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Top contributing factors to traffic deaths

A large GMC pickup truck dwarfs the size of a 5' 10" adult in a parking lot at night.
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As part of the Safe Systems Approach, Vision Zero seeks to create several layers of protection against death and injury with safe speeds, safe streets, safe people, and safe vehicles. Crash data suggest that certain factors have an outsized impact on traffic safety. This includes behavior, the type of infrastructure, and the kind of vehicle.


Sixty-nine percent of deadly crashes between 2017 and 2021 involved alcohol and/or drug impairment. In that same period, 430 people died or suffered life-altering injuries due to impairment. In these crashes, 79% of the drivers were impaired.

Drug and alcohol impairment has always been a top contributor of serious crashes. Sadly, this behavior only increased through the COVID-19 pandemic. From January 2017 to June 2020, Portland averaged six traffic deaths or serious injuries per month involving drug and/ or alcohol impairment. Since July 2020 and the State of Oregon approving COVID-19 Phase 1 reopening in Multnomah County, the average rose to nine per month.

A chart showing the number of traffic deaths and serious injuries involving impairment in Portland f rom 2017 to 2021. There are spikes in late 2020 and mid 2021.


Speed was reported to play a role in at least 42% of deadly crashes between 2017 and 2021, including either driving over the speed limit or driving too fast for road conditions. When serious injuries are factored in with traffic deaths, at least 28% of crashes involve the driver’s speed. In five years, 471 people who died or suffered life-altering injuries due to speed. The percentages above are the crashes with speed reported as a factor, however the role that speed plays in fatal and serious injury crashes is often undercounted. This is because the speed of the driver at the time of the crash is often unknown and driving faster than the speed limit is common and therefore only reported if speeding was way above the speed limit. Another reason is because speed limits themselves are too high on many of Portland’s biggest streets, meaning that speeding won’t be marked as a factor even though the driver’s speed still may have contributed to the crash.

As people travel faster, the risk of death or serious injury rises dramatically. The diagram below show that a pedestrian struck by a person driving 40 mph is eight times more likely to die than a pedestrian struck at 20 mph.

Death due to speed

Read more about speed limits in Portland, and ongoing enforcement efforts.


infographic: 70% of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries occurred at night (2017 - 2021)

From 2017-2021, crashes at night—between sunset and sunrise—accounted for 44% of all injuries and deaths in our areas of focus. Over that same period, night crashes accounted for 70% of pedestrian deaths or serious injuries. Of note, this data does not specify whether or not there was street lighting at these crash sites. However, the frequency of crashes at night underline the importance of lighting and better visibility. 

The City of Portland owns more than 50,000 streetlights that were recently converted to LED lights, which use 50% less energy than previous lights and provide better illumination. PBOT’s street lighting guidelines provide lighting values for different street classifications. Read more about streetlights and safety here.

PBOT has invested more than $16.5 million in street lighting on wide streets in the High Crash Network. This includes $.45 million from the voter-approved 10-cent gas tax known as Fixing Our Streets:

  • SE 122nd Ave (San Rafael Street to Foster Road)
  • SW Capitol Highway (at Barbur Blvd to 49th Ave at Stephenson)
  • NE Glisan St (82nd to 162nd Avenues)
  • NE Killingsworth Street (42nd Avenue to Lombard Street)
  • SE Stark St (122nd to 162nd Avenues)

This includes $12 million saved from PBOT converting all streetlights in the city from high-pressure sodium bulbs to more energy efficient LED bulbs:

  • 82nd Avenue (NE Killingsworth to SE Clatsop Street)
  • Columbia Blvd (N Burgard to NE 89th Ave)
  • E Burnside Street (Willamette River to SE 32nd Ave)
  • NE 102nd (Sandy Boulevard to E Burnside Street)
  • NE Halsey Street (114th to 162nd Avenues)

Wide streets

Wide streets are those with four or more travel lanes, not counting freeways. It is more common for people to speed on wide streets, and they are typically harder to cross. For this and other reasons, wide streets accounted for nearly half of all deadly crashes in Portland from 2017-2021 and more than half of pedestrian deaths and serious injury crashes (52%).

Large vehicles

The market share of large vehicles — including SUVs, light-duty trucks, and vans — grew from about half of the country's market share to three-quarters between 2012 and 2021. At the same time, traffic deaths on U.S. streets are increasing. People driving vehicles killed 12 people for every 100,000 vehicles in 2012; a decade later in 2021 that number rose to 14 people for every 100,000 vehicles.

Vehicle size and weight is a contributing factor to this trend in increasing severity of crashes. The impact force of a crash increases at greater travel speed as the vehicle increases in size, i.e., the impact force of a pickup truck at 45 mph is greater than the impact force of a sedan at the same speed. 

Line graph showing that the impact force increases at greater travel speed as the vehicle increases in size.

Research tells us that crashes that involve large vehicles (compared to cars, i.e., sedans) are more severe:

  • At speeds greater than 20 mph, larger vehicles have an exponentially greater impact force compared to smaller vehicles.
  • The taller front end of large vehicles increases the likelihood of striking a person's torso, causing more injury than striking a person in their legs.
  • If a person driving a SUV hits a pedestrian at 40 mph or above, they will likely kill that pedestrian. If a person driving a car hits a pedestrian at the same speed, there’s about a 50% chance they will kill the pedestrian.
Diagram comparing the size of a Ford F-150 pickup truck, an average adult, and a child; it can be challenging to see a small child from the driver seat of a Ford F-150.

A Safe System approach recognizes the need to address speeding, street design, and vehicle size and technology to achieve Vision Zero. The following are some national efforts to encourage people to purchase safer vehicles:

  • PBOT joined national partners in calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to update new car safety ratings to include crash risks for people outside of the vehicle
  • The USDOT proposed requiring automatic emergency braking in all new vehicles to dramatically reduce crashes with pedestrians and people bicycling as well as rear-end crashes
  • Washington, D.C. raised the annual registration fee for heavier vehicles

Check our viral post (more than 184,700 views) about the increasing percentage of large vehicles on our streets and how this trend has negative consequences for people walking, biking, and rolling.

A screenshot of an X (formerly known as Twitter) post with 184.7K view, an image of a person standing in front of a large pickup truck, and text: "The percentage or large vehicles on our streets is increasing, and this trend has negative consequences for people walking, biking, and rolling."

Hit-and-run crashes

Hit-and-run crashes were up 27% in the last five years (2017-2021) compared to the five years prior. Hit-and-run crashes represent one in seven deaths or serious injuries of pedestrians and people biking. A robust post-crash response protocol is part of the Safe Systems Approach to achieving Vision Zero. The current protocol includes an emergency engineer review for potential data-driven and easily implementable solutions to deadly and serious crashes.