Portland’s terrible toll of traffic deaths last year is making a lot of headlines. Unfortunately the news is much worse than many people realize.
Our comprehensive Fatality Tracker lists 73 people for 2021, the 7th highest total since records were kept in 1925.
What Mayor Ted Wheeler referred to as “devastating statistics” don’t paint the full picture of traffic violence in Portland because the official number making the rounds did not include all the deaths caused by motor vehicles. The official tally from the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s report of 63 dead is 10 people short.
Our comprehensive Fatality Tracker lists 73 people for 2021. That’s nearly 1.5 deaths per week for the entire year. By our measure, that would make it the highest total in 34 years and the 7th highest since records were kept in 1925 (according to a list given to me by a source in the Portland Police Bureau).
This year as I updated our list and compared it to PBOT’s report, I was struck at how leaving out these peoples’ deaths is part of a larger problem about how we see (or don’t see) the full scope of what’s really going on. To fully address this crisis, we must embrace the entirety of the problem and I’m afraid the city’s way of accounting doesn’t do that.
This problem is about traffic violence. It’s about how our public and private lives are so overrun with abusive drivers and unsafe, hostile, car-centric spaces that people are under constant threat of violence by their mere existence.
To be clear, PBOT isn’t trying to hide anything. They point out in their report (and it’s not the first time) that their numbers don’t include certain types of fatalities. Portland uses national reporting criteria that doesn’t consider a death to be traffic-related if the person dies more than 30 days after the crash, by suicide or homicide, in a crash that doesn’t involve a motor vehicle (automobile), from “prior medical event” or things like heart attacks, or if it happened in a parking lot. (Note: PBOT says they take all deaths into account when determining project and budg priorities.)
In 2021 we had more of these type of deaths than ever and they should be just as much part of the public, media and political narrative around this issue any other type of tragedy. Why? Because they are very likely a result of the same violent spaces and behaviors that cause the more traditional types of traffic fatalities.
Here are the 10 people not included in PBOT’s 2021 tally, and the reason for their exclusion:
— 73-year-old Jesse Strother crashed his car on SE Powell and 24th after an apparent “medical event”.
— 58-year-old Elizabeth Hawes is believed to have died by suicide after jumping from the NE Halsey overpass onto I-205.
— 64-year-old Mark Auclair was found dead in his vehicle after it crashed into a building on NW Nicolai near NW 25th. “It did not appear there was any other cause of death other than the driver’s medical history,” the official statement read.
— 77-year-old Jean Gerich died when a man intentionally drove his car into her in southeast Portland on January 25th. The man, Paul Rivas, injured nine other people on his rampage and has been charged with multiple counts of murder.
— 57-year-old Errol Rees was the victim of an intentional hit-and-run in Cathedral Park in St. Johns. His killer was charged with attempted murder.
— An unnamed person died after being struck by a MAX light rail operator on N Interstate near Larrabee. (This fatality is the only one we have on our tracker that was not mentioned in PBOT’s report.)
— 49-year-old John Rutherford was killed after being struck by a MAX light rail operator on I-84 near 68th.
— An unnamed person died after being struck by a car driver in the private parking lot of Toyota USA in northeast Portland.
— 20-year-old Neri Ramirez-Mendoza died in a parking lot off of NE 122nd in the Parkrose neighborhood after being struck and left for dead by a car driver.
— 30-year-old Silas High Hawk crashed his car into a power pole in the Cully neighborhood after being shot by someone.
What all these tragic deaths have in common is a built environment dominated by massive steel machines being driven through public spaces often recklessly and even intentionally.
And while PBOT says, “there is no simple or singular solution,” I think they might just be blind to the singular problem: the automobile. The thread running through all but two of these 73 deaths are cars and trucks. Cars and trucks that are so omnipresent in our lives and right-of-way they provide a way to commit suicide, they provide a tool for other types of criminal violence, they can have lethal force even in parking lots, and they can exacerbate a medical problem that someone might very well survive if they weren’t driving one.
Portland is reeling from multiple crises right now. I don’t take any pleasure in writing sad news. But we must be real and honest about the scope and causes of our abusive driving culture, its many enablers, and the traffic violence problem staring us in the face if we want to stand any chance of making it better.
I can just see it now, the new Destination Portland summer travel promo: “Portland, Walk on the Wild Side…”
All seriousness…its sad that the ‘act of Walking’ has become almost the ‘new suicide’ method in public spaces…
“the singular problem: the automobile”
the explosion in homeless encampments over the past 2 years literally living alongside busy roadways would maybe seem like an issue…given that 70% of pedestrian fatalities are among the homeless.
