Oregon Bike Accidents and the Challenge of Infrastructure

On Thursday evening, according to Bike Portland, “a quarter-mile of Portlanders lined Southwest Naito Parkway’s temporary protected bike lane” as a form of protest at plans for its removal. The temporary lane is scheduled to be removed on Monday, October 1, but a separate blog post from the advocacy group notes that “the city has worked up a rough engineering concept that includes a bike path and protected two-way bike lanes between Salmon Street and Harrison Street.” Regardless of how one views the bike lane proposals on Naito Parkway the fact that Portland is even having civic conversations like these is a good sign for out community.

This week’s protest comes at a moment when there is a significant amount of activity surrounding bike safety here in what is often called the country’s most bike-friendly city. But it also comes at a moment when government data is reminding all of us that despite its bike-loving reputation Portland could do much better.

Chapters 814 and 815 of Oregon’s legal code (see links below) are often presented as a reminder of the obligations cyclists have when using our roads. It is important to understand, however, that they place an even more significant level of responsibility on drivers of cars and trucks. Because the legal code considers bikes vehicles it is the responsibility of all other vehicle operators (i.e. drivers) to treat them with the same caution and respect they use around cars, trucks and motorcycles. As a widely reported government study noted last month, cycling deaths have been on the rise nationwide. The 818 cyclist deaths on our nation’s roads in 2015 (the latest year for which data is available) represented a 12 percent jump from the previous year.

Data published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests that Portland and Oregon are not as safe for cyclists as we might hope. In 2015 cyclists represented 5.6% of Portland’s traffic accident fatalities, a total that translates to 3.6 per million people. Seattle, a larger city, had rates of only 3.8% and 1.46 per million. And while some cities, such as San Francisco and Las Vegas, had noticeably higher rates in both categories several comparably-sized cities, including Boston and Nashville had no bike fatalities at all. At the state level Oregon, with eight cyclist fatalities in 2015 – representing just 1.8% of all Oregon traffic deaths – compares relatively well to other states.

Recently Oregon became the first state to impose a tax on most new bike sales, a measure expected to raise $1.2 million per year, all of which will be dedicated to bike and pedestrian-focused transportation and infrastructure projects. Opinions on this were split in the Portland cycling community, but we can all hope that it may prove to be a boon to projects like the permanent Naito bike lane. The numbers released each year by the NHTSA can make for disturbing reading. It is important that we both invest in cycling infrastructure, and constantly remind car, truck and motorcycle operators of their obligation to respect cyclists and their rights.

As a Portland attorney who is eager to help our city’s cycling community I have written in the past about efforts to cut traffic deaths such as the Vision Zero program. It is equally important, however, that we remember that riders have rights, and that these rights sometimes need to be protected in our courts. It is essential for Portland’s cycling community to move forward on multiple fronts: advocating for safer streets and better recognition of bikes in our local and state legal codes, and doing all we can to protect those rights when drivers fail to acknowledge them.

 

BikePortland: City has sketched up plans for a Better Naito all the way to Harrison

Bicycling: Cycling Deaths are Rising Faster Than Driving or Walking Deaths, New Study Suggests

NHTSA Crash Statistics for 2015 (published March 2017 – opens as pdf)

Willamette Week: Oregon Becomes the First State in America to Issue a Bike Sales Tax

Portland Bureau of Transportation: Bikes and the Law

ORS Chapter 814: Vehicles with fewer than four wheels

ORS Chapter 815: Vehicle Equipment Generally