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Across Oregon, traffic fatalities abruptly return almost to pre-recession levels

Posted by on July 31st, 2015 at 9:47 am

For Oregon’s roads, the first seven months of 2015 have been the deadliest since 2008.

That was the year nominal gas prices hit their all-time peak, which sent suburban housing markets and the financial sector that had financed them into a tailspin that eventually sent the world economy into recession.

Gas prices dipped for a year but returned to the high $3 range by 2011. Expensive gas and the weak economy combined with long-brewing changes in how people live and get around to create years of decline in the number of miles driven both in Oregon and around the country.

But after last November’s gas price plunge, the number of miles driven is on the rise again. And so, apparently, is the number of people dying on the road.

Troy Costales, manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s safety division, said Oregon saw 238 road deaths through July 23, up from 165 in the same period last year.

“There are reports that traffic fatalities are up across the nation,” he added. “I wish neither was true.”

The chart above comes from fatality data tracked by Costales’s team. (Unlike 2014 and 2015, the previous years include fatalities from the final week of July.)

In Portland, the long-term traffic fatality trend has been different: it fell rapidly in the late 1990s and, aside from a 2003 spike, has hovered in the 20s and 30s per year since. Numbers for Portland proper weren’t immediately available Friday.

“If the numbers are flat or going up, then that’s a stubborn problem and it’s time for some broader range of solutions.”
— Gerik Kransky, Bicycle Transportation Alliance

For the last two years, the Oregon Department of Transportation has faced calls from some safety advocates to rethink its traffic safety practices around a set of ideas developed in Sweden and known as Vision Zero.

“If the numbers are flat or going up, then that’s a stubborn problem and it’s time for some broader range of solutions,” said Gerik Kransky, advocacy director for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. “Until we’re able to do something significant to address those high-speed, high-traffic roads, I’d imagine this is what’s going to happen.”

Kransky said he was disappointed that the state didn’t pass House Bill 2736, which would have created an external process to explore Vision Zero at the state level.

“We’ve heard a little bit of talk from our partners at ODOT that there’s talk of setting a target date for zero injuries and fatalities in their upcoming traffic safety action plan, and that’s great,” Kransky said. “My fear is that right now, we haven’t seen ODOT step forward with a willingness to pursue the solutions that are shown to work in other countries. … We’re not going to change the fatality rate in Oregon simply by setting a traffic date.”

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  • paikiala July 31, 2015 at 10:07 am

    Time to raise the gas tax, for a dedicated safety fund.

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    • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 10:47 am

      If we were to raise the gas tax, with the target of pulling even with, say, the Germans, we wouldn’t have to worry about dedicated this or dedicated that fund. I’ve mentioned this before, they—through the fuel tax and other related fees and taxes on motorized transport—raise three times (3 X!) the amount of money every year that they need to build and maintain a world class transportation infrastructure, an infrastructure we can’t even imagine.

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      • paikiala July 31, 2015 at 11:46 am

        You have to justify the new tax. Even if it lowers the income tax rates and is not used to make the transport system safer.

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        • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 12:21 pm

          “You have to justify the new tax.”
          Sure. Spine. Leadership. Willingness to spend political capital, etc. None of which our elected officials seem to have in excess around here.

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          • rachel b July 31, 2015 at 3:18 pm

            Hear, hear! Up with spine!

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        • q`Tzal July 31, 2015 at 7:54 pm

          Justify it George HW Bush style. He said “no new taxes” and he kept honest to the letter of what he said. There were just increases on the old taxes.

          Increase the old gas tax.
          TA-DA! No new taxes!

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    • Amy July 31, 2015 at 11:06 am

      It’s time for a leadership change at ODOT. The highway hungry bureaucrat has got to go. Replace him with someone who cares about saving lives.

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  • J_R July 31, 2015 at 10:08 am


    I regularly see motorists blowing through red lights. Speeds on urban arterials that I estimate to be speed limit +15 mph. You can’t go for a month without a story of a repeat drunk driving offenders driving drunk again. Crosswalk enforcement in Portland occurs for two hours a month with advance warning signs. Fines for most traffic offences are a few hundred dollars unless the judge knocks it down even further.

    The PPB traffic team has only about 50,000 “interactions” per year which is fewer than 140 per day. Not all result in citations. Meanwhile, motorists in Portland drive about 10,000,000 miles per day. So, the chance of getting stopped is once for every 70,000 miles driven. There’s almost no enforcement.

