2020 defies historic pattern of fewer traffic crashes during economic recession
Excessive speed and impairment contributed to majority of traffic deaths
Indications that Vision Zero is reducing dangerous behaviors along key routes
(Jan. 6, 2021) As 2020 came to a close, 54 people died in traffic crashes on Portland streets, already exceeding the number in all of 2019 and raising concern about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on traffic safety during a unique year, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) said today.
The 54 deaths are the highest number of traffic fatalities in the City of Portland since 1996, when there were 59. It mirrors a high number of traffic crashes observed in other parts of the metro area and cities across the nation.
Figures for 2020 are preliminary, but point to a disturbing rise in traffic fatalities and risky driving behavior:
- Traffic deaths for drivers and passengers in motor vehicles totaled 23 -- nearly three times the number in 2018.
- People driving are fatally crashing into fixed objects, including parked cars and utility poles, at high rates: 11 so far this year, compared to about eight most years. Speeding and impairment are believed to contribute to those kinds of crashes, and Portland Police have noted that when traffic declined because of stay at home orders, excessive speeding increased.
- Speeding contributed to at least 23 fatalities, or about 45 percent.
- Five people on bicycles died in traffic crashes, compared with two each of the last three years.
- 20 deaths occurred on state of Oregon highways in Portland, including eight on interstates, compared with an average of 14 from 2016 to 2019.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, named Commissioner-in-Charge of PBOT effective Jan. 1, called for more investment in safety improvements on city streets.
“As the new Commissioner of PBOT, I am eager to continue to look at reinvestments that can be made to our infrastructure to build systems that can truly keep Portlanders safe,” Hardesty said. “What we know from public health experts, such as Dr. Jon Jay from Boston University, is that traffic enforcement does not necessarily improve safety outcomes, but technology and infrastructure upgrades do. 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.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a unique year, and it appears to have created uniquely tragic results on streets and highways throughout the metropolitan area and across the nation. Alcohol consumption, as well as rates of anxiety and depression are up nationwide, according to surveys and media reports.
“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. We need everyone’s help to stay safe this winter season: Slow down when you’re driving, and encourage your family and friends to make sure they have a safe ride home.”
The year 2020 defied historic trends. Typically, traffic fatalities fall when an urban area experiences a recession, and there is a reduction overall in driving and in risky behaviors such as speeding and impaired driving.
This was not the case the first months after the pandemic began, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The death rate – an indicator of how safely drivers are using the roadways – jumped 20 percent between January and June 2020, compared to the same six-month period in 2019, according to the National Safety Council.
Despite a historically high number of fatalities in 2019 and 2020, 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.
- In 2019, the odds of people driving 30 mph or faster dropped by more than one-third on residential streets where PBOT changed the speed limit to 20 mph, down from 25 mph.
- 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.
- High-risk speeds have dropped significantly following corridor safety projects recently completed on SW Capitol Highway, and in East Portland on NE Glisan Street and NE 102nd Avenue. People driving 10 mph or more above the speed limit declined by 73 percent to 87 percent after safety improvements were installed.
- Crashes resulting in injuries have dropped by more than one-third following design changes and installation of speed safety cameras on SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway.
Fatal crash figures are preliminary for 2020. Final figures for fatalities and data for traffic injuries are expected from the state of Oregon in 2022.
Learn more about Vision Zero, the City’s effort to end traffic crashes and serious injuries, at visionzeroportland.com
The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is the steward of the city’s transportation system, and a community partner in shaping a livable city. We plan, build, manage, and maintain an effective and safe transportation system that provides access and mobility. www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation