Esplanade closure begins February 1st

Metro report: Road carnage costs region more than congestion

Posted by on June 20th, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Arterials kill.

Using ODOT traffic crash data and their own data on transportation infrastructure Metro’s State of Safety report has found that roadway collisions cost our region $958 million a year — that’s significantly more than congestion.

The report also lays bare one of the nagging issues for local transportation planners and a central theme of the Mayor Sam Adams administration: Portland’s large, multi-lane arterials are unsafe. In what report authors refer to as one of the “most conclusive relationships” in the study, they found that a disproportionate amount of the serious crashes in our region occur on arterial roads.

Streets like Tualatin Valley Highway, 82nd Ave, SE Powell, McLoughlin Blvd (in Clackamas County) have much higher rates of fatalities and serious injuries than neighborhood streets or even freeways.

The report found that Between 2007 and 2009, there were 151 fatal collisions in the Portland Metro region, killing 159 people, and an additional 1,444 collisions resulting in incapacitating injury. In total, the report says, those collisions cost the region $958 million a year in property damage, medical costs, and lost productivity, “not to mention the pain and suffering from the loss of life.”

By comparison, Metro’s very influential 2005 Cost of Congestion report found that traffic jams could cost the region $844 million a year in lost productivity by 2025.

Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder says that making road safety improvements, “could help the economy more than fighting congestion.”

The 104 page report was put together by Metro along with a “Regional Safety Workgroup” made up of federal, state and local transportation agencies, researchers and safety specialists. It was spurred by Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), which calls for a 50% reduction in fatal and serious injury traffic collisions by 2035.

Here are a few of the key findings:

  • Arterial streets have the highest rate of fatal and severe injury crashes, for all road users: motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • Crash rates rise on surface (non-freeway) streets with more lanes, and are significantly higher on those with six lanes or more.
  • Surface (non-freeway) streets with four lanes or more have particularly high fatal and severe injury crash rates for pedestrians.
  • Speed is a contributing factor in 26% of serious crashes, while aggressive driving is a factor in 40% of serious crashes.
  • Alcohol or drugs are a contributing factor in most fatal crashes.
  • For pedestrians, fatal and severe injury crashes happen especially often after dark.
  • Nighttime serious pedestrian and bicycle crashes occur disproportionately where street lighting is not present. 79% of serious pedestrian crashes and occurring at night and 85% of serious bicycle crashes occurring at night happen where lighting is not present, as compared to 18% of all serious crashes occurring at night. [This puts an interesting twist on the tendency of authorities and the media to blame victims in these collisions for wearing dark clothing.]

Beyond documenting the financial and tragic toll roads take Metro crunched the numbers and published many interesting charts and graphs to put this problem into perspective. One chart shows the rate of serious collisions (fatal or serious injury) in all 28 cities in the Portland metro area. Portland came in 9th and six of the top 10 are in Clackamas County.

Unsafe conditions on our major arterials is one of the biggest takeaways from this study. The chart below shows serious crashes by type of roadway:

Despite making up just 19% of the total system, 49% of all serious collisions happen on 4-5 lane arterial roads:

Wider roadways are the location of a disproportionate number of serious crashes in relation to both their share of the overall system (Figures 3-4 and 3-5) and the vehicle-miles travelled they serve (Figure 3-6). The crash rate increases dramatically for roadways with 6 or more lanes.

Another interesting conclusion in the report was that congested (non-freeway) streets are safer. The report states, “The serious crash rate per vehicle-mile travelled is highest for uncongested non-freeway roadways.” (This comes just a day after PBOT told us they had to increase auto capacity in the Williams Ave Safety Project because they are worried about congestion.)…

Interestingly, the report found that Portland has 68% of the region’s serious bicycle collisions, as well as the highest rate of serious bicycle collisions per capita and per vehicle mile traveled. (52% of those collisions happened on arterials.)

