PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Amid a rise in traffic deaths, Portland city leaders are held a press conference Monday morning to address street safety and steps elected officials and Portlanders can take for safer commutes.
According to the Portland Police Bureau, 44 people have died in Portland due to traffic accidents this year, including 13 people in July.
During Monday’s press conference, Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Millicent Williams said she is committed to Vision Zero – the bureau’s initiative to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by, for example, improving pedestrian infrastructure and street lighting.
“Today, my first news conference as your director is a solemn occasion. We are gathered to call attention to the alarming rise in traffic deaths we have seen in recent weeks. Nothing is more important than the safety and wellbeing of the traveling public. As your transportation director, I want you to know that I am firmly committed to Vision Zero. I will provide the leadership and collaboration we need to make our streets safer for everyone,” Williams said.
Transportation Commissioner Mingus Mapps read the names of some of those who have been killed in traffic crashes, after advocates in the crowd called on the commissioner to “say their names.”
“We are gathered here to remind the people of Portland of a dire threat to public safety. Portlanders need to know that our city is in the midst of an epidemic of traffic fatalities. Last month, 13 people were killed on Portland’s streets and highways. That makes it the deadliest month that we have seen on our roads in the last 10 years,” Mapps said. “Today, traffic deaths in Portland are higher than they have been in the last 30 years.”
According to Mapps, Portland traffic deaths began to spike during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want everyone to know it doesn’t have to be this way. Traffic fatalities are preventable. Now, here in Portland, two factors are strongly associated with traffic deaths. These factors are speed and driving while impaired. Portland could cut traffic deaths in half today if Portlanders embraced just two common sense practices. Number one: don’t speed. And number two: don’t drive impaired,” Mapps furthered.
He added, “almost 80% of traffic deaths in Portland this year occurred on just 8% of our streets. These high-crash corridors are in some of our most-used neighborhoods that are some of our most-used streets, we’re talking about streets like Powell; and Marine Boulevard; and Division; and Columbia and Lombard.”
The commissioner noted that some of the streets are owned and maintained by the city whereas others are under the Oregon Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction.
According to Mapps, Powell Boulevard is the deadliest street in Portland as 30 people have died on the roadway in the last 10 years. Mapps said he is committed to finding resources to make Powell and other high-crash corridors safer.
Additionally, Mapps thanked state and federal partners from ODOT to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — who recently visited Portland — for their efforts towards safer streets. Mapps said he wants to “challenge” the federal government to make cars safer.
“Last year, half the people killed in traffic crashes in Portland were walking or biking. One of the challenges that we face today is that cars keep getting bigger, and heavier, and faster, which in turn makes them more deadly. We need the federal government to make sure that cars and trucks are safe not only for the people inside the car but also for people who are walking in our community,” Mapps said.
Mapps closed his statements, adding, “this year, five young people under the age of 18 have died in traffic crashes in our streets. As the father of two teenage boys, that fact both scares me to death and breaks my heart. I am not alone. Every Portlander is horrified by the carnage that we see on our streets and every Portlander is committed to the goal of Vision Zero, which is why I am here to remind Portlanders there is hope. We can reduce traffic deaths here in Portland by driving slower, driving sober and building safer roads.”
A group of a few dozen cyclists were at the press conference to make their voices heard, saying the city needs to do more for traffic safety.
“So far, there hasn’t been enough political will or funding to make the changes we need,” Dave Binning, a Portland cyclist said.
Sgt. Ty Engstrom, with the Portland Police Traffic Division, added, “it weighs on all of us to see the carnage, to see the families devastated. I have lost track of how may times I’ve had to go tell a parent that their child will not be coming home.”
The sergeant also said the police bureau hopes to increase traffic division staffing after previously facing cuts.
“A couple years ago because of staffing issues, the traffic division was cut. And for two years, I was the only traffic member full time. And so, recently, we’ve got our staffing enough to where we brought back about two-thirds of our traffic division,” Engstrom said.
According to Engstrom, the traffic division has coverage seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. when there is a majority of DUI and street racing incidents. He noted that some officers have worked overtime to process DUI drivers and hold them accountable.
“I think we need two things. One, we have a culture change that happened over the last several years starting about the age of COVID where people feel entitled on our roadways. All motorists, all pedestrians, all bicyclists it seems we have forgotten how to use these roadways together and to share them,” Engstrom said.
In addition to the return of PPB’s traffic division, Mapps said PBOT will be doubling the number of traffic cameras — buying 40 in the next year. The conversation comes as PBOT is facing a $32 million shortfall in their 2024 budget.
“We need to make sure people are accountable for what they are doing. People are driving recklessly, speed racing, driving intoxicated two, three, four-times the legal limit and getting arrested for DUIs five and six times. They need to be held accountable,” the sergeant said.
Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said it will take investments from the county and the city to address traffic deaths, and reiterated calls for drivers to follow posted speed signs and to not drive while impaired.
The chair added that the city’s investments in traffic cameras, corridor improvements and new safe speed policies will improve street safety.
“When we look at this from a public health perspective, it’s alarming for three reasons. First…it’s a leading cause of death. Second, the trend is going up,” Multnomah County Public Health Manager Brendon Haggerty said. “The third reason this is especially alarming for public health is that we see racial disparities.”
He added, “in Multnomah County, the death rate from traffic crashes among the Black population is about twice the rate of the non-Hispanic, white population.”
Over 2020 and 2021 Multnomah County Public Health found that excessive speed was a factor in 42% of traffic crash deaths. Additionally, the department found in that two-year period, people experiencing houselessness are more likely to be killed in a traffic crash. Haggerty added that four out of five traffic crash victims tested positive for at least one intoxicant between 2020 and 2021.
This is a developing story.