Lower Speeds Can Lead to Lower Oregon Traffic Death Tolls

A fascinating analysis published last week in the online Portland newspaper Enzyme PDX looks at the question of road fatalities – an issue as ever-present here in Portland as it is anywhere else. Specifically, the article compares Portland’s approach to road safety the approach used in Sweden. As the article notes, Portland’s population is just over one-third that of Sweden. But even though Sweden has a lot more people, it and Portland recorded around the same number of traffic fatalities in 2009 (355 for Sweden, 331 for Portland). This year, Portland’s streets have been deadlier – 198 fatalities so far in 2010 versus only 162 in Sweden. Again, that’s not Stockholm – it is all of Sweden.

Why, Enzyme PDX asks, do Sweden’s roads seem to be so much safer? The difference, the news site suggests, is essentially philosophical. Since 1997 Sweden’s traffic planners have worked on the assumption that they – the planners – are responsible for constantly modifying the traffic system in an effort to reduce or eliminate serious injuries and deaths while keeping traffic moving. This does not, they stress, relieve drivers of responsibility in any way. It does mean that the people who manage the transport system see lowering fatalities as just as much of a daily task as keeping the traffic moving.

Some of Sweden’s methods are well-known. The country has famously tough drunk driving laws and is equally famous for the zeal with which it enforces them. Less well known, and explored at length by Enzyme PDX is the effort the Swedes put into figuring out how best to help bikes, cars and pedestrians co-exist on the country’s streets and roads. Much of the time, that means forcing cars to slow down in areas where bikes and foot traffic are present. According to the website, speed limits in Swedish cities are a mere 18.6 miles per hour (30 km per hour) – because years of data analysis has shown that to be the optimal speed for overall safety in mixed-use areas.

Portland has long had a reputation as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. But, as the article notes, a recent effort to reduce Portland bicycle accidents by installing a bicycle boulevard on SE Holgate (“well known in local traffic circles as a killer road”, Enzyme PDX reports) met with stiff local resistance. “Neighbors want safer streets, but they don’t want to have to slow down to get them,” the website notes.

The broader point, though Enzyme’s analysis does not say this directly, is that drivers, even in a bicycle-friendly city like Portland, need to show a deeper acceptance of the idea that the road belongs to everyone and that speed alone can’t, and shouldn’t, be the goal of road design: that cutting down on Oregon car and bike collisions requires a broader view of road use. If you have been involved in an Oregon bicycle accident a Portland bike accident lawyer can be an essential ally, helping ensure that motorists exercise due care and caution around cyclists, and that they pay just compensation when they fail to do so.

Enzyme PDX: How to halt Road Death in Portland