Health

Oregon data shows traffic deaths on the rise across the state

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
Nov. 28, 2023 2 p.m.

The pandemic did not slow down traffic deaths even as hospital visits flattened

Emergency crews respond to a crash on Oregon's snowy Santiam Pass at milepost 77 in on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019.

FILE: Emergency crews respond to a crash on Oregon's snowy Santiam Pass at milepost 77 in on Nov. 26, 2019.

Oregon DOT / Twitter

Hundreds of thousands of Oregonians traveled over the Thanksgiving holiday, according to AAA. And recently published data shows that the simple act of going from point A to point B is becoming a riskier proposition every year.

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The Oregon Health Authority has released its Oregon Transportation Safety Dashboard, a collection of state data that shows the number of traffic deaths and injuries climbed from 2010 to 2022.

The Oregon Department of Transportation already compiles a yearly report of traffic deaths on state highways and Oregon State Police are often the agency tasked with investigating car crashes. But Dagan Wright, an epidemiologist in the state’s injury and violence prevention program, said OHA plays a role in traffic safety too. OHA gets a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work on injury prevention issues like traffic safety and the dashboard seemed like an extension of that work, Wright said.

“It was perfect timing to put the information that we had available, to get out for public use,” he said. “Because we think that hopefully (this) information is knowledge the public can use for their communities.”

Wright said OHA didn’t just study car collisions, but also walking, cycling, boating and driving recreational vehicles. Regardless of how people got around, the results show the past few years have been more dangerous than ever.

Despite hundreds of workplaces, restaurants and schools shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic deaths did not slow down in Oregon. While the number of Oregonians who died from transportation-related injuries was flat from 2019 to 2020, it rose from 530 to 597 in 2021 and then to 606 in 2022.

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In total, the number of Oregon traffic deaths per year rose 73% from 2010 to 2022.

OHA noticed both the rising trend in traffic deaths and its resistance to the pandemic, Wright said, adding that deaths are rising even as traffic injury-related hospital and emergency room visits are relatively flat. Factors that could contribute to this development include faster vehicle speeds and “high profile” vehicles, trucks and SUVs that are built higher up from the ground. This development is especially deadly for more vulnerable travelers like cyclists, pedestrians and motorcycle riders.

The data dashboard also breaks down transportation deaths and injuries by county. While a four-year count of traffic deaths and injuries mostly reflects population numbers — urban areas like the Portland metro, Salem and Eugene have more traffic deaths than their rural counterparts — many rural areas actually had a higher death rate than urban Oregon.

The county with the highest four-year death average rate was Gilliam County in the eastern part of the Columbia River Gorge, one of Oregon’s least populated counties. Other counties with high death rates include Jefferson and Lake counties.

Wright said OHA is cautious about analyzing counties with less than 20 cases per year because the small sample size can cause variability, but those deaths still matter.

“I want to say that every death is significant, no matter how small the count,” he said. “That event has reverberations for everybody.”

Speed also plays a crucial role in traffic deaths, and in rural Oregon, vehicular speed is not trending slower. In 2015, the Legislature passed a bipartisan bill that increased speed limits for many state highways across central and Eastern Oregon. Traffic deaths on those roads rose in the years that followed, according to the East Oregonian.

Wright said the main goal of the data dashboard is to make it useful to the public, which could lead to policy changes. He’s already fielding inquiries on traffic injuries related to electric bikes and scooters.

He also expects the data dashboard to be a living document, with updates coming to the data on a regular basis.

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