Blindsided

Portland spends millions to stop cars from killing people. It’s not working.

A Photo Essay by Wesley Lapointe | Words by Hannah Chinn

Portland’s streets are killing fields.

In this city, you are twice as likely to die in traffic than to be murdered. Last week, a vehicle killed a Portlander for the 34th time in 2019. Police have recorded 15 homicides this year. Traffic is the second-most common cause of violent death in Portland. It was supposed to change.

In 2015, the Portland City Council approved a policy called “Vision Zero”—an ambitious traffic safety plan aimed at eliminating deaths in the streets by 2025. Since then, the city has spent more than $100 million on new crosswalks, flashing beacons and speed cameras.

The year the city started working on Vision Zero, 37 people died in traffic. This year, we’re on pace to eclipse that number by the end of summer. Despite the spending and what officials describe as an aggressive campaign, the numbers refuse to budge.

“It’s not just frustrating,” says City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees transportation. “It’s deeply troubling. I’ve been asking myself, ‘What are we doing wrong, and what can we do faster?’”

Some of the deaths are simply an unhappy byproduct of a growing city, one where more people are jammed into the same space. Others can be traced to the difficulty of persuading people to stop driving—or at least to drive slowly and sober.

Yet critics of City Hall say the feebleness of Vision Zero is also a failure of political will. The causes of Portland’s crashes are known: They are speed, darkness, drugs and alcohol. Yet many advocates say the city has moved too slowly to reduce speed limits, hasn’t installed enough lights, and refuses to increase DUII patrols.

“The way that they’re operating, in the same manner that they’ve been operating, they’re going to get the same results,” says Anjeanette Brown, who lives on Southeast 159th Avenue and has been asking transportation officials for more streetlights.

City officials say slowing the rate of death is like turning a tractor-trailer on Burnside: It can’t be done quickly.

“It’s awful. Every death is awful,” says Dana Dickman, traffic safety section manager for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “But it’s not unexpected, given the level of change we need to make. There’s massive cultural change that still needs to happen.”

Eudaly says City Hall must do more.

“We have so many more cars on the road,” she says. “We have a lot of frustration born out of heavy congestion. We have a lack of enforcement which makes people think they can take more risks on the road. We can’t engineer our way out of reckless behavior and human error. We need to do more, and we need to do it faster—and we desperately need help from other bureaus.”

The city’s need is measured in pain—hospital visits, shattered bones, and bereaved mothers. The most ghastly deaths often make headlines and lead the local news broadcasts for a few days. But the lived reality of traffic violence lingers with the people who have endured it. Their lives have been upended by cars. And they think the city should do more.

“The people making the laws at the state level or even the City Council members and the mayor—they’re not the ones actually seeing the results,” says Kristi Finney-Dunn, who has been advocating for slower traffic since her son was killed by a car on Southeast Division Street eight years ago. “They’re not actually feeling the feels from people.”

In the following pages, you’ll meet seven people who have felt the weight of a car crash. Their stories illustrate the urgency of fixing the streets now.

Southeast 159th Avenue

Anjeanette Brown

Anjeanette Brown knows you don’t see her.

That’s because her neighborhood doesn’t have enough streetlights.

The uneven street outside her house in the Centennial neighborhood is dirt and gravel. The crosswalks are spaced a quarter mile apart. On nearby Division Street, the main drag, streetlights line only one side of the road, and they aren’t bright enough to illuminate darker-skinned pedestrians at night anyway.

Portland neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue are far less likely than other parts of the city to have adequate street lighting, according to pedestrian advocacy nonprofit Oregon Walks. These are also the neighborhoods with most of the city’s black residents.

Brown, a 37-year-old neighborhood activist, attends City Council and PBOT meetings quarterly to voice her concerns. For her, traffic hazards aren’t limited to a single crash or set of incidents—they’re a constant, low-level hum that permeates her community. And she doesn’t think City Hall is listening.

