Sixty-three Portlanders were killed in traffic crashes in 2022, the second year in a row Portland has seen a 30-year high in traffic deaths. According to the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s (PBOT) 2022 fatal crash report released Monday, excessive speed, dark conditions, and traffic exposure continue to play a significant role in fatal traffic crashes in the city.
“No one should be killed just by traveling on the streets of Portland, no matter how they travel," Portland Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who oversees PBOT, said in a press release. "I urge everyone to think of this report as a call for us to drive carefully, to never drive while impaired, and to always follow the speed limits and other rules of the road.”
Portland set a goal in 2015 to reach zero fatal traffic crashes by 2025. Despite the city’s “Vision Zero” efforts, traffic fatalities have increased almost every year since 2010. Notably, US Census Bureau data indicates that Portland has seen an influx of nearly 50,000 new drivers since 2010, and the pandemic triggered significant changes in road behavior—including an increase in reckless driving—in the city and through the US.
While 2022 didn’t see a much-needed decline in traffic deaths on Portland streets, PBOT traffic safety experts say the 2022 data confirms their understanding of the problem areas in the city. Of the 63 fatal crashes in 2022, 70 percent occurred on Portland’s ‘high crash network’—the 30 streets that routinely see the majority of traffic crashes, despite making up just 8 percent of the roadways in the city.
Those 30 streets—like SE Stark, where pedestrians Ashlee Diane McGill and Asher Drain were killed last year—are where PBOT focuses the majority of its traffic safety investments. For example, SE Division—another high crash network street—was subject to a $11 million redesign from SE 80th Avenue to SE 174th Avenue. Majority of the construction for the project, including adding a raised center median and 10 new signaled crossings for pedestrians, was completed by the end of 2022. According to PBOT traffic safety manager Dana Dickman, narrowing the roadway with a median and interrupting long stretches of road with marked crosswalks creates a type of “friction” on the road that forces drivers to be more vigilant.
“That friction helps to clue people in to slow down because of the way our minds work of what is visually in the street and what we have to be aware of,” Dickman said.
However, it may be several years before the traffic safety impacts of the SE Division redesign start to materialize. PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera told the Mercury that it can take drivers a couple years to settle into the new traffic pattern or road conditions before meaningful safety changes start to be seen. Older redesign projects have proven the effectiveness of the approach; after a lane was removed and a center turn lane was added along outer NE Glisan in 2019, PBOT recorded an average 10 percent decrease in the median vehicle speed along the corridor and a 87.9 percent reduction in top-end speeding, when cars travel 10 mph or more over the speed limit.
Speed plays a major role in fatal crashes in Portland. When a pedestrian is hit by a car at 20 mph, they have a 10 percent chance of being severely injured or dying. When hit at 40 mph, the pedestrian’s likelihood of severe injury or death jumps to 80 percent. While roads with speed limits 35 mph or higher only make up 8 percent of the roadways in Portland, 46 percent of the traffic deaths in 2022 occurred on those roads.
To further combat speeding, PBOT is planning to add 20 new speed and red light cameras—fixed cameras that take a photo when drivers are going too fast or run a red light—throughout the city in the next couple years, which also routinely reduce top-end speeding. Portland is also applying to gain local control of its speed limit setting process from the state, which currently requires local jurisdictions to apply to change a speed limit on a local road. The application to change the speed limit can take months, if not a year, to be approved by the state and has been a repeated frustration of the city. Under a new law, Portland applied last year for speed limit authority, but it’s unclear if or when the city will receive that authority from the state.
In 2022, 74 percent of all traffic deaths and 93 percent of pedestrian deaths occurred in low-light conditions, like dusk, nighttime, and dawn. In an effort to combat those conditions, PBOT has started to include more significant lighting investments in its traffic safety projects. For example, in projects like the outer SE Division or NE Glisan redesigns, instead of strictly looking at adding singular instances of lighting—like a flashing yellow light at a marked crosswalk—the agency has started to look at investing in lighting conditions along the entire corridor, like adding more street lamps. According to Rivera, many of the streets in East Portland only have street lighting on one side of the road. PBOT data indicates that a person walking in East Portland is 2.3 more likely to be hit by a car than a person walking in inner Portland.
To PBOT, the significant number of traffic deaths during darker conditions also serves as a reminder to drivers to be extra vigilant when driving at night or in other low-light conditions.
“When it comes to pedestrian deaths and people biking our streets, the person with the most responsibility and the most power in these instances is the person controlling 2,000 pounds of hard steel,” Rivera said. “There is no contest when steel meets human flesh.”
Portland’s housing crisis is also apparent in its yearly traffic fatalities. Of the 28 pedestrians killed on Portland roads in 2022, 10 of them—approximately 36 percent—were homeless at the time of their death. Approximately 0.7 percent of the Multnomah County population is unhoused, but unhoused people represented 19 percent of the total traffic deaths in Portland in 2022.
“The staggeringly disproportionate impact of traffic violence on this population speaks to the extreme risks of persistent exposure to traffic, often on high-speed streets,” a PBOT press release said Monday.
This is only the second time PBOT has recorded the housing status of people who died in fatal crashes. In 2021, the first year the city recorded housing data for traffic fatalities, 70 percent of the pedestrians who were killed were homeless at the time of their death. In response, Mayor Ted Wheeler banned camping along high crash network roadways in February 2022, arguing that “leaving people to camp in high crash corridors is unacceptable.” Traffic safety advocates and homeless service providers objected to the ban, calling on Wheeler to shutdown high crash network roads to drivers until safety improvements could be made.
While the number of homeless pedestrians killed in 2022 dropped, Dickman said there is not enough data to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of Wheeler’s ban. It’s possible that the year-to-year decrease is a typical variation or that other factors like weather played a role in where people camped along roadways. In other words, a single year of data is not enough to declare Wheeler’s ban a success.
“That's not how you should review the data,” Dickman said. “It doesn’t tell us anything [beyond how many pedestrians were homeless].”