not willing to declare victory on that for a number of years.”
“THESE DEATHS ARE PREVENTABLE”
Safe-streets advocates say the city will continue to see pedestrians killed in traffic until it addresses the design of its streets to slow traffic and provide places for pedestrians to safely walk and cross.
“Roads are wide, people are running reds, doing upward of 50 or 60 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour zone,” Simpson said. “It stems back to driving behavior, and a lot of motorists will not acknowledge that because they want to continue to drive their cars.”
Sarah Iannarone, director of bike and pedestrian advocacy group The Street Trust, said the city and state should be treating traffic deaths like a public health crisis.
“We are accepting this and these deaths are preventable,” Iannarone said. “Pedestrians are the most vulnerable people in our streets, and we’ve put that burden on the vulnerable person, rather than on the person operating the motor vehicle.”
Iannarone said city and state transportation agencies need to reprioritize their spending accordingly to focus on safety.
Instead of focusing on projects to reduce congestion, like the replacement of the Interstate 5 bridge of the Columbia River and the widening of the freeway through the Rose Quarter, Iannarone said city and state transportation agencies should focus on reducing speeds on local roads, and building better access to bike, pedestrian and public transit infrastructure.
“At every single level, there are key investments we can make,” she said.
-- Jayati Ramakrishnan