“You can’t just say, oh, this looks good on paper,” she says. “We need things that are actually going to work.” She says different parts of town need different plans: “Equity means you get what you need for your situation. And we don’t have the same situation.”

A survey last year of Portland’s black pedestrians rated “poor lighting” as the biggest barrier to their safety while walking. Changing that would be one of the most cost-effective fixes the city could make; PBOT says the cost of street lighting infill is $250,000 per mile, while the cost of new sidewalks is $4 million to $4.5 million per mile.

Brown says city officials need to recognize that every mistake wastes not only time but also community trust—and black residents are already leaving Portland at a record pace.

“You push us out anymore, like, we’re gone,” she adds. “This is the edge of Portland. There’s nowhere to go from here.”

What’s the Vision?

To evaluate whether Vision Zero is working, you first have to know what it is.

It’s a transportation strategy, started in 1997 in Sweden, that aims to eliminate traffic deaths. In Portland, the plan was adopted by the City Council in 2015, although the city didn’t start funding it until a year later. This year, it’s spending more than $61 million on Vision Zero projects.

Some of that money goes to education initiatives reminding motorists to drive slowly and only when sober, and to enforcement measures like traffic cameras. But most of it is dedicated to engineering streets so they’re less dangerous to use.

“If you can slow people down,” says Dana Dickman, safety section engineer for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, “it makes survival more likely if someone does get hit.”

In other words, although it may seem counterintuitive, the latest thinking in transportation engineering is that a safer street is one that isn’t too easy to navigate. If a curve is gentle, drivers go fast. If a turn is sharp, they slow down.

That’s why PBOT is adding speed bumps. Reducing lane counts. Building bumpers in intersections. Narrowing travel lanes. Even taking straight roads and adding bends. It makes driving harder, and it’s a shift away from the idea that roads exist to move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible.

But even those who argue Portland should do more faster—like advocate and lawyer Scott Kocher— say the basic thrust of Vision Zero is correct, and makes streets safer for everyone who uses them. “Ordinary Portlanders don’t feel safe traveling around Portland unless they’re in a 3,000-pound metal box,” says Kocher. “We can change that right now.”

North Fessenden Street

Rory Lynsky

Six months ago, 13-year-old Patrice Johnson was struck by a car while walking to basketball practice at George Middle School. The crash fractured her hip. City officials responded by lowering the speed limit on this St. Johns street from 35 miles per hour to 25.

For many parents of Johnson’s classmates, that’s still too fast—and the fixes to the street are too slow.

Shamus Lynsky is incoming president of George Middle School’s parent-teacher association. His son, Rory, hopes to ride his bicycle to school this fall. It’s just a five-minute ride—but parts of it are on North Fessenden Street.

“It just seems like we should be safe in our own neighborhoods,” Shamus Lynsky says. Fessenden is what’s known as a “collector” street: It’s one of the wider, more heavily trafficked streets in a residential neighborhood, collecting traffic from less busy, local streets. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has reduced speed limits to 20 mph on local streets, but it hasn’t done the same on many collectors, including Fessenden.

“But not every street that is residential in nature is classified as a local street,” says bureau spokesman John Brady. “The 20 mph reduction wasn’t intended to apply.” He says they’re looking at collectors like Fessenden “on a case-by-case basis.”

Still, personal-injury lawyer Scott Kocher says collectors are also community streets: “We need that 20 mph speed limit on collectors [too].”

Another thing PBOT can do to slow traffic: build a protected pedestrian crossing at the intersection where Johnson was hit. That’s a project the city has promised since 2013. “We feel like we’ve been given a raw deal by the city,” Shamus Lynsky says.

After the collision in February, the city said it would improve the Fessenden intersection by October. When asked if he thinks that’s a real promise, Lynsky shakes his head, then shrugs. “It’s like, sure, whatever. I mean, it doesn’t matter what you say. Just build it.”

North Interstate Avenue

Jordan Wenner

Jordan Wenner doesn’t know how far the SUV threw him.

Some witnesses tell him 30 feet. Others say 75.

