Think Out Loud

Portland keeps trying to reduce traffic fatalities, but 2020 was especially deadly. What’s going wrong?

By Celina Tebor (Portland, OR)
Jan. 14, 2021 2 p.m. Updated: Jan. 19, 2021 10:30 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 12

In 2020, Portland saw its deadliest traffic-related year since 1996, despite a pandemic that reduced road use for a few months and the city’s continuing effort to make its streets safer.


Fifty-four drivers, cyclists or pedestrians died. City leaders are still trying to figure out why.

Dylan Rivera, a spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, joined OPB’s “Think Out Loud” to talk about the reasons and what the city is doing to make 2021 safer.

Here are highlights of that conversation. You can listen to the entire discussion using the audio player at the top of this story.

Why did so many people die last year?

“So far, it appears that excessive speed and driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs contributed to the majority of these traffic deaths. This is a really unusual occurrence during a recession. This is not what you would have expected ... In a recession, you have less travel overall across driving, biking — all modes, really — and you tend to have fewer traffic fatalities in a recession. 2020 bucked that trend. It was unusual.”

Fewer people drove, but those that did went faster.

“It appears that speeding increased quite a bit in Portland and in communities across the country, especially when you did have stay at home orders that reduced traffic congestion on our streets. And so some people appear to have taken advantage of those conditions to try to speed as much as they can. We even saw some racing on our streets, just really risky behaviors.”

Where were traffic fatalities most common?

“We had a high number on highways. We had 20 on state highways in Portland, including eight on interstates. We had a high number on the major arterial streets ... these four to five lane streets, especially in outer East Portland: outer Powell, 122nd Avenue, outer Division.


How bad was 2020 for bicyclists and pedestrians?

“It was really bad. We had five people on bicycles killed in 2020; the previous three years we had only two. In 2013, we had none. And then for pedestrians, we had 18 — a high number, higher than previous recent years. We really need everyone to be on the lookout for people biking and walking on our streets. We have a still very active urban area. And everyone needs to really be safe. Slow down. Look out for each other.”

Does this mean Vision Zero isn’t working? 2019 was also a high death year.

“One year, one month, one week does not make a trend. It takes several years for trends to develop, but we do have some hopeful signs. We are are hoping that 2020 is really an exception and that the the safety improvements, the speed limit changes we’ve been able to implement will show results citywide. We’ve seen the odds of people driving 30 miles an hour or faster on residential streets has dropped considerably by more than one third, where we change the speed limit to 20 miles per hour. So people are slowing down. We’ve installed dozens of left turn calming improvements at high crash intersections and no pedestrians have been killed at those intersections with these yellow and black plastic dividers that you can see. So is there more to be done? Absolutely. Does one or two bad years mean it’s all for naught? We don’t think so. We think there’s reason for hope. There’s reason for optimism. We can change this, and if you’re talking about over 20-25 year period, I mean to have the same number as 25 years ago, that indicates a lower death rate per capita, which is a different way of looking at it. Our goal is zero.”

The Portland Police Bureau has reorganized, including having no traffic patrols. Will that hurt this effort?

“We’re definitely concerned about it. We’ve always believed that enforcement is one of many tools that we should have to address traffic safety.”

Almost two years ago, city leaders agreed to spend $50 million on fixed speed radar cameras. Those haven’t been bought yet. Why not?

“That was an especially difficult contract to procure. We went from two contracts across two bureaus, police and PBOT to one contract to deal with both red light cameras and speed cameras. So it was very challenging as the pandemic was thrust upon us ... so we’re eager to complete that process.”

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