The Oregonian reported this week that Portland has lowered the speed limit along a 5.5 mile stretch of 122nd Avenue which it describes as “one of the city’s most dangerous roads.” The speed limit reduction from 35 to 30 mph will apply from the intersection with Northeast Sandy Boulevard to the intersection with Southeast Foster Road.
“The reductions mark the latest changes in what’s been a years-long attempt to reduce speeding on neighborhood streets and bust arterials,” the paper notes. It is especially important because “four of the city’s top-ten most dangerous intersections are on 122nd Avenue.”
The Oregonian reports that 54 people died in Portland traffic crashes last year, “the most since 1996.” That statistic highlights an important fact that can often get lost in discussions like this. Though we tend to think of car crashes as high speed incidents, even accidents at the 35 mph, which few Americans think of as a fast driving speed, can be lethal. A Dutch study republished by the US Federal Highway Administration (see link below) dramatically illustrates the relationship between speed and fatality in traffic accidents, especially those involving pedestrians. The study found that once the impact speed passes about 20 mph the fatality risk for pedestrians increases exponentially.
The effect is equally dramatic when speeds drop. “If on a road the average speed goes down from 50 to 49 km/h (from 31 to 30.4 mph), this is expected to result in 5.9% fewer fatalities and 4% fewer serious road injuries,” the study found.
This is a key reason why as a Portland lawyer with a practice focusing on car accidents I have long been an enthusiastic supporter of the city’s Vision Zero program. The city’s effort to use a combination of education and tougher enforcement to slow down traffic and make our streets more welcoming for everyone shows that even incremental changes can produce significant results.
Where the state can help is by giving Portland and other cities greater authority to control speed on their streets. The change to the speed limit along 122nd requires state approval. “The legislature gave Portland authority in 2017 to reduce speed limits on neighborhood streets from 25 to 20 miles per hour,” The Oregonian reports. But because the reduction along 122nd was outside that range it also required permission from Salem, despite the fact that the city owns the street in question. The paper notes that the authorization took nearly a year to obtain. Meanwhile, “a 2019 bill that would’ve given the city authority to change the rules on city-owned streets on its own died in the legislature.”
A streamlined process for adjusting speed limits would almost certainly save lives across the city. As an Oregon attorney who sees the tragic effects of motor vehicle accidents almost every day I urge everyone to drive safely and support Vision Zero.
Federal Highway Administration/Institute for Road Safety Research: The relation between speed and crashes