June 19, 2012  11:00 AM

Study: Crashes cost more than congestion

Metro safety report highlights risk on arterial streets

Think freeway curves are the most dangerous roads in the Portland area?

Think again.

The region's bustling arterial streets, such as Tualatin Valley Highway in Washington County, 82nd Avenue in Multnomah County or McLoughlin Boulevard in Clackamas County have much higher rates of roadway fatalities and severe injuries. These workhorses of the transportation system also are the most hazardous places for bicyclists and pedestrians. They have far higher fatality rates than neighborhood streets or even freeways.

The high risk on arterial streets is a key finding of a new Metro report that takes the first look at the special needs of transportation safety in urban areas, as opposed to rural areas that often are the focus of state transportation efforts. Created at the request of the Federal Highway Administration, the report won support from local, state and federal officials last week. 

"This is a tremendous piece of work," said Phillip Ditzler, administrator of the Oregon Division of the Federal Highway Administration. "Having a focused approach to identify priorities and actions is key to making a difference."

Across the metropolitan area, 159 people were killed on the region’s roads and more than 1,400 were severely injured from 2007 to 2009. Crashes and the resulting injuries and deaths cost the region $958 million a year in property damage, medical costs, and lost productivity – not to mention the pain and suffering from the loss of life. 

Read the report

Lots of people have ideas or perceptions about what might make roads safer. But to get to the root causes, Metro dug deep into transportation data to understand the high risk locations, patterns and factors that contribute to serious crashes. And to head off any preconceived biases, Metro worked with a Regional Safety Workgroup comprised of federal, state and local transportation agencies, researchers and safety specialists.

Together, the workgroup identified the most significant findings in the region:

  • Arterial streets have the highest rate of fatal and severe injury crashes, for all road users: motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Crash rates rise on surface (non-freeway) streets with more lanes, and are significantly higher on those with six lanes or more.
  • Surface (non-freeway) streets with four lanes or more have particularly high fatal and severe injury crash rates for pedestrians.
  • Excessive speed and aggressive driving are the leading contributing factors in severe injury crashes.
  • Alcohol or drugs are a contributing factor in most fatal crashes.
  • For pedestrians, fatal and severe injury crashes happen especially often after dark.
  • For pedestrian and bicyclists, nighttime fatal and severe injury crashes occur especially often in areas without street lighting.

The report focused on serious crashes – those that cause fatalities or severe injuries – not fender benders that result only in property damage.

A panel of 17 elected officials and agency leaders urged action on the findings last week. The Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation told Metro to propose how to pursue some short term next steps. Those steps include identifying the most dangerous arterial streets in the region, convening regional professionals to develop  safety fixes for them, and working with police and emergency medical personnel to focus on alcohol use and other behavioral factors.

Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder said safety improvements could help the economy more than fighting congestion. Political leaders rallied around a Cost of Congestion study in 2005, which predicted that traffic jams could cost the region $844 million a year in lost productivity and freight costs by the year 2025.

By contrast, the safety report suggests that crashes cost the region $958 million a year right now.

"This is actually a bigger problem, it's a current problem and we do have solutions to it through design," said Burkholder. "This is really critical work. It's great to have it localized."

Some of the most dangerous streets are also those in poorer neighborhoods where people are most dependent on walking to bus and light rail service, he said.

Jason Tell, manager of for the Oregon Department of Transportation's Region 1, the Portland area, said policymakers should focus on the short-term recommendations in the report.

"This is really great work," Tell said. "This is really where our attention should be."

Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette, chair of JPACT, said the report confirms what many residents have been saying for years about roads like McLoughlin Boulevard.

"The citizens keep saying, 'We need crosswalks at every bus stop, we need safer ways to cross the McLouglin corridor,'" Collette said. "These streets are dangerous to cross and this confirms that information." 

Clackamas County is working on solutions that can make McLoughlin safer, said Clackamas County Commissioner Ann Lininger. When the MAX Orange Line opens there, it could generate more interest in walking to public transit.

"One of the things we can do to help people welcome that transit is invest in some of the very things that this paper calls for," she said. "Let's do these things." 

The report adds to a growing focus on safety among transportation agencies, said Neil McFarlane, general manager of TriMet.

"I would really emphasize short-term implementation of cost effective solutions," McFarlane said."I very much endorse the recommendations."

Several Metro transportation projects include safety improvements as high priorities and some have even used the data from the safety report as it has emerged, including the East Metro Connections Plan and the Regional Active Transportation Plan.

Dylan Rivera can be reached at 503-797-1551 or dylan.rivera@oregonmetro.gov.

Learn more about the Metro State of Safety Report

Download the Metro State of Safety Report 

Learn more about the East Metro Connections Plan 

Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation

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