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    • q`Tzal July 31, 2015 at 7:59 pm

      Put a surcharge on every ticketed fine that covers all labor costs associated with the traffic stop.
      Then have a self sustaining traffic police force that isn’t a profit center but conversely can not be shown to be a hole money is poured down.

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  • El Biciclero July 31, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Wait, does this mean VMT correlates positively with roadway deaths? No way!

    But if so, what does that mean? Just that there will always be some “constant” rate of fatalities per mile driven? Crowded roadways lead to frustration and greater risk-taking? Does it indicate design problems or behavior problems (and does one influence the other)?

    Are there trends in road injuries/deaths when miles traveled (I like “trips taken” better) by other modes fluctuate?

    So many questions, but it seems that more driving = more death regardless. Too bad most people have the “it’ll never happen to me” mindset, coupled with the “I’m careful, so my driving isn’t part of the problem” logic.

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    • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 10:45 am

      “more driving = more death regardless”

      I doubt the Swedes would be satisfied with that equation. I am not aware that their exemplary success in reducing serious injury and death over the past almost twenty years (=Vision Zero) was accompanied by any decline in VMT.

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    • paikiala July 31, 2015 at 11:56 am

      The international standard rate is deaths per 100,00 population.
      Fatals per 100,000 population (OECD)
      Country 2012
      Malaysia 23.6
      Cambodia 13.4
      Colombia 12.7
      Argentina 12.4
      United States 10.7
      Lithuania 10
      Czech Republic 7.1
      Belgium 6.9
      New Zealand 6.9
      Portugal 6.8
      Luxembourg 6.5
      Slovenia 6.3
      Hungary 6.1
      Australia 5.7
      Finland 4.7
      Germany 4.4
      Switzerland 4.3
      Japan 4.1
      Spain 4.1
      Netherlands 3.9
      Ireland 3.5
      Israel 3.3
      Denmark 3
      Sweden 3
      Norway 2.9
      Iceland 2.8
      UK 2.8

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      • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 12:21 pm

        Thanks for those statistics, paikiala.

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      • Todd Boulanger July 31, 2015 at 3:38 pm

        Where is the usual chanting of “were #1”?

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        • Todd Boulanger July 31, 2015 at 3:39 pm


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        • Joseph E July 31, 2015 at 7:04 pm

          We DO have the #1 highest death rate among OECD (“developed”) countries! … Go USA?

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  • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 10:13 am

    This is so pathetic. I can’t imagine Swedish officials throwing up their hands like this.

    Troy Costales, manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s safety division, said Oregon saw 238 road deaths through July 23, up from 165 in the same period last year.

    “There are reports that traffic fatalities are up across the nation,” he added. “I wish neither was true.”

    Mr. Costales acts like he/his agency has no say so, no control, no responsibility over this matter. With friends like these who needs enemies?

    Fatality Free Days, my ass.

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  • ethan July 31, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Today I saw someone fly past the bus in a no passing zone, going well over the speed limit. They must have easily been going 45MPH on NE 15th. When they hit a speed bump, they nearly went airborn.

    The “funny” part about it is that I saw where they started and ended their trip. Their entire trip was ~1 mile long, from their driveway to the parking lot they parked at.

    So, they drove wrecklessly and nearly hit some people walking, just to move about 1 mile, a distance that’s easily walkable, along a road that has a frequent service bus route.

    Obviously they must be sooooooooooooooo important for endangering people to get somewhere 30 seconds faster than the bus, but I wonder if they would have the incentive to do that if 1) on-street parking was eliminated, in favor of bike infrastructure 2) the parking lot they drove to was redeveloped into something useful and 3) if the price of gas was twice as high.

    I wonder which of those would have the most effect getting that maniac out of their car and into civilization, like a normal person?

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    • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 10:28 am



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      • ethan July 31, 2015 at 10:29 am

        Huh, I just thought that was how it was spelt

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        • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 10:39 am

          reckless = without proper care
          wreck = what can happen if one drives recklessly

          wreckless = neologism, presumably to drive without causing a wreck.

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    • Spiffy July 31, 2015 at 10:33 am

      yesterday I saw 1 car break 5 laws at 1 intersection… driving in a bike lane, passing on the right, no turn signal, running a red light, turning right on red…

      but I see drivers breaking the law every single block… I wish I just didn’t see them, but I do…

      when an entire set of laws are routinely ignored it dilutes the effectiveness of all laws…

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  • Mike Quiglery July 31, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Americans are highly stressed, angry, paranoid, distracted. Watch out. It’s dangerous out there and likely to get worse.

