BikePortland

The dangerous highway that claimed the life of Gene Courtney


(Photos of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd/Hwy 99E by Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

(This story includes news and opinion.)

Three people have died while using a 1.4-mile stretch of Martin Luther King Jr Blvd in northeast Portland in the past three years — and two of the preventable tragedies happened in the past month.

Portland Bike Map shows blue line as a “Bike Lane”. Red stars are fatality locations.

Just after sunset on Friday, 64-year-old Gene Courtney was bicycling northbound in a marked bike lane. According to a statement from the Portland Police Bureau, a driver noticed Courtney was “weaving in their own bike lane”. The driver claims that Courtney then “abruptly maneuvered” left before being hit. “The unanticipated lane intrusion appears to be the initiating factor for this crash,” the PPB statement reads. Courtney died on the scene.

Police and transportation agencies often tell the convenient lie that human behavior is to blame for the vast majority of collisions. But a closer look at this urban highway and how people behave on it tells a different story.

I went out to the site for a closer look on Sunday. I wanted to understand why this might have happened and maybe learn more about Courtney. I talked to a few people who live nearby, but none of them had heard of him (or they weren’t willing to share). While a portrait of Courtney has yet to emerge, the dangers of the roadway environment where he died became clear right away.

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Diagram by Scott Kocher/Oregon Walks of 2017 crash. Friday’s fatal was nearly identical.

Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd is Highway 99E, wholly owned and operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation. In this section between N Vancouver Avenue and the Marine Drive/I-5 interchange, there are three lanes in each direction (two general vehicle lanes, one bike-only lane) separated by a concrete median that rises a few inches above the ground. Between Columbia and I-5 there are no signals or crossings of any kind for two miles, offering drivers a straightaway with a generous speed limit of 55 mph. It also has no streetlights.

It’s easy to see why people die on this road.

PPB Major Crash Team experts calculated that if Fivecoats would have been going the speed limit and started braking 0.13 seconds sooner, he would not have hit Holtrop.

On May 12th, 2017, a 27-year-old man named Justen Fivecoats was driving to his house in St. Johns. Just before 5:00 pm he was driving northbound on Martin Luther King Jr Blvd at over 70 mph when he noticed brake lights on the car in front of him. According to the police report (made available via a forthcoming report from attorney/advocate Scott Kocher and nonprofit Oregon Walks), Fivecoats swerved to the middle lane to pass the other driver. Fivecoats then realized why the other driver slowed down. He too slammed his brake pedal when he saw 48-year-old Toby Holtrop crossing the road in front of him. The front tires of Fivecoats’ Dodge Durango skidded for 220 feet — the length of over two basketball courts — before it slammed into Holtrop’s body at 55 mph, causing multiple blunt force injuries that killed him shortly after.

PPB Major Crash Team experts calculated that if Fivecoats — who was driving 15 mph over the speed limit, had been up for 16 hours, and had “significant amounts” of THC in his body — would have been going the speed limit and started braking 0.13 seconds sooner, he would not have hit Holtrop.

In the police report for this crash, the PPB officer wrote that it was Holtrop who “had created a dangerous situation.” “Mr. Holtrop chose to cross the highway with cars approaching in close proximity in both directions,” the report reads, “when a reasonable person [driver] would expect a pedestrian to wait for the roadway to be clear… before crossing.” In the end, Fivecoats was issued a citation for speeding and paid a $165 fine. (The slap on the wrist had no impact on Fivecoats. Three months later he received another citation and was ordered to pay a $440 fine for driving 71 mph in a 40 mph zone on Marine Drive.)

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Looking northbound near location where 18-year-old Obduwier “Duvi” Romero-Moreno died last month.

Holtrop was crossing at nearly the exact location where Courtney attempted to cross this past Friday. Why? Because it’s a spot where there’s a break in the median (for emergency vehicle access?) where Union Court merges onto the southbound lanes. The presence of Union Ct and the median break encourage people to cross, so too does the fact that there are no other places to do so. Union Ct is a convenient mid-point between two miles with no other access to these destinations.

When you combine a lack of crossings with a dark, straight, wide, high-speed roadway where people often go too fast, you have the recipe for disaster. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd/99E isn’t a freeway, but it feels like one and acts like one. Like other ODOT highways and “high crash corridors” Portland, it’s a serial killer whose identity everyone knows but is allowed to walk freely and have a normal life as it preps for its next victim.

Just after 2:00 am on November 19th of this year, 18-year-old Obduwier “Duvi” Romero-Moreno was driving northbound on Martin Luther King Jr Blvd just a half-mile south of where Holtrop and Courtney were killed. Romero-Moreno was by himself and apparently lost control of his car prior to leaving the roadway and hitting a nearby tree. He died later at the hospital. The investigation into Romero-Moreno’s crash in ongoing.

Too many people look the other way at these three tragedies because it’s convenient and easy to just blame the dead and move on. We shouldn’t do that. Despite what police and transportation agencies think, Highway 99E isn’t just for driving. It’s an official “Bike Route” listed on the City of Portland’s bike map and the Columbia Slough path leads directly to the same shoulder bike lane where Holtrop and Courtney took their last steps.

We can’t create these conditions, encourage people to use an inherently dangerous road, and then say their behavior was “unreasonable”. A pillar of the City of Portland’s Vision Zero strategy is to design “safe systems” which means, “designing streets to protect people even when they make mistakes.” What protection do we provide people on this section of Martin Luther King Jr Blvd? If the answer is none, then we are complicit in this death. And the next one, and the next one, and…

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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