Those people should be housed immediately. At the same time, those busy roadways are not an intractable fact of nature, and we should remove them or otherwise make them safe & pleasant to live near.
Because of the high percentage of homeless among the pedestrian fatalities, Mayor Wheeler has just announced a ban on camping along major roadways. Terrific! Guess where these people are going to move their camps – along the Springwater Corridor and other multi-use paths. It’s already scary to ride past scattered encampments.
Can Portland hold onto Bronze status as a bicycle friendly city?
Bronze? I think we would be lucky to get Tin status.
Yeah just saw this in the Oregonian regarding his emergency order that is supposed to come out on Friday. No mention of banning camping on our bike trails.
By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh | The Oregonian/OregonLive
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is preparing to issue a state of emergency order as early as Friday that aims to allow the city to more easily remove homeless encampments from roadsides and other places deemed physically dangerous to campers, according to three sources who have been briefed on the plan.
The decision comes amid an alarming rise in homeless pedestrians fatally struck by cars along major roadways, a development that was noted in the city’s official summary of traffic fatalities issued Wednesday. Across Portland, areas abutting the shoulders of freeways and major arterials are often visibly lined with tents and makeshift dwellings.
The mayor’s planned order could mark an aggressive pivot on how the city responds to the proliferation of unsanctioned encampments since the onset of the pandemic.
Should the emergency order succeed, it would allow Wheeler to effectively ban encampments across numerous corridors of Portland, including state-owned property along highways that the city’s homeless removal program currently maintains.
Limiting the locations of homeless encampments has been a longstanding goal of the mayor and is supported by most business interests and some residents. But it is unclear where people without homes would go. The city’s long-promised half dozen safe rest villages are months behind schedule. And available shelter beds are limited.
The city’s current approach to dismantling encampments has prompted criticism from advocates for vulnerable Portlanders, who say frequently upending them harms their mental health and makes it harder to pursue housing opportunities, among other problems.
It also has generated mounting frustrations among Portlanders, a phenomenon put in stark relief by a December poll by the city’s most influential business association that was publicly released earlier this week.
The city’s actions to date have primarily resulted in Portlanders without homes shifting their tents, RVs and other DIY outdoor dwellings from one place in the city to another, sometimes returning to the spots they were forced to vacate within days. About five to 15 encampment residents leave the streets for shelter in an average week, city spokeswoman Heather Hafer has said.
Wheeler’s planned emergency order would prevent campers from returning to dangerous sites from which they are swept without first requiring additional public notices or other due process steps, say those with direct knowledge of his plans.
The vast majority of Portland residents who live outdoors report that they have been swept from one or more camp sites, and 95% of those still living outside said no one offered them help to find temporary shelter ahead of those evictions, The Oregonian/OregonLive found.
The mayor’s plan to speed removal of encampments that put resident in danger of traffic deaths is all but certain to face intense pushback from homeless advocates as well as progressive activists and civil rights organizations, who have fought the city’s removal of encampments.
Under Portland’s city charter, an emergency declaration grants expansive powers to a mayor and allows them to bend or suspend city policy and largely sidestep opposition by other members of the City Council.
While such declarations sunset after two weeks, they can be renewed indefinitely. Wheeler has previously declared emergencies to ban the sale of fireworks during wildfire season, shut down businesses and suspend city operations during the coronavirus pandemic and impose a curfew during the early days of 2020′s racial justice protests.
The current emergency order will seek to circumvent the city’s criteria for assessing and removing encampments, two people with direct knowledge of the order told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The current criteria do not weigh whether a site poses an “inherent danger” for people coming to and from the area. Nor do the criteria prohibit campers from immediately returning to an area that’s recently been swept.
The emergency order would emphasize both, the sources said. This is a developing story and will be updated.
And yet, the Mayor still can’t get a single person off the street and into temporary housing.
Yep, just saw a good tweet in response to this new emergency order from Mayor Wheeler:
Cue circular argument: We can’t move people from danger because we lack enough emergency shelters. And we lack shelter because “advocates” and politicians prefer their permanent solution of tomorrow. Meanwhile, people die. No wonder everyone is fed up.
I’m truly sorry I ever voted for Wheeler or even many of the prior do nothing truly substantial for the homeless mayors that we’ve had the misfortune of having run Portland.
