The Oregon Department of Transportation Can’t Hit Its Targets for Fewer Traffic Deaths. So the Agency Wants to Change the Target.

On a controversial project, the agency appears to be ignoring the designs that are within its control, favoring speed over safety.

Car crash deaths in Oregon have been climbing since 2015. In 2019, the statewide fatality count reached 489.

What’s the Oregon Department of Transportation doing to address this? Changing the targets.

In a draft plan released last month, ODOT says it will tell Oregonians it is aiming to keep traffic deaths to 444 or less per year for 2022—an increase of at least 140 deaths per year from its original target. Five years ago, the goal for 2022 was below 300 deaths.

ODOT says it’s trying to set realistic expectations. Critics are outraged at the agency’s response.

“They aren’t reaching their goals because they aren’t maintaining their roads to an urban standard,” says Ashton Simpson, executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Walks, which advocates for traffic and walking safety. “Lowering their standards is a cop-out. You’re sweeping it under the rug.”

Portland has a high-profile Vision Zero policy, which sets an ambitious goal of no traffic deaths inside city limits by the year 2025. ODOT also has sought to achieve zero deaths by 2035. And it sets a goal for working toward that grand vision—the number of traffic deaths it hopes not to exceed in a given year.

Even as late as last year, the agency was still acknowledging the need for setting ambitious targets. “This can sometimes mean that performance targets are aggressive, encouraging communities to work with conviction on achieving desired results; with ODOT offering education, technical assistance, and other resources to help achieve those goals,” says the Oregon Traffic Safety Performance Plan Annual Report from December 2020.

But now the agency has thrown in the towel.

“The new 2021 target is absolutely not where we want to be, but it does reflect reality,” ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton tells WW, “and the uptick is a stark reminder that each life matters, and we must make substantive changes to our transportation infrastructure, traffic safety laws, and societal culture to achieve the vision of zero fatalities and zero life-changing injuries by 2035.”

To be sure, the agency has limited control over driver behavior, including drunken driving and seat belt use. “If no motorist or roadway user ever drove impaired, never exceeded the speed limit, and always wore their safety belt, two-thirds of Oregon’s fatalities would be avoided,” the same December 2020 ODOT report states.

So far this year, 229 people have been killed in car crashes in Oregon, nearly a third more than last year.

Simpson and others knock ODOT for failing to upgrade its highways within Portland, including Northeast and Southeast 82nd Avenue, which, just this month, ODOT has agreed to transfer to the city after the Oregon Legislature commits to funding improvements.

“It’s frustrating,” says Simpson, who says lighting, sidewalks and bike infrastructure have all been lacking along 82nd. “They own that facility, and they should be making every effort to make sure people can get to the resources within their community.”

That apparent indifference extends to the largest transportation project in the state: the $795 million I-5 road widening at the Rose Quarter. On that controversial project, the agency appears to be ignoring the designs that are within its control, favoring speed over safety.

According to a consultant’s draft recommendation, ODOT is preparing to design the highway for traffic traveling at 70 miles per hour, even as it says it will post the speed limit at 50 mph.

The consultant, San Francisco-based Arup, recommends designing a roadway that will keep traffic at lower speeds.

“Arup recommends a design speed of 60 mph (posted 50 mph) to…improve safety outcomes,” the June 2 draft document states.

Asked about this recommendation, ODOT spokesperson Tia Williams said ODOT is waiting for the final report from the consultant, but said the current roadway is designed for 70 mph traffic. “In this location, and as part of this project, there are no plans for either increasing or decreasing the existing posted speed of 50 mph,” says Williams.

Opponents of the project say that’s a reflection of the agency’s disregard for safety. “A 70 mph design speed through the central city is incontrovertible evidence of ODOT’s primary allegiance to moving vehicles quickly, regardless of consequences to the community or the planet,” says Chris Smith, co-founder of No More Freeways PDX, which has been advocating against the project.

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