BACKSTORY: Pedestrian deaths are especially notable, dropping 65 percent
by: JIM CLARK, Pedestrian deaths in accidents involving cars have been cut from 17 in 1996 to just six in 2006.

City transportation officials are cautiously pleased with a downward trend in deaths caused by car accidents in Portland during the last decade.

Twenty-two drivers or passengers died in vehicle accidents in Portland last year, compared to 41 in 1996.

But officials acknowledge that not all of that decline relates to road safety or road improvements. Some might relate to improvement in vehicle safety, or even just chance.

'The difference between a fatality and a serious injury can be an inch,' says Greg Raisman, an official with Portland's Office of Transportation.

But transportation officials talk even more enthusiastically about pedestrians and bicyclists on Portland's streets.

'I think the piece that really excites us … are some of the numbers on bike and pedestrian safety,' says Mark Lear, a city transportation manager.

Six pedestrians were killed in car-pedestrian accidents last year, compared to 17 in 1996.

Among improvements city officials have made is the instalation of 'pedestrian refuge islands' in the center of some streets that allow pedestrians to cross part of the street and then use the island to safely wait to finish crossing.

In 2000, the city installed a pedestrian island near Southeast 45th Avenue and Woodstock Boulevard. From 1996 through the installation of the island, there had been four car-pedestrian accidents at that location, with all four pedestrians seriously injured. Since the installation of the island, there have been no reported car-pedestrian accidents, city officials say.

Using speed bumps and other devices to slow cars on stretches of road also can make an enormous difference in car-pedestrian accidents, transportation officials say.

A pedestrian hit by a car traveling at 20 miles per hour has a 5 percent chance of being killed, according to transportation research. A pedestrian hit by a car traveling at 30 miles per hour has a 40 percent chance of being killed, and one hit at 40 miles per hour has a 90 percent chance of being killed.

'A small difference in speed makes a huge difference in the severity of the crash,' Raisman says.

Meanwhile, while the number of bicyclists killed has increased and decreased over the years - from zero to five deaths per year - the rate of bicycle crashes has declined.

According to city figures, while bicycle traffic more than quadrupled between 1991 and 2005 - to an average of more than 10,000 daily bicycle trips across the five downtown bridges - the number of car-bicycle crashes showed a much smaller rate of increase from 155 crashes to 188.

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