Traffic deaths are a ‘significant public health threat,’ Multnomah County report says

By Andrew Theen (OPB)
Aug. 7, 2023 11:48 p.m.

Traffic fatalities continue to rise in Portland and Multnomah County and people of color, people experiencing homelessness and low-income residents in the region are disproportionately affected.

Those are a few of the takeaways from an analysis of 170 traffic-related deaths in Multnomah County in 2020 and 2021.


Multnomah County released a report on Monday examining what officials called the “significant public health threat” posed by rising traffic fatalities. County and city transportation leaders also held a press conference outside Portland City Hall to highlight the crisis.

The report analyzed the details of traffic deaths that occurred during the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic when vehicle miles traveled first plunged and then remained lower than historic levels as people stayed closer to home.

Despite fewer cars on the road, traffic deaths rose during the years examined.

According to the County report, an average of 60 people died in traffic crashes each year from 2015 to 2019. The years examined in the report document a 42% increase.

A Portland Police Major Crash Team van with sliding door open is parked across a road, next to a blue and white Portland Police SUV. Two officers stand in the road next to the vehicles, with yellow tripod measuring device.

Portland police officers responded to the scene of a single-vehicle rollover crash on the morning of Dec. 17, 2022, on Southeast 148th Avenue. The driver died in the crash.

Courtesy Portland Police Bureau

The trend hasn’t reversed in the years since. In Portland alone, 13 people were killed in crashes on city streets last month. It was the deadliest month of the year.

Two people killed in the past six weeks were county employees, according to Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. “We grieve these losses, and insist on solutions that will prevent these senseless deaths in the future,” Vega Pederson said in a statement.


The County report found Black, Indigenous and other people of color broadly in the state’s most populous county were overrepresented when compared to their share of the county’s population when it comes to driving, walking or bicycling-related fatalities.

But that’s true for much of the population. The percentage of white people and Hispanic or Latino residents killed in traffic crashes also outpaced those groups’ share of the county’s population.

That same trend is also true for people over the age of 65 and lower-income residents in the region. People aged 5-24 are also at risk of dying at disproportionate levels, the report found. Traffic deaths are the leading cause of unintentional death and injury for that demographic.

Pedestrian-related deaths are largely driving the increase nationally and in Multnomah County. According to the nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association, pedestrian deaths nationally increased last year to 7,508, the highest level since 1981.

Speeding was a factor in 42% of fatal crashes across the two years measured, and 24% of those killed were experiencing homelessness.

“Pedestrian and bicycle deaths were more likely to occur among persons likely experiencing houselessness due to high exposure both from living in near-road environments and from consistent exposure resulting from being outside the majority of their days and nights,” the report said.

An analysis of toxicology reports available in the fatal crashes showed 84% of those killed tested positive for “at least one substance,” though health officials said, “for all substances except alcohol, we do not know whether decedents were intoxicated to the point of impairment.”

Data available for 62 incidents where a driver died found 34% were above the legal blood alcohol limit of .08.

Health officials offered recommendations that likely sound similar to Portlanders accustomed to hearing about Vision Zero, the campaign which was first adopted nearly a decade ago and advocates for the end of all traffic-related deaths by 2025.

County public health officials offered a litany of public policy recommendations, such as reducing the speed limit on all roads in the region, installing more automated speed enforcement cameras and reengineering roads to discourage or prevent speeding.

They also suggested reigniting a failed effort launched by former Senate President Peter Courtney to lower Oregon’s legal limit for driving under the influence of alcohol from .08 to .05.


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