When it comes to the cause of serious bicycle crashes, failure to yield the right of way is the most common…

Check out this map that shows the location of all serious injury and fatal bike collisions between 2007 and 2009;

The report also laid out a number of implementation strategies to improve safety. Here area few of them that caught my eye:

  • A regional arterial safety program to focus on corridors with large numbers of serious crashes, pedestrian crashes, and bicycle crashes.
  • Safety strategies that match solutions to the crash pattern and street and neighborhood context, rather than an approach of simply bringing roadways up to adopted standards
  • Policies that reduce the need to drive, and therefore reduce vehicle-miles travelled
  • A focus on safe cycling facilities and routes, particularly in areas where serious crashes are occurring
  • More detailed research on the relationship between land use patterns and safety

That first bullet point is essentially what PBOT is already doing with their High Crash Corridor Program. Kudos to them for identifying this problem years ago and acting on it. Hopefully this report adds urgency to their effort and builds the coalition working on it.

I can’t help but think this report is a very big deal. It’s one thing for advocates, the community and a Mayor to talk about this stuff; but it’s another thing entirely for our metropolitan planning organization to publish an official report with such revealing data and strong recommendations. This report should be used by everyone from citizen activists fighting for neighborhood projects to politicians looking for cover to do the right thing.

— Learn more at and download the full report here (25mb PDF)

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Chris I June 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    There it is, in black and white. Until congestion costs the region more than injuries, everyone using congestion as a reason to fight a project needs to admit that they don’t care about the economic impact of injuries for a given stretch of road, knowing that they cost more than the congestion they are so alarmed about.

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  • Carl June 20, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Excellent list of recommendations, Jonathan.

    I’d add one more: occasional sting operations that ticket drivers who fail to yield ROW at high-conflict intersections. There are still a lot of drivers (and some cyclists) who don’t get how crucial ROW is to safety. 48% of all collisions is a pretty clear indication that this deserves special attention.

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  • 9watts June 20, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Thanks, Jonathan!

    And just to toss out one of many reasons the speeds on our arterials are slightly higher than they used to be is that PGE & other utilities paid to have the lights retimed on Portland’s arterials to get car traffic flowing faster, ostensibly to ‘save gas’ and obtain carbon offset credits for a Boardman power plant. Ha.

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    • Chris I June 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm

      Do you have a reference on that? I’m curious.

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      • 9watts June 20, 2012 at 2:38 pm

        I do. Oregonian March 11, 2007

        Global warming fight brings local victories
        Oregonians benefit as the state leads in offsetting greenhouse gases
        Sunday, March 11, 2007
        The Oregonian

        Next time you drive down Southeast Division, Southeast McLoughlin, North Greeley or any of more than 15 other busy roads in and around Portland, your car will burn less gasoline and pump out less greenhouse gas.

        That’s because a company that built a power plant in Eastern Oregon paid $533,000 to synchronize the traffic signals. Now cars spend less time sitting, engines idling, at red lights.

        It’s one way efforts to control global warming are already changing your life, without you noticing. As governments clamp down on greenhouse gases, more change is on the way.

        The signal re-timing is called an offset: Reducing carbon dioxide from cars in Portland helps offset the same gas emitted by Avista Utilities’ natural gas-fired power plant near Boardman.

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        • Oliver June 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm

          Traffic signals should be timed to maintain traffic flow. But speed limit compliance ought to be more more aggressively enforced, likewise if 35 or 40 mph is unsafe then it ought to be adjusted downward. I can’t remember right now, either Greeley or Denver had it’s speed reduced last year.

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          • Alex Reed June 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm

            If arterials are timed to “maintain traffic flow” that means longer waits to cross arterials on side streets. Side streets are disproportionately used by bicycles and pedestrians, who may be convinced to drive instead if biking or walking becomes less convenient. So the environmental benefits of “maintaining traffic flow” are murky.