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    • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 10:29 am

      Climate change has everyone on edge.
      Our subconscious is telling us it’s over, and we get irritable.
      C.f. Carl Gustav Jung.

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      • rain waters August 3, 2015 at 12:18 pm

        So true and obvious. Stress to “get while the gettins’ good” makes sanity cower in the back seat. Early yesterday morning a pair of pickups met on a sidewalk corner in downtown Corvallis. This dis-ease is no longer confined to large urban centers and suburbs.

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  • Anne Hawley July 31, 2015 at 10:28 am

    This is tangential, but I’m curious: what is the relationship between these new higher VMT numbers and “peak car”? After every article about how car ownership and drivers’ licenses are dropping off, there’s at least one comment saying, “It’s the recession, stupid. Watch what happens when the economy recovers and/or gas prices go back down.”

    Are those commenters right?

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    • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 10:41 am

      Michael has a good handle on this. I think what we were seeing was a peak of per capita VMT. Thanks to population growth, and what may be a plateauing of that trend, we’re now seeing an uptick in total VMT.

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      • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
        Michael Andersen (News Editor) July 31, 2015 at 3:09 pm

        Exactly. Useful charts here:

        Even per-capita VMT is rising again thanks to today’s lowish gas prices and strongish economy, but it’d have to grow at a truly ridiculous rate to make up for what the auto industry is probably referring to as a lost decade.

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        • 9watts July 31, 2015 at 4:44 pm

          Thanks, Michael. Very useful indeed.

          It is perhaps worth noting, however, that these charts reflect *preferences,* understood to mean the rates at which people choose to drive/not drive, or are required to drive due to jobs-housing imbalance, etc.

          These charts do not (yet) reflect *constraints* of the kind we all know are looming, but may prefer to ignore a while longer. Once these constraints kick in, preferences will scurry under the nearest stranded SUV.

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    • Alan Love July 31, 2015 at 10:55 am

      Probably a combination of right and wrong. VMT started dropping before the recession hit by a year+ish. The economy then sank it substantially more. Improving economy = a return to pre-recession trend, higher than a few years ago, but lower than the historical trend line.

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      • Pete August 3, 2015 at 2:29 pm

        Bingo. This seems to make sense. I don’t really buy the argument that high gas prices caused the housing crisis, mainly because it doesn’t include many other factors. I think VMT started to drop due to the job cuts that had already started taking place before the tipping point. I also don’t believe people factor their costs of driving into housing decisions to as fine a granularity as the analysis suggests (distance, yes, cost per gallon of gas – I doubt many people even know what that adds up to weekly or monthly).

        One major factor ignored in the article was demographics; a boomer generation being able to realize capital gains with a $500K shelter (done away with in 2009) drove housing sales, so combined with falling interest rates there was a supply/demand balance that drove prices up until the over-supply kicked in (about the time defaults started). Many boomers moved from the suburbs into the city when they sold their empty-nested houses during that spell as well (and I think that impacted VMT sharply). A good many that I know simply left the workforce behind, at least for a while.

        With the current economic recovery, the nature of skills demand has also changed, and many of the technical skills now demanded (as well as corporate cultures) allow for telecommuting for at least a portion of the workweek. We’re not hiring back assembly workers in droves anymore.

        Low gas prices definitely seem to drive auto buying decisions, oddly. Last fall when they started dropping significantly, Prius sales dropped off sharply, and pickup truck sales hit new highs. The difference between 20 MPG and 30 MPG isn’t really that much, especially at $3/gallon, but at $5/gallon it starts to change behavior (it seems).

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  • ethan July 31, 2015 at 10:55 am

    I took a screenshot of the chart from 2008-2015 and overlaid an upside down gas price chart from the same time period over it. It’s amazing to see how closely it matches.

    Lower gas prices = more dead people.

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  • Beth July 31, 2015 at 11:00 am

    Damn. I sure miss 2007.
    Dinosaurs took a long time to die off, and they didn’t go quietly.
    The dinosaur of our propped-up car culture — and the manipulated supply and demand that supports it — will go much the same way.
    Ride defensively, and be careful out there.

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  • spencer July 31, 2015 at 11:02 am

    ODOT needs a change at the top. This is unacceptable. Fatality free days are a farce.

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    • AndyC of Linnton July 31, 2015 at 11:42 am

      I liken it to the Simpsons opening credits nuclear power plant bit.