He doesn’t remember any of it. The last thing he recalls from his trip home from a July 18 Timbers match was nearing his MAX station. What others tell him: He was changing trains in the Rose Quarter. He had the walk signal to cross North Interstate Avenue. But the driver of an SUV with Washington plates blew through the red light, hit him, and kept going.

“My shoes went flying, my phone went flying,” Wenner says. “I have no idea how far I actually flew.”

Here’s what he does remember: the pain. The nurse, in the hospital, listing his injuries. A split pelvis. A fractured tailbone. Two fractured vertebrae. A lacerated bladder. Gashes on his head. Cuts all over his body.

“The nurse just started listing off stuff,” Wenner recalls. “And I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is not good.’”

Wenner, 36, is a former Intel engineer. Now he’s in a wheelchair in the Northeast Portland home of a friend—his own home isn’t wheelchair accessible. Doctors say it will take six to nine months for him to walk again.

Tasks like brushing his teeth and taking a shower are grueling.

Video of the hit-and-run was captured by TriMet security cameras, but the Portland Police Bureau won’t release it. (WW first reported in 2016 that victims of traffic crashes can wait months for their public records requests to be fulfilled by the bureau.) Wenner and his attorney believe the video could show details like the timing of the walk signal and the license plate of the SUV.

Wenner’s case is an open police investigation. The Police Bureau did not respond by press deadlines to questions about the security video.

Meanwhile, Wenner has time to wonder. Who hit him? Were they drunk? Did they know what they had done?

“I try to give [the driver] the benefit of the doubt sometimes,” he says. “I’m trying to heal, you know, so I’m trying to stay optimistic.”

Interstate 205

Mark Gaither and Neal Glaske

The second car to hit Officer Mark Gaither in less than a year was the one that really hurt.

The first time, he was issuing a traffic ticket last November along Interstate 84 when a car rear-ended his motorcycle, which he was sitting on at the time. Gaither suffered a torn hernia. The second time? He was on Interstate 205, directing traffic around a work crew, when an intoxicated driver plowed into his squad car with him inside. This crash dislocated his leg, cracked a femur and two of his ribs, and left him unconscious.

He feels lucky. In big crashes, he says, “people don’t usually walk away.”

Gaither says his story has a simple moral: Portland police must pull over more drunken drivers.

“When I first came to the traffic division in 2010, we had night shift, afternoon [shift] and day shift—so everything was covered,” says Gaither. “We’d catch DUIIs before they crashed.

And now, with our staffing level…we only get drunk drivers after they’ve crashed.”

Gaither and his colleague, Officer Neal Glaske, work for the Police Bureau’s major crash team. That means they’re among the first responders to arrive at the scene of a deadly crash. They wait for the medical examiner to look at the body. They wait for the tow truck to drag away what’s left of the car. They call the families of the dead.

“Being on the crash team changes us,” Glaske says.

Glaske and Gaither both think the most effective solution to traffic deaths is more DUII patrols.

But that step is not listed among the 34 objectives of Portland’s Vision Zero plan. That’s in part because advocates argued that more traffic stops would lead to disproportionate arrests of people of color.

In fact, city documents show transportation officials sought to meet City Hall’s racial equity goals by not increasing policing as part of Vision Zero. “The enforcement actions in this plan,” reads a PBOT policy paper, “are limited in order to reduce the possibility of racial profiling and disparate economic impacts.”

When Glaske takes new recruits on ride-alongs, he tells them to request an assignment to the traffic division.

“One of the biggest impacts they can have on society,” he says, “is traffic enforcement.”

Southeast Division Street

Kristi Finney-Dunn

Just before dawn on Aug. 12, 2011, Kristi Finney-Dunn opened her front door and learned from a police chaplain that her son Dustin was dead. Dustin Finney, 28, had been killed by a car while riding his bicycle on Division.

She slumped against a wall. Nothing felt real.

