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You’re Driving Too Damn Fast

A new report shows it’s not texting, drunken drivers, teenagers or jaywalkers causing Portland’s epidemic of pedestrian deaths. It’s speed.

Where Southeast 122nd Avenue meets Stark Street, the skyline blazes with working-class commerce. Pawn Central Jewelry and Loan. Astro Gas and Discount Cigs. Victorico's Mexican Food Drive-Thru.

The intersection is where two of the city's most dangerous streets meet. Stark and 122nd each saw three pedestrian deaths from 2017 to 2019.

On a recent crisp spring afternoon, a car screeched to a stop as a man traversed Stark, far from any crosswalk. Minutes later, an elderly pedestrian leaning on his cane barely made it across Stark before the light changed.

East of 82nd Avenue, it's open season on pedestrians—and those more likely to die are Black, disabled, homeless, or over 65. East Portlanders dodge traffic along streets that lack sidewalks, and are injured or killed trying to cross streets that are too wide and packed with vehicles going too fast.

On the streets of East Portland, people die horribly and unfairly. More than $120 million of city investment hasn't changed that fact.

Now the responsibility falls to City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

Over the past year, Hardesty lobbied Mayor Ted Wheeler to give her command of the Portland Police Bureau, which Hardesty, the first Black woman to serve on the Portland City Council, believes engages in biased policing. The mayor said no.

Instead, in January, Wheeler assigned Hardesty the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Hardesty brings a different perspective to the role than previous transportation commissioners. She's lived east of 82nd Avenue for 15 years, including four at Southeast 166th Place near Stark Street.

"As a pedestrian, I've had many close calls," Hardesty says. "People use Stark Street like a freeway. You truly have to take your life into your hands to cross it."

Hardesty now has the opportunity to tackle a systemic inequality that disproportionately injures and kills people much like her: Black Portlanders who walk along the streets east of 82nd Avenue.

And with some bold choices, it may be fixable.

That's the takeaway from an exhaustive examination of 48 pedestrian deaths on Portland streets in 2017-19 conducted over the past two years by Oregon Walks.

The nonprofit shared thousands of pages of documents with WW never before disclosed, including police reports, crash analyses and PBOT data.

The records reveal an alarming, sometimes counterintuitive picture of a wildly inequitable system. The geographic and racial disparities are fed by three structural problems: The streets in East Portland are too wide, streetlights are inadequate and, most importantly, drivers go too fast.

Related: Three lives lost crossing the street in East Portland.

Those are not dangers everyone in the city faces. Of the 48 pedestrians killed in Portland from 2017 through 2019, 41 of them died east of the Willamette River and half of them east of 82nd Avenue.

During that time, there wasn't a single pedestrian death in Northwest Portland, and there were only three in Southwest Portland.

City officials know they have a problem. It's worse in some other cities—Portland's pedestrian fatality rate is a little higher than the national average but lower than that in peer cities such as Denver and Austin—but the numbers are rising everywhere: Pedestrian deaths nationally reached their highest total since 1988 last year.

In 2016, the City Council passed a policy called Vision Zero, which included a goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025.

The bureau has sunk more than $120 million into Vision Zero so far and will spend another $65 million this year. PBOT can point to some successes: It has lowered the speed limit on most residential streets and invested in new lighting, crosswalks and barriers against dangerous left turns.

But the bureau is, in fact, further from reaching its goal than ever.

The 54 traffic deaths on Portland streets last year are the highest since 1996.

Dana Dickman, PBOT's traffic safety section manager and Vision Zero lead, says people need to be patient. "In Vision Zero cities where they've gotten down to one or two deaths a year," she says, "it's taken a generation of investment."

But Scott Kocher, an Oregon Walks board member who pulled together the group's research, says Vision Zero is underachieving because PBOT is too cautious.

He says the agency fears conflict and has not aggressively sought to lower speed limits on more dangerous roads or deployed traffic-calming devices and new lighting that would make streets safer.

"They've got a lot of tools they aren't using," Kocher says.

Related: Seven facts about Portland pedestrian deaths that might surprise you—and one solution.

In the following pages, we look at three changes Portland could make now, if Hardesty decides to act forcefully. And we look at the lives and deaths of three people in East Portland for whom change will come too late.

Drivers are going too fast. City Hall is moving too slow. And Kocher hopes Hardesty will inject some urgency.

"Speed is the root of all evil and PBOT knows that," Kocher says. "But they've taken an incremental approach—you could even say glacial."

SPEED

On July 24, 2019, a little before 2 am, Jamie St. Louis, a 22-year-old Black woman, died trying to cross Northeast Halsey Street near 142nd Avenue.

The spot where she died is, simply put, dangerous: It has no sidewalks, 142nd is five lanes wide, and the streets are poorly lit in a corridor where there's nothing to slow traffic for eight-tenths of a mile in either direction.

Speed killed St. Louis. A Portland police investigator determined the driver, Richard Weberg, 26, was traveling in a Buick sedan at 50 mph—10 miles over the speed limit—when he struck St. Louis. The first responding officer detected no pulse or breathing, and an American Medical Response paramedic declared her dead on the scene.

After determining Weberg's line of sight and how long it would have taken him to stop, investigators said if he'd been going 40 mph "Weberg would have been able to perceive, react and stop in time to avoid this collision." (Weberg was charged in January 2021 with criminally negligent homicide.)

One of the biggest safety achievements of Vision Zero came in January 2018, when PBOT dropped the speed limit on all residential streets to 20 mph.

A 2020 Portland State University study found the new 20 mph signage led to a big drop in motorists going significantly over the speed limit on residential streets—including a nearly 50% drop in drivers going faster than 35.