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            • Alicia Crain June 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm

              Keep in mind it’s an acceptable traffic engineering practice to set posted speeds based on observed speeds, rather than what is safe or logical. This is often given as a reason for not lowering speeds. Getting hit by a car at 40mph gives one about a 90% chance of being killed or and 100% chance of being seriously maimed. Seems to me any street in an urban area that is not limited access should have a posted speed no higher than 30mph. Then again, I prefer using safety and logic to make my decisions rather than what people around me are doing.

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  • Kiel Johnson
    Kiel Johnson June 20, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    I would like to see a follow up study called “How Stories About Potholes Distort The Public Debate About Transportation”

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    • Matt M June 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm

      Exactly. What cyclist doesn’t want potholes filled?

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      • 9watts June 21, 2012 at 8:31 am

        this one.

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  • Rol June 20, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Now that saving lives is so economical, maybe it’ll be deemed worthwhile!

    Better hurry though guys, only 23 years left until that 2025 deadline!

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    • Rol June 20, 2012 at 2:17 pm

      2035 I mean. I haz a math.

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  • meh June 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Congestion is only looked at from lost productivity, not from environmental impact.

    What is the cost to the environment to miles of cars idling on the freeway 0or any street for that matter) going nowhere?

    There is a benefit to having traffic move rather than sit.

    And can we get away from using “carnage”. This isn’t carnage. It reports on the cost of all collisions whether involving casualties or not.

    Carnage is:
    1. Massive slaughter, as in war; a massacre.
    2. Corpses, especially of those killed in battle.

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    • Spiffy June 21, 2012 at 8:08 am

      but it IS a war… cars are waging it on the streets right now…

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    • Chris I June 21, 2012 at 9:27 am

      The problem with congestion in cities is that it is always present, regardless of the capacity you build. People will alter their habits, or developers will construct more car-dependent, exurban housing and the freeways will be right back where they were before, but now with more lanes. What is more environmentally friendly? The 10-lane freeways in Cincinnati that are usually freeflowing (occasionally clogged), or the congested 3-lane freeways in Portland?

      Studies have shown that a fully-occupied freeway with traffic at the speed limit pollutes just as much as one that is gridlocked.

      More lanes = more pollution

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      • 9watts June 21, 2012 at 9:34 am

        Excellent link and argument. Thanks, Chris I.
        There is just no way to win by appeasing our erstwhile voracious appetite for ever more VMT. It is a lose-lose proposition. Car travel, though necessitated to some extent by past ill-considered land use patterns and more than a century of cheap oil, has always carried within it the seeds of its own undoing (see Ivan Illich: Energy & Equity 1974).

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  • daisy June 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    One note about the contributing factors to serious and fatal bicycle crashes: according to the report, alcohol and drugs can be driver or cyclist, but failure to yield and excessive speed are driver-only.

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  • 9watts June 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    “making road safety improvements, ‘could help the economy more than fighting congestion.'”

    Just think of the dividend from phasing out our over-dependance on cars. We could/will have both. Win-win.

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  • Kevin Wagoner June 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Do you think it is reasonable to expect ODOT and PBOT to reduce the speed limit on Barber around the pinch point areas on the bridges near the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway turnoff?

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    • 9watts June 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm

      I’m not sure if this is a rhetorical question. Assuming it isn’t, sure.

      I’ve long been fond of Ivan Illich’s universal 15mph speed limit.

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  • dwainedibbly June 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    I would like to see the data normalized for vehicle miles travelled. I think it might help to make the point that multi-lane arterials are more dangerous by taking away the argument that “Of course 6+ lane roads have more crashes, they carry more vehicles.”

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    • oskarbaanks June 20, 2012 at 6:03 pm

      There are fewer visual distraction on a freeway, as opposed to say a 5-6 lane blvd. The one statistic in the chart I found interesting was the category of “Inattention”. Not only does it seem odd to me that an arresting officer could access this post collision, how is the amount of “inattention” weighed ? Is there someone out there with a thought or answer on this?