I am trying to be a glass half full person, but this move will likely make folks move to areas like the MUPs or parks. I feel that this will have a direct effect on the safety of roadways, and likely not in the way that Wheeler is thinking. This action by his office is largely performative.
Making car free public spaces defacto living spaces affects the city by taking pedestrian users and cyclists off of those trails and putting them on roads. It also continues to show automobile drivers that cars are king in this city. I’m not arguing the folks should not have a safe place to live. I’m arguing that Wheeler is making more excuses. Will be interested to see how this all shakes out, Hardesty has already signaled via email messages that “the 205 MUP is ODOTs responsibility”.
Concentrating the unhoused off of high crash corridors will also help with the ‘political problem’ of moving more of this problem into areas drivers will not see…so ‘out of sight = out of mind’…
Did anyone see Mayor Wheeler’s tweet yesterday on this topic?
He said “These statistics are devastating. Portlanders deserve safer streets, roads, and freeways.” with a link to the following headlined article:
70% of pedestrians killed in Portland traffic incidents last year were homeless, report finds
Have to laugh. This is like him saying “Portlanders deserve not to die in home fires due to faultily installed electricity” and the city of Portland has decided to no longer require or enforce building codes.
Why is the utter lack of enforcement and the elimination of traffic officers not part of this conversation?
I’m in this conversation a lot and I hear about enforcement and policing quite a bit actually.
Jonathan: What conversations are you referring to? There are plenty of us, myself included, who complain regularly about the lack of enforcement. We can’t do anything about it and my email complaints to commissioners have gone unanswered. Are you actually hearing from anyone in a position to do anything about enforcement saying that the city is actively seeking to increase enforcement?
As the saying goes “talk is cheap.”
We’ve tried the no-enforcement experiment and the fatalities are skyrocketing. We’re on track to exceed 100 in 2022. I’m disgusted.
I think everyone is frustrated about the enforcement issue. But my point is that it’s a lot more complicated than saying, “We need more!”
No solution that involves PPB is as simple as it might seem. In case folks forget, there is widespread concern about their use of force and a lot of people in our community are not comfortable when they show up. I think it’s possible to be concerned about police presence and be concerned about the lack of it! These are difficult times and we are in transition so I expect things to be messy. We have to play the cards we are dealt… Which is why I am in other conversations where folks are focusing on automated cameras. PBOT has made it a priority to fix Oregon law to remove the police officer requirement in citation photo processing and Hardesty is committed to getting more cameras out. Right now Taylor and I are working on a records request (that will cost $130 so far) to find out what’s going on with the camera vendor which appears to be delaying the program.
Again, there are things going on. Just because folks don’t see “more enforcement” by police doesn’t mean no one is thinking/talking about/trying to make progress on the issue.
Yes to cameras!
Also, thanks for investigating the backstory. A lot of people here are rightly vexed about the seemingly glacial pace of the city’s response to all these issues, but most of us don’t know why the City seems stuck, even on programs (Street Response) and policies (residential infill) that have full Council support. A lot of times, there’s some kind of legal issue (the new Police Oversight Board), or public-input-process issue (bike lanes on N Williams) that bog down the gears of change, even when that change is direly needed.
The slow rollout of automated traffic enforcement is one of kinds of problems, and we need to know where to find the hangup, if we’re going to solve it.
The slow rollout of automated traffic enforcement is that its currently uneconomical. Right now, all citations have to be reviewed by a DPSST-certified LEO. PPB has 90+ unfilled positions.
There was a bill last legislative session to change that which would allow cheaper staff in easier to fill positions to review traffic citations, which in turn would have allowed much more adoption.
Oregon State Highway Patrol and the Portland Police Bureau/PPA fought and killed that bill. They killed it because they don’t care about safety, they care about getting paid and this would hurt their bottom line.
Public sector unions gonna public sector union. Find one that doesn’t prioritize its members over the public good, and I’ll eat my sock.
Well, both OSP and PPB aren’t unions, which makes their actions that much grosser.
I’m going to pushback on your hand waving of their behavior as a ‘all public unions’ thing. Let me know when AFSCME or SEIU kills a bill that would save hundreds of lives. PPA is an extra-level of corrupt and disgusting and this, along with their opposition to the PS3 should be enough to prove to anything that they don’t care about our city.
If typical union feather-bedding isn’t driving PPA’s opposition, what do you suppose is?
Well, normal unions don’t advocate against life-saving measures. But I’m sure you have all sorts of baseless ideas about what unions do though.