In the next eight years, she joined three task forces on traffic safety. Finney-Dunn, 55, was the first representative of victims’ families on the Vision Zero task force. In 2015, she formed Oregon and Southwest Washington’s chapter of Families for Safe Streets. (That November, the chapter organized the placement of 135 silhouette memorials for victims of traffic fatalities throughout the city.) She spoke about Dustin’s death at rallies and in the media. She advocated for legislation on street safety and DUII limits. She spoke on Oregon victim impact panels, often six or seven or eight times a month.

This year, she quit.

Finney-Dunn thinks the Vision Zero program isn’t enough. It’s focused on the idea that people make mistakes and so roads need to be designed in a safer way. She no longer believes in accidents.

“They’re not mistakes,” she says. “[Drivers] are consciously deciding to speed, to use their phones, to not stop at stop lights. None of that is accidental.

She feels City Hall must spend more resources cracking down on irresponsible drivers—not just designing roads to cushion their vehicles.

City officials say they are doing both. “We have to use street design to both reduce mistakes and reduce the consequences of mistakes,” says PBOT spokesman John Brady. “And we have to use other tools to change behavior, including irresponsible behavior.”

Finney-Dunn hasn’t been to a Families for Safe Streets meeting in nine months; she’s declined to speak on countless panels. Even she can’t give a definitive answer why—only that, after four years of relentless advocacy, she felt overloaded in a way she hadn’t experienced before.

“I just feel like, in a way, I can’t stand it,” she says. “I can’t stand it, and I kind of feel like I backed down. I’m hoping I can get to the point where I can stand it again. I must have been able to compartmentalize it or something.”

Even after all this time, loss shows itself in unexpected ways. “I have a grandbaby,” she says. “Her mom doesn’t know this, but when my grandbaby was born, I went into the hallway afterward and I cried.”

She pauses. “Because it was just another person I could lose.”

Oregon 99E

Ron Hanson

Ever since he got out of prison, Ron Hanson has told one story. If he keeps telling it, he thinks, someday he’ll know what it means.

It was Jan. 23, 1988. Hanson got off work at a Canby factory that made diving boards for swimming pools. He and his co-workers went to “relax a little” at the Rip City Pub on Highway 99E. He planned to have only a couple of beers. But he drank a pitcher. His friends bought another. Then another.

He drove his pickup around a curve at 70 miles an hour into a small red car carrying a family of four. He killed Trudie Lapp, her 5-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 7-month-old Amy.

He spent eight years in the Oregon State Penitentiary, where he says he “had a lot of time to think about what I had done and what had brought me there.”

When he got out, he didn’t know what to do with himself. A therapist told him that if he changed how he lived, “there’d be a purpose and a meaning in their death.”

For 20 years, he’s spent his Tuesday nights in an Oregon City auditorium, telling his story to people who have been forced to be there by law enforcement, because they were arrested driving under the influences of alcohol or drugs.

These nights are called victim impact panels. They’re not a part of Vision Zero, exactly, but they overlap with one of the Portland program’s goals: educating people about the effects of traffic violence so they’ll make different choices.

Hanson says any program—including Vision Zero—that makes more people listen is a step in the right direction. “I can’t expect everybody [to change],” he says. “But even if it’s just that one person, if it’s just that one thought that gets into their head…”

He trails off. “I guess I’ll probably keep speaking until I get too senile,” he adds. “I’m seeing more and more that there is a meaning. I don’t always know what that meaning is, but it’s there.”

On a recent Tuesday night, the auditorium was filled with over a hundred people, ranging from senior citizens to drivers who looked barely old enough to drink. Some listened intently. Some sat with their arms crossed, stoic. One man sitting in the second row had tears streaming down his face by the time the first speaker finished—he didn’t try to wipe them away.

“You were all given a gift that night when you got pulled over and were given a DUI,” Hanson told the audience. “You were given the gift of a second chance. Please take advantage of that gift. Take care of yourself and your family.”

As drivers filed slowly out of the room, Hanson stood in the empty auditorium. Then he pushed through the double doors and walked toward his car.

He’d be back in a few weeks to tell his story again.

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