Just after 11:00 pm on November 15th, 23-year-old Calum Breitenberg got into his Volvo sedan and drove northwest on Willamette Boulevard toward St. Johns. He had been drinking. A lot.
As he approached North Burr Avenue, witnesses say Breitenberg was in the wrong lane going an estimated 80 mph in the 30 mph zone. As the road curved just after Burr Ave., Breitenberg lost control, swerved into a parked car, then careened up onto the sidewalk before finally coming to a stop near a utility pole at the intersection of Willamette and Buchanan — nearly 300 feet from where he left the roadway.
According to court documents filed by Multnomah County, Breitenberg was going so fast that his car cut down a tree and completely dislodged a 300-pound landscaping boulder.
Jason Barns, 32, was standing somewhere near the sidewalk on that same block. Police say he was looking through for bottles and cans in recycling containers when Breitenberg struck him. Barns died from his injuries at a nearby hospital shortly thereafter.
Breitenberg told a responding officer he’d been drinking with friends and “got smashed.” “I’m too drunk to be driving,” he admitted at the scene.
Breitenberg now faces three charges: Manslaughter in the Second Degree (a Class B felony), Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants, and Reckless Driving (both Class A misdemeanors).
I rode by the scene last week. You could easily see the marks on the sidewalk from Breitenberg’s tires — right behind one of those popular reds signs that read, “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here”.
A stuffed teddy bear wearing a hi-viz safety vest is now draped over the sign. There are flowers too. The bear is holding another sign that’s been written on by Barns’ family and friends.
One of them named Justin wrote: “There are no words as can express the sadness and pain in my heart since I learned you were gone. I will always remember you as a fucking awesome person and a loyal friend and you’ll always be alive in my memory.”
Further north at the corner of Buchanan a sign posted on the utility pole reads, “Jason Barns Memorial” and there are candles, flowers, and a painted rock with the date inscribed on it.
Willamette Blvd in this section is a neighborhood collector street that has gotten much busier over the years as more people moved to the St. Johns area for more affordable housing (but still drive to their jobs in other parts of town) and as infill development has taken root. Because there are so few through streets in this part of Portland (the busy state arterial of North Lombard being the other) Willamette Blvd has become a much more important street.
I’m on Willamette all the time. My daughter goes to school at Roosevelt High, so I drive on it several times a month. And since it’s the gateway to most of my training rides (Forest Park, Kelley Point, West Hills, and beyond), I ride on it several times a week.
The street has changed a lot over the years. It’s much busier with everything: runners, walkers, bikers, and drivers. Updates are desperately needed to keep everyone as safe as possible.
Would a different street design have impacted Breitenberg’s behavior? Would a physically protected curbside lane with concrete curbs or bollards have muted the impact of his recklessness? Given his state of mind, it’s not likely.
Breitenberg entered a not guilty plea this morning and his next court date is January 7th.
Jason Barns was the 32nd person to die in a Portland traffic crash this year and the fifth person in the past month to die while on foot. His family will host a memorial service on December 29th at 1 pm at the Unity of Beaverton Church in Beaverton. Everyone is welcome.
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