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    • Anthony Butzek (Metro) June 21, 2012 at 12:18 pm

      This is in the report. Please see Figure 3-7 on page 30. Serious crash rates increase per VMT with increasing number of lanes. Incidentally, this is also documented in AASHTO’s Highway Safety Manual.

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  • Gregg Knowles June 20, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Nice rewrite of the Metro press release (verbatim in some parts) there, JM. You getting a paycheck from Metro now?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) June 20, 2012 at 8:23 pm

      I wish I was getting a paycheck from Metro. That’d be great! And yes, I did use some of their press release. They reported on the report in a direct way so I basically repeated what they said. I don’t see a problem with that at all… It saved me some time. Thanks for the comment.

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      • Gregg Knowles June 21, 2012 at 8:21 am

        We all accept that you’re not the best writer and most of your posts are just reheated press releases, but come on. Plagiarism/”convenience.” Tomayto/Tamato. Maybe you should be paying Metro’s Dylan Rivera.

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        • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) June 21, 2012 at 8:47 am

          That’s pretty funny Gregg. If you’d like to offer me constructive criticism, I’m happy to hear it… But come on, “reheated press releases”? Give me a break.

          Thanks for sharing your opinion. I don’t agree with it at all. Nor do I understand why you have a mean-spirited tone toward me. Have we ever met?

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          • davemess June 21, 2012 at 12:56 pm

            Jonathan, it’s Portland: Passive aggressiveness runs deep.

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  • jrd June 20, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    give me convenience or give me death

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  • Mark June 20, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    I like the graph that shows the relation between congestion and non-freeway serious crashes. Easing congestion makes the roads more dangerous. Adding lanes = safety fail. Williams anyone?

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  • Kristi Finney-Dunn June 20, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Jonathan. I’m looking forward to reading the whole report. Very interesting and eye-opening so far. And the results already make me mad, so that’s good, too.

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  • nuovorecord June 20, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Given that safety is a major reason for building the CRC, this report would seem to poke a major hole in that argument, no?

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    • Evan Manvel June 21, 2012 at 9:06 am

      The CRC’s spin-cycle on safety has been repeatedly shot down. Here are a few of the basic arguments (including safety) and why they don’t hold water:

      As ODOT Transportation Safety Administrator Troy Costales notes, “Interstates are — by far — the safest roads in the state.”

      But yes, this report highlights just another hole in the logic.

      My view: the case for the costly, risky CRC highway mega-project isn’t facts. It’s power politics and campaign contributions. That’s why we’re trying to step the tide with Bike Walk Vote PAC, among other efforts.

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  • Todd Boulanger June 21, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Now there should be fewer logical reasons for Portland to not convert any 4 lane arterials into the safer 3 lane with bike lane layout – it’s safer for drivers to have a center turn lane etc. this would address a lot of the east west arterials.

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    • Chris I June 21, 2012 at 9:37 am

      This is a very good point. There are a few areas where 4 lanes would be needed at intersections, but the vast majority of the street lengths do not need 4 lanes. I can think of a few near me: NE Halsey, NE Glisan. The only major issue is that the outer lanes are used for parking during non-rush hours, so there could be neighbor complaints.

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  • Champs June 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    To be a little facetious, doesn’t this also make an argument for more freeways? In the Moses highway plan of the 50s, Powell would be subsumed by the infamous Mount Hood Freeway, as would the other named arterials (excluding 82nd somehow).

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    • Chris I June 21, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      It does. Although, it would be interesting to compare data across cultures. How do our fatality rates per capita compare to Amsterdam, for example, where there are no urban freeways? Do freeways help create a culture that leads drivers to speed and drive with less attention, treating arterials like they are freeways, which leads to the higher accident rate?

      Or is it that our arterials are unsafe, by design? Perhaps roads with crosswalks and unrestricted cross traffic should not be allowed with posted speed limits above 30mph?

