On Wednesday, Portland nonprofit Oregon Walks released their long-awaited Fatal Pedestrian Crash Report. Although it was the report’s top-line statistics about race, age, disability, and speed that rightfully dominated the news, among the report’s deeper insights is what it reveals about the politics of information gathering.
At the report’s heart are the forty-eight detailed reviews of pedestrian deaths which occurred between 2017 and 2019. Informing those reviews were thousands of pages of police reports which Oregon Walks has chosen not to publish out of respect for privacy. Collecting the voluminous data and analyzing the crashes was an all-volunteer effort led by Portland attorney Scott Kocher (a financial contributor to BikePortland). Their goal was to provide “a clearer picture of ‘what happened’ in particular crashes, identify the commonalities, trends and system failures that lead to fatal pedestrian crashes in Portland.” It was costly work both in money and time (the Portland Police Bureau is notoriously bad at releasing crash reports) and is not something most Portlanders have the expertise or means to do.
What becomes obvious reviewing the data is that the official crash reports are silent on the roadway deficiencies which may have contributed to the crash. Oregon Walks notes that “Police are generally focused on law enforcement, not engineering. Police reports generally provide little evaluation of infrastructure-related crash factors.”
A comparison of PPB and Oregon Walks reports
One typical example was a PPB crash report that was 42 pages long and included: a case summary, a narrative description of the scene, roadway evidence and distance measurements, interviews with multiple witnesses and the driver, cell phone evidence, video evidence, geometric calculations, driver blood sample, photographs and more. It was detailed, thorough and professional — all the evidence a District Attorney would need to take a case to trial, or to decide not to.
In contrast, at only three pages, the Oregon Walks review was pretty short. The very first sentence stated that the crash occurred in a “mid-block marked crosswalk,” a meaningful piece of information to someone wanting to understand “what happened,” or to make sure it doesn’t happen again. (In comparison, a search for “mid-block” or even “mid” in the PPB report found several occurrences of “LAST, FIRST, MIDDLE” but no hint of a mid-block crosswalk. Page 33, however, had a form with a tiny check mark next to the word “non-intersection.”)
The Oregon Walks review continued with recommendations for how to make the crosswalk more visible, a brief comment that the posted speed was incorrect per Portland’s speed Ordinance 188774, and noted possibly inadequate lighting.
In other words, it is an excellent roadmap for safety advocates and informative for the community in general, but it would probably be useless to a prosecutor.
Why it matters
“The testimony of people killed is unavailable in every crash. This means our information is fundamentally incomplete.” – Oregon Walks
It’s not that one report is better than the other, but they serve different purposes. The Portland Police focused on human actions and possible culpability, Oregon Walks looked at infrastructure inadequacies and possible improvements. Because the police report is usually the only official communication to the public about the crash, subsequent media reports often adopt the PPB culpability framing and focus on things like the color of the victims clothes, whether the driver cooperated with officers, if a person was wearing a helmet, and other behaviors. Infrastructure issues most often go unmentioned, and crash reporting does not usually attempt to understand the victim’s point of view.
In a comment both wry and grim, Oregon Walks noted that “the testimony of people killed is unavailable in every crash. This means our information is fundamentally incomplete.”
These observations have led the Oregon Walks report to make the following policy recommendations about data gathering and framing:
(Re)Establish a Fatal Pedestrian Crash Rapid Response Task Force Apparently a 2016 Vision Zero Action Plan called for a multi-agency rapid response team to evaluate fatal crash sites for safety enhancements,
PBOT participated in response to one crash, and then quietly abandoned this directive. Even if training or hiring is required, this team should exist, and should review the crash location at the time of the crash and collect data to improve PBOT’s safe systems approach.
Release Vision Zero fatal pedestrian crash media briefs
Shortly after each fatality crash, PBOT should release a Vision Zero crash media brief using media best practices for language and preliminary data from the rapid response task force location assessment to present a pedestrian focused, thematic-framed perspective of the crash.
Analyze Crashes and Provide Information to Communities
PBOT should develop templates and protocols to perform and publish reviews of every fatal and serious crash in Portland. These should be posted on PBOT’s Vision Zero Crash Map, along with the public record copy of the police report for each crash. Driver and victim last names and addresses may be redacted, consistent with PBOT’s currently-adopted “first name last initial” compromise between humanizing crashes and respecting families’ privacy.
The Focus Issues section of the report goes even further and recommends that PBOT should take over primary crash response:
In the interest of reducing police-public interactions and fostering a safe systems approach, PBOT should take over primary crash response. In depth crash reviews with a focus on infrastructure and engineering solutions as well as systems oriented press briefs should be made available to the public.
With its thousands of pages of raw police reports, and the hundreds of hours expert volunteers spent analyzing the data and writing alternate reviews, what the Oregon Walks report has shown is that information matters — who gathers it, who controls it, who frames it and how easily and well it flows to the public. Unless the policies around collecting and reporting crash information change, we won’t end the devastating human toll this report so powerfully illuminates.
UPDATE: 3/19/21, 8:27AM: Scott Kocher posted this comment about the ramifications of the “non-intersection” check on one of crash report forms:
It’s very likely that because the officer checked the “non-intersection” box that mid-block crosswalk crash is lumped in with other “non-intersection” crashes in official datasets, which is agencies’ shorthand for “ped’s fault.” The “non-intersection” shorthand also ignores the fact, in numerous crashes, that there was no marked or safer crossing at any intersection nearby. The “who was at fault” game not only misses the real point (which is that the conditions are a setup for any number of predictably tragic scenarios), its cursory conclusions are often wrong.
— Lisa Caballero, email@example.com
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Lisa Caballero has lived in SW Portland for over 20 years. She is on the Transportation Committee of her neighborhood association, the Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.