Mean Streets

Pedestrian deaths in Oregon rose in 2005. Through Dec. 26, 2005, the most recent day for which formal statistics were available, there were 46 pedestrian deaths in 2005, versus 42 the year before according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Two additional deaths occurred between Dec. 26-31, contributing to a 13 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities over the past year.

The numbers are further backed by results from Mean Streets 2004, a Washington, D.C.-based policy study that looked at transportation safety nationwide. Mean Streets found that walking was by far the most dangerous mode of transportation, with a fatality rate of 20.1 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. This compared unfavorably to a rate of 1.3 for cars and trucks and 0.75 for mass transit.

Local sources attribute the rise in pedestrian accidents to citywide budget cuts. Fewer financial resources available to police means fewer officers on the streets, which translates into more accidents.

The increases have also been fueled by a jump in alcohol-related fatalities. Portland traffic division statistics show that alcohol-related traffic deaths doubled in Portland from 1999 to 2003 – from nine to 18.

A steadily increasing population in the Portland-Metro area also means that traffic congestion has gotten worse. Even with mass-transit, more vehicles are on the road than ever before.

However, the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles points out that up to half of pedestrian-vehicle accidents are the pedestrian’s fault. Pedestrians often don’t use crosswalks, may jaywalk or cross against signals and may have their visibility impeded by umbrellas and hooded jackets.

Pedestrians are also hampered by the presence of personal electronic devices, such as cell phones and the ubiquitous iPod, both of which distract attention and impair the ability to hear traffic signals or approaching vehicles.

“Last week I was nearly hit by a man in an SUV talking on his cell phone,” said Eric Wilson, a PSU graduate student and dedicated pedestrian who moved recently from Delaware. “That might sound like a cliche but it really happened.”

“Most of the drivers in Portland seem to be relatively cognizant of the pedestrian presence, but at least once or twice a day I have to compensate for someone’s lack of attention,” Wilson said. “I wouldn’t say it always involves cell phones, but it’s very common [that it does].”

A recent article in the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association newsletter compared foot and car traffic in San Francisco and Portland, and found that 74 percent of Portlanders drive their own car or carpool to work weekdays, while 15 percent take public transportation and only 4 percent walk.

Walking has health benefits, and for many provides a welcome escape from an otherwise frantic pace, so why so few walkers?

“I walk to PSU every day during the week and usually at least once on the weekend,” Wilson said. “Some days I walk back and forth twice, depending on the weather.”

Wilson could drive, but prefers to walk. His daily treks take about 50 minutes round trip, “if I walk at a casual pace.”

The most dangerous time for pedestrians is the evening rush hour. Walkers are tired and tend to take short cuts, crossing against lights and dashing in between the cars to catch buses.

Combine this with heightened traffic and dim evening lights and accidents happen easily. And from a purely “size” standpoint, the odds in a pedestrian-vehicle collision are always in the car’s favor.

A handful of new Oregon traffic laws will take effect in 2006.

Senate Bill 591 makes turning easier for drivers at intersections with traffic signals and pedestrian crossings. The bill allows motorists to make a turn at a signaled intersection once a crossing pedestrian is six feet across the adjacent lane.

Previously, pedestrians had to have crossed the entire adjacent lane. In other words, cars can now turn much earlier than they used to be able to, and while the pedestrian is still in the middle of the street.

SB 591 took effect on Jan. 1.

Senate Bill 591 recognizes parking spaces and bicycle lanes as lanes of traffic, meaning that drivers must wait for pedestrians to cross the vehicle lane and any bike lane or parking spaces before proceeding.

The 2005 legislature also changed school zone speed laws. The new laws take effect in July 2006, and motorists will need only to follow the signs to be in compliance. Until then, previous laws and current school zone signs and speeds remain in effect.

“I’m not very worried about the traffic here in Portland,” Wilson said. “But I definitely keep my eyes open.”

Portland’s children may be the pedestrian canaries in the coalmine. In a city that prides itself as being pedestrian and bicycle friendly, fewer Portland children walk or bike to school than ever before.

According to Portland Department of Transportation (PDOT) statistics, 4,174 Portland pedestrians were struck by cars and injured between 1985 and 2002, and another 217 were killed. One-fourth of the victims were under 18. This averages out to a child being hit by a car about every three or four days.

According to “Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting,” a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, the greatest danger for pedestrian schoolchildren is on the roads and streets in their own neighborhoods. Fifty percent of schoolchildren hit by cars while walking to or from school were hit by cars driven by parents of fellow students.

One response to this has been to crack down on speed rules in school zones. Exceed 20 miles per hour in a school zone, and the citation starts at $141.

The 20 miles per hour speed makes sense when considering that 85 percent of pedestrians survive accidents in which the car is moving at 20 miles per hour or less, while barely 15 percent survive if the car is traveling at 40 miles per hour or more.

Other local fixes have included traffic calming corner outcrops, speed bumps, red light and photo radar cameras and better ?” more visible ?” signage.

The 2005 Oregon Legislature launched a safety program for school children who walk or ride bikes to and from school. HB 2742 created the Safe Routes to School Program, which will furnish grants for safety projects throughout Oregon schools. Funding will be available as early as October 2006.

Children aren’t the only group targeted by pedestrian accidents. According to Mean Streets 2004, senior citizens, African-American and Latino pedestrians also experience a pedestrian-vehicle fatality rate well in excess of the general population.

In May 2005, PDOT launched its Pedestrian Crosswalk Safety Education Program, which will work to educate pedestrians and motorists about pedestrian safety issues, particularly the safe use of crosswalks.

The program also highlights Oregon’s “Stop and Stay Stopped” law, which says that automobiles must stop at crosswalks and remain stopped if a pedestrian is in the motorist’s lane or adjacent lane.

Drivers must also stop for any pedestrian crossing an intersection-whether or not they are crossing in a marked crosswalk-and must yield to pedestrians when turning at signaled intersections. It’s also illegal to pass a car that is stopped at an intersection for a crossing pedestrian.

The city of Portland has identified the area’s most dangerous intersections for automobile-pedestrian interactions. These include the crossings at Southeast 82nd and Powell, Southeast 39th and Hawthorne, East 122nd and Burnside, West Burnside and Third Avenue, and Southwest 30th Avenue and Barbur Boulevard.

At the corner of Southeast 82nd and Powell, city engineers installed crosswalk devices that count down in seconds as pedestrians cross the intersection. The devices include microwave sensors that activate when pedestrians are present, eliminating the need to push the button for a walk signal. But to date, the sensors have a history of malfunctioning.