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      • El Biciclero June 21, 2012 at 2:19 pm

        “Do freeways help create a culture that leads drivers to speed and drive with less attention, treating arterials like they are freeways, which leads to the higher accident rate?’

        Preee-cisely. Most drivers seem to drive (or want to drive) the same way everywhere; freeways are just most conducive to the fast, mindless style of driving. When the same high-speed, low-attention style is used on arterials–that if empty would support it–the results are sub-optimal safety-wise. It almost seems that there is a resonance between creating a freeway mentality and designing arterials that could (if empty) function as freeways, that multiplies the danger coefficient on such arterials. Dampening either factor might up the safety quotient: either convince drivers to take more of a “neighborhood mentality” when driving, or design roadways that won’t support freeway behavior regardless of how empty they are.

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  • Wells June 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Awhile back, ODOT ex-director Grace Crunican promoted the notion that median islands on 5-lane arterial boulevards were unsafe and should be removed. This sort of planning philosophy is akin to adjusted stoplight timing to achieve a constant traffic flow, ie, NON-motorized modes of travel shall NOT be factored into street design. Grace Crunican moved on to Seattle where traffic, already horrible, will worsen if her designs are constructed. The plan is to redirect high volume traffic and trucking from suitably commercial corridors into residential neighborhoods and districts, the equivalent of closing Front Avenue and redirecting traffic on Couch to 10th/11th and back on Clay/Market. Her design for the new Alaskan Way sans viaduct will be another traffic nightmare there and adjacent Western and 1st Aves. She’s loved in Seattle because she pretends to be environmentalist though the waterfront park design is absurd. Crunican was politely informed her services were no longer wanted (ie fired) from ODOT and Seattle DOT but has finagled the position of BART director in San Francisco among unsuspecting progressives who’ve only recently come to realize how destructive their 200mph high speed train would be to Peninsula communities.

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  • paul June 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    I expect different people will read the report in different ways.

    The “sky is not falling” person will point out that, overall, the roads have become substantially safer over the past 10 years, by almost any measure, and the our region does very well in comparison to other regions.

    The CRC advocate might argue that the CRC will reduce congestion on the freeway and thus lighten the load on arterials that are used to avoid the freeway. Hence, more and less congested freeways = safer traffic.

    Some read the relationship between greater lanes and higher fatalities as a reason to convert 4 lane streets into 2 lane + center turn lane. But the characteristics that are associated with crashes may be mainly linked to arterial status, not the number of lanes; e.g. the number of lanes could be a spurious variable (most arterials already 4 or more lanes).

    Same point with congestion–the reason that congestion is negatively related (only the top category, btw) to safety is simple, cars are driving faster in suburban and rural areas when the road is uncongested. It’s not clear this has any relevance to Williams.

    Face is that most of the crashes are occurring in Clackamas and Washington Counties, on roads being used by commuters who are rushing to get home and are driving too fast and following too close.

    Most fatalities are pedestrians attempting to cross arterials, which means we need to work on pedestrian crossings, build lighting and bridges to get pedestrians past the arterials. Speed matters, but it seems to me what really matters is figuring out how to have peds and cars coexist safely, and speed is only part of the equation.

    If you read the report, a few other things jump out, and few are related to road infrastructure, bikes vs. cars, etc

    1) ALCOHOL. It’s a factor in over half of crashes. The best way to make our roads safer is to reduce drunk driving.

    2) AGGRESSION. The second most common factor and the overwhelming favor in rear-ends.

    3) TIMING. The most dangerous times are rush hour most days and, no surprise, 2 am on Saturday when the bars let out.

    Things are seldom simple when it comes to human behavior.

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  • El Biciclero June 25, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    We just need to create several of these… on some key freeways and arterials.

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  • emily.bronte October 3, 2013 at 8:58 am

    best part of this post is most of the crashes are occurring in Clackamas and Washington Counties, on roads being used by commuters who are rushing to get home and are driving too fast

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