Portland Traffic Safety is a Serious Problem

Evan Manvel

Portland’s traffic death rate is four or five times that of Stockholm.

Portlanders are dying on our roads.

Mayor Hales, Transportation Commissioner Novick, and Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat have called attention to the safety problem; Treat called it a public health crisis.

Treat has committed to the goal of Vision Zero: no one need die just to get where they want to go.

In response, Willamette Week took the angle: well, it could be worse. Aaron Mesh’s recent article “Road Worriers” ran with the sub-head: “City officials are pitching a new street fee by claiming Portland’s roads are getting more dangerous. Numbers show otherwise.”

Yet in 2013, Portland had 36 road fatalities, more than any year since 2004, and nearly twice as many as in 2008 (19 deaths). Portland averaged 24.3 road deaths a year in 2008-2010, but 34 deaths 2011-2013. It’s reasonable to say Portland’s roads are getting more dangerous. (Mesh asserts this is normal variation – in the mid-2000s, Portland averaged 32 deaths a year, and 37 people died in 2004.)

The fact remains hundreds of people are dying on Portland’s roads, and these are preventable deaths.

When Mesh notes Portland is not as bad as some other American cities, Commissioner Novick rightly responds “We’re not holding ourselves up against other cities... We’re competing against ourselves and against who we want to be.”

New York City is also taking the more forward-looking approach, adopting Vision Zero and looking at Sweden. From yesterday’s New York Times:

Last year, 264 people were killed [in Swedish traffic crashes], less than half the number in 1997. The fatality rate in Stockholm, 1.1 deaths per 100,000, is less than one-third of New York City’s rate. The national rate, 2.7 deaths per 100,000, is the lowest in the world, according to transportation officials.

Portland’s annual rate in 2013: six per 100,000 people; the ten-year average is five per 100,000. That means Portland’s traffic death rate is four or five times Stockholm’s; an estimated 240 people died this decade because we haven’t truly prioritized safety. The United States, overall, has 10.4 fatalities per 100,000 people.

But focusing just on number of deaths understates the impacts of unsafe roads: traffic injuries, years of life lost, health problems related to inactivity, economic loss, and lowered quality of life.

Each year, traffic crashes injure over four million Americans. And because traffic crashes hit the young, they are the fourth or fifth leading cause of years of life lost, behind only cancer and heart diseases. The lack of safe, healthy transportation choices contributes to America’s inactivity epidemic, adding to those heart disease deaths. And we lose an estimated 2.3% of our GDP due to traffic crashes.

Finally, there are quality of life impacts. A commenter on the Willamette Week piece, “Michelle,” wrote:

I encourage Aaron Mesh to take a walk in my outer SE neighborhood, where there have been 2 pedestrian deaths in the space of 6 months in the space of one 6 block stretch on a single street. Walk it 5 times every day for a month. Walk it in the 5:00 rush hour, coming home from work and throw yourself to the side of the road as cars veer into the shoulder where you are walking. 40 mph straight at you to get around the stopped vehicles waiting to turn....You go through bar sidewalks and get told you deserve to get raped for wearing a tanktop, so you go back to the shoulder but the bar patrons have parked on the shoulder and the bike lane and so you walk in the road as people honk at you and cuss at you. So walk on the other side of the road and jaywalk when you get to your house because you don't want the drama, you just want to get home. When you jaywalk (because there are no crosswalks for 14 blocks and you're in between) the cars honk loud and angry and don't stop, just rush around you and yell at you, tell you not to walk on the street.

I just want to go home, you will scream after them. You will be shaking with anger and will be grateful to be alive when you walk in the door.

Crisis, clearly, is in the eye of the beholder.

It's time Portland take the Swedish approach. From the New York Times:

The result has been a sort of social contract between state and citizen: If residents follow the most basic traffic laws, engineers can design roads to guard against all fatalities.

“You should be able to make mistakes,” said Lars Darin, a senior official with the Swedish Transport Administration, “without being punished by death.”

Hales, Novick and Treat should be pushed to ensure the City’s budget aligns with their stated priorities, and the priorities of the public. But they don’t deserve criticism for using strong words to focus attention on a problem that has killed hundreds of Portlanders and injured thousands more.

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