“Normal” unions advocate for their members. Sometimes this aligns with what’s best for the public, and sometimes it doesn’t. The line is especially blurry with public sector unions.
That said, these comments are confusing me. I am reading both that Hardesty is trying to kill people, and that the PPA is trying to kill people. I doubt either of these things is true.
Can we please dial back the vitriol?
Once again Hardesty seems so obsessed with bashing the “evil police” she can’t get things done. She is so against having more police officers that she is pursuing this route to remove police officers from the citation process and meanwhile people are dying. Maybe this does need to be removed from the realm of a sworn police officer (? cheaper, etc) but let’s get something done and work on this secondary issue at the same time. This is the problem we have gotten ourselves into by electing ideologues into public office. They think compromise is some abysmal failure when it is really what makes the world go round.
There are dozens of open positions at PPB, and JoAnn is not the commissioner in charge of PPB. It is crazy that so many folks seem to think she is simultaneously incompetent and able to control everything related to the police despite being only 1 of 5 commissioners and not having any control over the department.
Who wants to take a job with the PPB when you are going to be bashed by elected officials? I’m sure there are good people who have passed up the opportunity to work for the PPB and taken jobs with other jurisdictions. I’m not saying that the PPB should be lauded for all its actions, but the negativity from City Council affects how fast the PPB improves. And how fast video enforcement is implemented. I won’t be voting for Hardesty after supporting her in the last election.
Uh, public officials have been attacking public health workers for 2+ years now on a daily basis. You don’t see them refusing to do their jobs do you? Public health workers receive literal death threats from the public. A republican senator let an armed insurrectionist mob into the capitol endangering the lives of every government official in the building. You didn’t see mass resignations from that.
Most public employees deal with public officials attacking them. In fact, police are the only government sector that seems to need unconditional and uncritical support of all government officials to function. Weird.
So we can’t talk about all the problems with PPB because they will get their feelings hurt and wont work on fixing the problems? I’ve never heard of a government agency that needed so much coddling.
We can’t talk about the problems with the PPB because people make all sorts of hyperbolic and insulting and outright false claims about the issue rather than focusing on what we need to do to move forward.
Before anyone attacks me, let me state clearly for the record that I am absolutely in favor of police reform. We need a strong and responsive police force that respects the civil and human rights of everyone. I am not sure how we get there, but I am pretty confident that dialing back the vitriol will help.
And on that front, we need city leaders with more honed diplomatic skills.
Oh no! What would mere public health workers know about hyperbolic, insulting, and outright false claims? They’ve never experienced that!
Most of what folks say about PPB is true. If they want to change the perception of their agency, they need to apologize and actually move forward because right now, PPB has never admitted any wrong doing. How do you move forward when the abusers wont recognize they’ve done anything wrong? It’s a joke.
Remember folks, the only way we can get PPB to stop doing terrible stuff is to never mention all the terrible stuff they do! Makes all the sense in the world.
Removing cops from the process of camera citation would free up police resources for other types of enforcement.
By orders of magnitude, lawlessness is hurting more people than even PPB’s oft-imperfect use of force: in the 20 months since the murder of George Floyd kickstarted this transition, 144 Portlanders were murdered (7.2 per month), vs. 126 in the 60 months prior (2.1 per month). Data revealing the crisis here.
That is the “comment of the month!”
Let’s take a correlation and call it a causation. I’m in agreement about the need for more cops too, but blaming the homicide rate on one piece of data is forgetting about all the other pieces of data in the last 20 months too. (Record smashing unemployment, bankruptcy, lockdowns ,school closures, social isolation, attempted government coup, a pandemic…)
Um, you’re forgetting the part about record smashing open positions, lowest childhood poverty, record debt forbearance, record eviction moratoriums, record direct payments, etc. So, when there are equivalent solutions to the problems you suggest, it is hard to see there being a much different take. Or, this is just what some people do when they don’t have anything productive to do.
Unemployment is at near all-time lows, bankruptcies have been down, and I strongly doubt there is any connection between Jan 6 and our escalating murder rate.
Few of the murders I’ve been reading about seem to have economic motives (they don’t seem to be robberies so much as targeted or untargeted shootings focused on specific communities).
I agree that we shouldn’t leap to simplistic explanations for complex social phenomena. There is enough fodder here to feed a generation of PhD students.
