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Despite Pandemic, Portland Sees Most Traffic Deaths Since 1996

There were 54 traffic-related deaths in Portland last year even as the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of people to stay home much more than usual. The city wants to eliminate all traffic-related deaths by 2025.

(TNS) — Catherine Randolph was struck and killed on New Year’s Eve while walking across cavernous 122nd Avenue in Southeast Portland, the 18th and last pedestrian to die in 2020.

Police said Randolph, 51, was walking across the five-lane urban highway outside a crosswalk when the driver of a 2002 Honda Accord smashed into her near Southeast Tibbets Street, a stubby residential road that dead ends on either side of 122nd, one of Portland’s most dangerous streets no matter how you’re traveling.

The driver, 31-year-old Scott Gay, was cited for driving under the influence of intoxicants. Police are continuing to investigate.

Randolph was the final person to die walking, biking or driving on Portland streets in 2020. Her death marked the 54th overall, according to preliminary estimates, the most traffic-related deaths since 1996. Only 2017 saw more pedestrian fatalities – 19 — since the city began comprehensive record-keeping of traffic deaths in 1996. The 54 traffic deaths are a sobering figure and come on the heels of another calamitous year, 2019, during which 50 people died, also the most at the time since 1996, when 59 people died.

The back-to-back devastating years come despite considerable investment in Vision Zero, the city’s campaign to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2025. The campaign, which is part of a broader global effort to curtail traffic deaths, includes an emphasis on educating drivers about the risks of speeding and impaired driving, a renewed focus on enforcing traffic laws and systemically reengineering roads to make them safer for people walking or biking.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who was just assigned to oversee the transportation bureau late last month, issued a statement saying she was “eager to continue to look at reinvestments” in infrastructure that “can truly keep Portlanders safe.

Hardesty, a vocal voice for police reform, cited public health experts’ research showing traffic enforcement does not necessarily lead to safer streets while “technology and infrastructure upgrades do.” Portland’s traffic division was already severely curtailed before the pandemic and the rejiggered bureau.

“Our local outcomes also show that these improvements save lives and Portlanders can expect that under my leadership in the bureau we will continue to move in that direction,” Hardesty said of the emphasis on technology and infrastructure.

In a statement, city transportation leaders called 2020 “uniquely tragic” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and pointed to national trends of rising alcohol consumption and depression rates fueling the increases.

“We know that people are suffering, and we believe we are seeing the results of that on our streets,” Portland Transportation Director Chris Warner said. “We are also seeing some hopeful signs that our safety improvements are reducing crashes in some areas and saving lives, and we will continue to do more.”

Dylan Rivera, a bureau spokesperson, acknowledged it’s been a challenging two years but said the city is taking positive steps. “Portland’s population has grown by more than 20 percent over the past two decades, so this actually represents a decline in the death rate on our streets,” he said in an email. “While it does not change the fact that these deaths were not inevitable and are not acceptable, the lower rate shows that we can make a difference. We need to keep the pressure on,” he said, adding that more infrastructure changes like crosswalks, safety beacons and medians are coming to east Portland.

In preliminary estimates, alcohol and impaired driving contributed to the majority of the 54 fatalities. Speeding was a factor in at least 23 deaths, according to city figures.

The transportation bureau’s death figures differ slightly from those published by the police bureau, which documented 58 traffic fatalities, which is still one less than the 59 deaths in 1996. The transportation bureau doesn’t include known suicides, deaths on private roads or fatalities caused by a medical event. The discrepancy of four deaths includes a suicide, a death on private property, one death of natural causes and a pedestrian struck by a MAX train. The city says trains don’t count as traffic deaths, but buses do.

According to federal statistics in October, vehicle miles traveled were down nationwide nearly 9 percent and by 7 percent in the West from the same period in 2019. For all of 2020, miles traveled were down by 14 percent, with some 381 billion miles traveled nationwide.

Historically, deaths decline when people drive less, but that didn’t occur in Portland. According to an October report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nationwide, total fatalities declined roughly 2 percent through the first half of 2020. However, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled increased in the first half of 2020.

A federal report examining that trend documented a rise in risky driving behavior like speeding, not wearing seat belts and impaired driving nationally in 2020. Last year, therefore, was an anomaly in many regards.

“Historically, economic downturns have resulted in fewer vehicle miles traveled and crash fatalities as fewer drivers are on the road due to increased unemployment and other factors,” the report said. “Furthermore, previous economic downturns produced lower instances of risky driving behaviors like alcohol-impaired driving and speeding.”

Statewide figures weren’t available for all of 2020, but through Dec. 29, an estimated 483 people died in traffic crashes compared to 491 in 2019.

Portland police noted that 11 people died in 2020 from striking fixed objects like parked cars or utility poles, an increase from typical years.

Twenty people died on state-managed highways, including eight on freeways in the city, a significant increase from the average of 13 deaths.

Rivera said the city still sees signs that its Vision Zero efforts are “making streets safer” despite the death tolls in the past two years.

He said the city has documented lower rates of speeding on areas like Southwest Capitol Highway and on 102nd Avenue, where the city recently completed safety projects.

City officials plan to make 122nd Avenue, the site of the last traffic death of the year, safer, but plans are still in the design phase. That project calls for $3.3 million in city gas tax and some other funds for two signalized pedestrian crossings, new street lighting and other changes. The city also received a Metro grant that would fund three or four additional pedestrian crossings, but those projects won’t begin until next year at the earliest.

The road was earmarked to see $100 million in safety and transit upgrades if voters approved Metro’s payroll tax on employees, but that measure failed resoundingly and there’s no plan to return to voters with a measure in 2021.

(c)2021 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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