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  • Ted Buehler July 31, 2015 at 11:23 am

    Folks, it’s all good to post comments of outrage and affirmation here on bikeportland, but it’s a bit of an echo chamber here.

    Make sure you also share your opinions with people that can do something about it.

    Mayor Charlie Hales

    Commissioner Novick

    Your Senator

    Your Representative

    Governor Kate Brown

    Tell them your outraged that more of us are dying on the streets, and that they’re responsible. They’re slacking on things like
    * More enforcement of speeding and traffic violations.
    * More enforcement of DUIs.
    * Better messaging.
    * Better engineering.

    Write now, write often.

    Tweet now, tweet often.

    & come to the BikeLoud/Liveable Streets event tonight if you’re able.

    Ted Buehler

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    • rachel b July 31, 2015 at 3:24 pm

      Good reminder (and info). You can feel like a piece of processed meat, but I’ve also felt like I’ve been heeded a time or two!

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  • rick July 31, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Is it a surprise? How many streets, stroads, and roads have lower speed limits compared to 2007? Only a handful.

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  • Brett July 31, 2015 at 1:52 pm

    Generally good journalism and data science to note when a graph is not zero scaled so your audience knows you’re not trying to “lie with statistics”.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) July 31, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      Brett, good catch. I always try to follow this principle too — I was in such a hurry this morning that I failed to notice the scale. Fixed now.

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  • WAR July 31, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    No not a gas tax! If we charge a Gas Tax it will be much more expensive for me to transport my 10k Fred sled with my BMW to the country.

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  • Todd Boulanger July 31, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Perhaps now with below market rte fuel prices and a chance for a decent income millennials have taken up driving and longer commutes…and the driver behavior of their parents?!

    I love car sharing…but just not the $1000 deductible Zipcar now has for its low mileage users (those that do not choose to pay an annual fee to reduce the deductible.) If one were a poor driver, car sharing would be an expensive service…

    (Any demographic analysis yet on this data?)

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    • Pete August 3, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      “below market rate fuel prices”

      Technically, aren’t they priced at market rate, but the market is currently more competitive due to OPEC supply flooding?

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      • Dan August 4, 2015 at 11:57 am

        No. The cost of fuel acquisition/tax breaks for gas companies is massive.

        Sort of like how we have paid for years to have trees cut down down and exported.

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        • Dan August 4, 2015 at 12:01 pm
        • Pete August 5, 2015 at 6:44 pm

          The price of crude that refineries pay is still set on the ‘open’ global market; in other words, we may subsidize production of crude (and gas), but we don’t tariff competing countries. OPEC’s reserves are the biggest in the world, with Saudi and the US now vying for a distant second (crude quality matters, too, but not so much for refined gasoline). Our current cheap gas situation is a direct result of the price of crude plummeting due to economic warfare with OPEC, who has refused to lower its output at the request of the US government. They are threatened by our increased crude production due to fracking, indisputably.

          I won’t debate the inequities of government financing big companies and business, but when it comes to crude oil production, OPEC has a much larger lever than we do, simply due to demand. Kinda like the Mexican cartels… dry up their customer base and their revenues will plummet. (But we see how well that’s working).

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  • Jeff Bernards July 31, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    How about digging a little deeper into the numbers, 1/3 of accidents are alcohol related. The bike community seems to perpetuate the drink at every opportunity (meetings & events) mentality. Maybe it’s time to set an example of just having a meeting or event and not making alcohol the main focus. I look at some of the posters for different rides or meetings and the first thing I see is “Free Beer”.
    Legal Marijuana is only going to making the driving while impaired worse. Get ready for the fatalities numbers to increase even more. Good Luck out there.

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    • Mao August 1, 2015 at 6:44 pm

      I agree with this. There isn’t anything wrong with a pint while having a meal, but you wouldn’t want to see driving while intoxicated encouraged, so why do we have no problem advertising beer with bike events so heavily?
      Driving/Biking while tired or intoxicated is harmful to multiple parties.

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    • soren August 3, 2015 at 8:29 am

      false equivalency. cycling while drunk is about as dangerous as walking while drunk. (and for the record, i do not think either is particularly wise.)

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      • Middle of the Road guy August 3, 2015 at 1:11 pm


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  • Jeff M August 3, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    “That was the year nominal gas prices hit their all-time peak, which sent suburban housing markets and the financial sector that had financed them into a tailspin that eventually sent the world economy into recession.”

    Gas prices caused the housing and financial markets to crash? Thank you, Rick Santorum, for your contributions to economic theory.

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