The author of the study, PSU civil engineering professor Chris Monsere, says the result surprised him—although recent studies in Boston and London produced similar findings.

"For vulnerable road users, speeds have a huge impact on the severity of the outcome," Monsere says.

Federal research shows that "a pedestrian struck by a person driving 40 mph is eight times more likely to die than a pedestrian struck at 20 mph." And higher speeds extend stopping distance, so more crashes occur.

Oregon Walks wants the city to ratchet down speeds on the larger collector and arterial streets where most crashes happen.

"The biggest single change PBOT can make is to take the speed limit to 20 across the board," says the group's executive director, Ashton Simpson.

Oregon Walks found that 81% of pedestrian fatalities occurred at locations where the speed limit was 30 mph or greater at the time of the crash—and in most of those locations, the city could seek a lower limit (see "The Power of Slowing Down.").

One way to slow traffic: place computerized speed cameras at high-speed crash locations around the city.

PBOT has deployed eight so far, and its own research mirrors national findings, showing such cameras are highly effective at slowing traffic. So why not deploy more of them?

In June 2019, the City Council appropriated $15 million to buy more cameras. Almost two years later, PBOT has yet to pull the trigger.

WW pressed the bureau and its commissioners repeatedly and unsuccessfully for an explanation.

"It's been moving at a snail's pace," Hardesty acknowledges. "I'm trying to get it expedited."

WIDTH

Part of the reason drivers speed on larger streets, such as outer Stark, Halsey and Division, is that they are straight and wide. That combination is dangerous for pedestrians.

Oregon Walks found that three-quarters of the deaths in 2017-19 occurred on streets 50 feet or wider.

On July 23, 2018, at 9:15 pm, James Deery, 69, tried to cross Southeast Division Street near 158th Avenue.

Records show the street is 75 feet wide there, the equivalent of six lanes. (The average residential street in Portland is 36 feet wide.)

Deery used a walker for mobility. He made it to the middle of Division, where a 2014 Toyota Venza SUV hit Deery at 30 mph. Deery died a month later at Oregon Health & Science University hospital.

SUVs and pickup trucks dominate the streets nationally and in Portland. They are heavier than sedans but also typically have higher, flatter front surfaces, so when they collide with pedestrians, they hit torsos instead of legs, doing far more internal damage.

SUVs and pickups accounted for 54% of Portland traffic fatalities in 2017-19.

Simpson says PBOT can reduce the danger from such vehicles with "street diets," the term traffic engineers use to describe various ways of narrowing and calming wide, straight streets with few intersections and crosswalks.

On Southeast Stark, for example, the stretch between César E. Chávez Boulevard and 82nd Avenue is an obstacle course of speed bumps, traffic islands and crosswalks, with a 25 mph speed limit. East of 82nd, the street doubles in width. It goes mostly dead straight and completely flat and has a rarely observed 30 mph limit.

On many close-in streets, PBOT inserts planters, speed bumps, bioswales and other calming devices. These are less common in East Portland.

"It goes back to traffic engineering," Simpson says. "There has to be something to slow down traffic."

PBOT has reengineered some trouble spots, but its task is politically fraught.

"People think the street reorganizations will leave them stuck in traffic," says bureau spokesman Dylan Rivera.

LIGHTING

On May 5, 2017, at 4:31 am, Ted Jones, 45, tried to cross Southeast 82nd Avenue westbound from the Del Rancho Motel, where he was staying. A hit-and-run driver killed him and kept going.

Contrary to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines, there was no streetlight on the east side of 82nd, where the Del Rancho is.

Most fatal pedestrian crashes that Oregon Walks examined—79%—occurred at night, and poor lighting appeared to be a factor about 60% of the time.

The group found Black pedestrians in Portland die at three times the rate of white Portlanders—and all eight Black pedestrians killed in 2017-19 died at night.

Lighting is a fixable problem. In Detroit, the city's financial woes decimated street lighting in the past decade. In 2014, the city recorded 24 pedestrian deaths in "dark, unlit areas," according to the Detroit Greenways Coalition, but after a blitz of new LED lighting, such deaths declined to one by 2017.

Dickman says installing lights on both sides of streets in high-crash corridors is a top priority for PBOT—and will cost $20 million.

People drive fast because they're rushing to work, school or other important appointments. Uber, Lyft, Amazon and food delivery drivers get paid for punctuality.

Meanwhile, vehicles grow larger and the Portland Police Bureau pays less attention to traffic safety—Chief Chuck Lovell recently assigned the whole traffic division to patrol duty.

All those forces will make East Portland's streets more dangerous, unless PBOT works proactively against them.

"Where these fatalities are taking place are places of great inequities," Simpson says. "Ultimately, these communities are going to be impacted by these traumatic events until we put in the necessary investments."

Hardesty acknowledges the city must do more. "In East Portland, we haven't spent the money needed to keep people safe," she says.

Kocher says PBOT can make big changes without spending a lot of money: dropping speed limits and deploying speed bumps, traffic-calming devices and pedestrian safety islands. He says the question is whether the bureau will stand up to drivers who don't want to slow down.

"Historically, PBOT leadership is well intentioned but not willing to take the heat," Kocher says.

Hardesty says she's ready. "I am fine with standing up to the pressure," she says. "I know it's coming."

She says in her neighborhood—Gateway—residents quickly got used to changes PBOT made to Northeast Halsey Street a couple of years ago.

"Halsey is half the size it used to be," Hardesty says. "People lost their minds when that happened. They said, 'My life will never be the same.' PBOT dropped the speed limit from 40 to 20, and nobody even talks about it now."