The speed limit reductions in most of Portland’s residential areas that were approved by the city council early this year have taken effect across Portland. As I wrote at the time of the council vote this initiative – covering almost 70 percent of Portland’s streets and roads – is a key element of Vision Zero, the city’s effort to eliminate pedestrian traffic deaths.
A more recent move by the council, however, is a reminder of two key points. First, that Vision Zero is a flexible, constantly evolving initiative and not just a single set of plans and actions, and, second, that it is designed to apply city-wide: in commercial as well as residential areas.
Until now Vision Zero’s speed limit changes have focused on residential areas. Earlier this month, however, “Portland approved an emergency plan… to reduce by 5 mph the speed limit (from 35mph to 30mph) on a more than 50 block stretch of Stark Street in Southeast Portland,” according to The Oregonian. Noting that this particular stretch of Stark “has long been an area of concern,” the newspaper adds that “two of the city’s 10 traffic fatalities this year happened between 109thand 162ndAvenues on Stark.”
The city’s Bureau of Transportation also announced that it plans other safety measures on the road, including the building or renovating of four pedestrian crossings, the addition of a new red light and the installation of speed cameras. The paper notes that all of this follows similar actions by the city along Southeast Division Street last year, which “are working to deter speeders.”
As a Portland attorney whose practice has long focused on car accidents I welcome these actions. In an ideal world we could count on everyone driving safely, but the world is far from ideal. As a result, Chapter 811 of the Oregon Revised Statutes (“Rules of the Road for Drivers”) plays a disproportionately large part in all our daily lives. Carefully considered actions that make it easier for both the city and our courts to enforce these rules benefit everyone.
It is important to remember that the conduct mandated in ORS 811 can be enforced by civil as well as criminal courts. For example, when a driver injures someone else by going too fast (ORS 811.100) or by failing to yield to a pedestrian at a crosswalk (ORS 811.025) they are not only subject to fines and enforcement measures mandated by the government. They also are liable for the damage they have done in our civil courts. The ability to hold people accountable for their actions is a key component of our legal system, and an important deterrent against reckless and negligent conduct.
Vision Zero (which, it should be noted is a national initiative – not something unique to Portland) is a set of tools in service of a laudable goal. It is essential that we always remember that these tools are most effective when the ability and will to enforce them exists.