Speed kills: PPB stats show spike in traffic deaths

Is Portland Over?

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Finding speeders has never been easier in Portland.

“I will not have to sit here very long to find someone (going) 55 to 60 in a 35 mph zone,” PPB Sgt. Ty Engstrom told KOIN 6 News recently. Within a minute, he clocked a speeder doing 59 mph.

Traffic enforcement in the Rose City used to be a top priority. But a 1-2 punch from the pandemic and civil unrest knocked traffic enforcement to the bottom of the list.

Statistics have long show that higher speeds lead to higher traffic fatalities. In 2020, Portland police reported 58 traffic-related deaths, one shy of the all-time record. So far, 2021 is off to a worse start.

Data obtained from PPB shows 26 traffic-related fatalities so far this year. At this point in 2020, there were 16 deaths.

Scene of a fatal crash near NE Sandy Boulevard and NE 149th Avenue on May 8, 2021 (KOIN)

“We’re on track right now for mid-70s or 80 if we keep on this current pace,” Engstrom said. “It’s pretty tragic.”

This rise in traffic deaths is happening in the middle of the pandemic, when more people are working from home. That means there are fewer drivers out on the roads.

“What we saw as the enforcement went down and commutes went down and bumper-to-bumper traffic disappeared, the speeds skyrocketed,” he said.

At the same time, protests erupted in the city. City leaders pulled police resources from the traffic unit back to precincts to help handle the ongoing crisis.

Making matters worse, a rash of officers retired or took jobs in other cities, leaving PPB with the fewest number of officers on the force since the early 1990s. The city’s traffic enforcement unit became another casualty of these challenging times.

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“We had a huge number, well over 40 people, doing traffic enforcement day and night,” Engstrom said. “Now it’s me.”

Even Sgt. Engstrom can only patrol the streets part time as he also has the responsibility of helping Sgt. John Holbrook and 2 other officers assigned full-time to documenting the growing number of daily crash scenes.

“We have lost a lot of officers since July and unfortunately we haven’t been able to replace any,” Holbrook said.

Some reassigned officers, now in precincts, still attempt to go after speeders. But that’s only if they have extra time since a growing number of 911 calls take priority. The city’s lone photo radar operator, who uses a mobile van to ticket speeders through the mail is Portland’s only remaining “full time” traffic enforcement officer.

“It’s unfortunate and sad that our situation within the bureau and city has become so desperate and drastic that we don’t have the staff numbers to patrol our roadways the way they need to be patrolled,” Holbrook said.

Street racers add to the danger

Street racers have been taking advantage of the lack of enforcement, holding large events for hours on public streets — sometimes attracting hundreds from all over the West Coast.

“They’ve shut down freeways. They’ve become so brazen that they are actually trying to chase away the officers,” Holbrook said. “Right off the bat I can think of 5 fatalities in crashes that were directly tied to street racing in 2020.”

Street racers took over the intersection of NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Columbia Avenue Sunday night. November 8, 2020 (Courtesy Photo)

But it’s not just illegal racers hitting high speeds. The speed bug on Portland roadways is spreading fast with no end in sight. The tickets for those caught carry a whopping fine, but under current police staffing levels they are few and far between.

Meanwhile, the number of traffic fatalities continues to rise.

“If you want us to be able to patrol your roadways and keep you safe, then we need support so we can have the staffing levels that we need to return our traffic officers to traffic enforcement,” Engstrom said.

What Bike Portland and Oregon Walks say

Both Bike Portland and Oregon Walks support better laws for cyclists and pedestrians, including more funding for bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks, and fewer cars on the road.

While they agree there is a problem, they don’t think more traffic enforcement officers on patrol is the solution.

“In terms of speeding and all those things, I think you can switch that to automation,” said Ashton Simpson with Oregon Walks. “I think you can do a lot with automation, but you can also do a lot with design, right? So like in the case of east Portland, east of 82nd, we’re talking about 5 way roads, highest speed, high rates of speed. So it’s a design issue. It’s by design.”

Jonathan Maus with Bike Portland said he doesn’t think more police officers is the answer.

“I think a lot of this issue has to do with sort of, you know, if a hammer is your only tool, everything looks like a nail,” Maus said. “There’s a lot of other ways that we can increase enforcement of traffic laws and encourage people to have better behaviors out there, or just changing the way the streets are designedfor one thing.”

Share your thoughts via email: IsPortlandOver@koin.com

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