The change in state law to remove sworn officers from reviewing the camera results is not likely to pass in this year’s short legislative session, which is supposed to focus on emergencies and funding issues. Changing the enforcement procedures, especially in light of the opposition by the police, is simply not a high enough priority given all the really big issues needing to be addressed in the state. The best we can hope for is getting the law changed in 2023. Agreements on how it will be implemented will depend on negotiation with the PBA. Then the city will start the procurement process for installing new cameras. We will not see any significant increase in automated enforcement for a couple years after that. Looks like we’ll have 400 more traffic fatalities before we can expect much from the cameras. We can’t afford to wait.
Poignant piece from the son of Jean Gerich (Kyle Williamson) was recently published in the Oregonian.
I think that the two categories that are not in the city’s tally are suicides and medical issues. So, if someone has a heart attack while driving and then crashes, it’s not considered a traffic crash as much as a “medical event”.
Yeah that’s in the story. maybe you missed it?
Thank you for pointing me there, Jonathan. You’re right, I did miss it.
Jonathan: Why do you put medical event in quotes? Do you think this is an inaccurate description of what happened to Mr. Strother?
With the possible exception of the two parking lot incidents, I agree with PBOT that these are not accurately counted as traffic fatalities. One person on your list jumped off a bridge, and another was shot. Those incidents are certainly tragic, but have only an incidental connection to traffic or vehicles.
I put stuff like that in quotes because I am not the one making that determination and I want folks to know that it is merely the opinion of whoever said it. I also know that very often the police will make a determination on something like this without access to all the information and it’s just the best explanation they have. They do really thorough investigations and are super smart and expert about this stuff, but that doesn’t mean we should take all their determinations as 100% accurate facts. To be clear, I use air quotes often so that folks know it isn’t BikePortland saying that thing, it is someone else. It doesn’t mean I am criticising or marginalizing what they say tho.
It’s the way longer quotes work, but when it’s just one or two words quoted, especially in the context of a difference of opinion, the communicated message can be quite different. In journalism in particular, accurate communication is more important than technically correct usage. The fact that I had to ask means there was a problem.
(I’ll add I am satisfied with Jonathan’s answer.)
I appreciate the consistency even across authors that exists on BP. I may not always agree with some of the choices that Jonathan makes in terms of grammar and word usage, but there is a lot more thought put into the decisions than many people realize and a lot of editing effort to maintain that consistency.
This is just another arrow in the heart of this dying city. Years have passed with no real response on the homeless crisis. The city adopts a vision zero plan and backs it up with zero funding and zero enforcement. Places like Indianapolis are suddenly looking better and safer to live in. Elections can’t come soon enough.
Maybe you just picked a city at random, but Indy had 3 times the number of homicides in 2021 than Portland. It’s also extremely car-centric and not safe for cyclists. 7 cyclist deaths with lower ridership.
I’m not happy with the direction Portland is going in regards to renewed car centricity and the spike in homicides and vehicle related violence and death. But the problem, as I see it, is that Portland is becoming more like places like Indianapolis. I’ve spent enough time in Indy to know that I’d never have any interest in living there. I oppose freeway expansion in Portland because I fear that it will just contribute to the hollowing out of the central city and the increased reliance on private motor vehicles.
The brutal speculative housing market that market urbanists fawn over pretty much guarantees this outcome in the central city.
(Upper income people are the most car-centric demographic cohort.)
It’s hard to get the owner-rentier to understand that 30% annual rent increases are speculative when they profit from it.
This city slowly collapsed in 5 years, it can come back in 5 years.
The leadership is absolutely terrible, they all need to go and they will.
I emailed 3 today about the current mess in this city and got responses from all three (staff, but not canned, a real response). So they know they know it is a mess, why not now will step up and at least dedicate resources to pick up garbage is beyond reason.
The houseless and crime is one thing, basic pick up of trash and graffiti clean up they have millions for but no will or direction use it.
If they had time to respond to me, they are bored and not getting enough complaints.
Wow, really going to put those deaths on the operators of light rail trains? Talk about, “tell me you don’t have any understanding of how trains work without telling me you have no understanding of how trains work”.
I hope you’re not referring to me with your comment. I didn’t say that at all. There are a number of factors that could lead to someone being hit by a train operator.
I work in healthcare and it is hard to bear witness, in a way, to the aftermath of those Ped vs Auto “accidents” that result in seriously injured humans who end up in the hospital and require lengthy physical rehab to heal.
Good reminder that deaths aren’t the only problem. I wonder what the injury numbers are. They must be huge.