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Car crash numbers pile up

BACKSTORY • East-side thoroughfares easily are Portland's most dangerous
by: JIM CLARK, According to the numbers, the intersection at Southeast Powell Boulevard and 82nd Avenue is the city’s most dangerous, with the most crashes and highest number of fatalities.

More than the rest, this one got the attention of the folks at Cabinet Outlet, on the corner of Southeast 82nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard.

It was about three months ago. The little old lady driving didn't quite make the turn from Powell onto 82nd. She ran into the Cabinet Outlet building.

No one was injured, fortunately. And, true, not every accident around here ends up with a little old lady and the couple of tons of steel she's semi-commandeering lodged into the side of your building. But by now, the incident is almost - almost - forgettable around here.

Talking about car crashes at 82nd and Powell is like talking about raindrops in April.

Jeff Rehm has worked at Cabinet Outlet for about four weeks. He figures there have been 'five or six or seven' accidents at the corner in that time. The most recent one was early last week, Rehm says.

'It's just funny,' Rehm says. 'You'll hear the tires screech and next thing you know you have people pulling into the parking lot.' With their injured vehicles.

This corner is Portland's crash central. Of all the intersections in Portland, this one had the highest number of car accidents, and the highest number of people injured in those accidents between 2001 through 2005. (Localized numbers are not yet available for 2006.)

But as busy as 82nd and Powell has been, it wasn't so far ahead of a few other intersections on 82nd Avenue or 122nd Avenue for the city's top crash intersections. In fact, a look at the top 10 crash sites in Portland for most of this decade says one thing emphatically: There are more than little old ladies having troubles on 82nd and 122nd avenues.

Seven of Portland's 10 most dangerous intersections are on 82nd Avenue or 122nd Avenue.

And, while the trend isn't exactly new, it is getting increasing attention from city leaders.

'It's stark and it's chilling,' city Commissioner Sam Adams says of the number of accidents causing death and injuries - to drivers and pedestrians - on 82nd and 122nd. 'The fact that east Portland has been a more dangerous place for transportation safety is not a new trend. And I can't believe it's been allowed to go on as long as it has.'

City transportation officials say they have been trying to deal with the most urgent issues. The city, for example, completely rebuilt the signaling system at the corner of 82nd and Powell in January 2005. That resulted in a 50 percent reduction in sideswipe and rear-end collisions that year, officials say.

But the officials have spent nowhere near the money in past years that they will be spending next year on traffic safety. Adams, who runs the transportation bureau, proposed and won City Council approval for a one-time expenditure of $5.9 million for the next fiscal year to improve traffic safety around the city.

The city will get the money from a projected general fund surplus for next year, and spend the money on, among other things, new traffic signals at various intersections, including two on 122nd Avenue, and six new red-light cameras.

Those would be added to the six red-light cameras the city currently operates.

Adams also is proposing - but has yet to win approval for - spending another $6 million in one-time funds during the 2007-08 fiscal year on traffic safety improvements in the city.

'People are being killed and injured on our transportation system because it is not engineered to handle the demands' from increasing traffic, Adams says. 'You've got to have roads that are designed to handle the load.'

Roads that aren't designed to handle the load inevitably will mean car accidents, transportation experts say. In fact, experts don't call them car 'accidents,' according to city transportation official Greg Raisman.

'We call them crashes,' he says. 'Because they were predictable and preventable.'

They seem to be especially predictable on the city's most problematic roads and at the most problematic intersections. Adding up the numbers for the city's 10 most dangerous intersections - or 40 most dangerous - yields some staggering results.

From 2001 through 2004, those 40 intersections accounted for 3,721 crashes, 10 fatalities and 1,425 injuries - resulting in an estimated total economic cost of $46 million, according to city transportation figures.

All of the city's 10 most dangerous intersections are on four- or five-lane roads. All are east of 38th Avenue on Portland's east side. Many of them are on roads where drivers routinely go faster than the speed limit; many of them are on roads that need more traffic signals.

Adams and transportation officials say relatively inexpensive fixes can have a large impact on safety for drivers and pedestrians.

Red-light cameras cost about $30,000 per system.

Just using one street as an example, transportation officials say, 53 of the 84 crashes at Foster Road and Southeast 96th Avenue from 2001 through 2004 were caused by drivers running red lights.

But the six current red-light cameras in the city have reduced red-light-running violations by between 60 percent and 87 percent, city transportation officials say.

In terms of pedestrian safety, 4 percent of the city's intersections produced two-thirds of pedestrian fatalities from 1994 through 2004.

Nine pedestrians were killed from 1995 through 2004 on 82nd and 122nd avenues alone. Pedestrian islands - raised areas in the center of a four-lane street - can provide a safe area for pedestrians who are trying to cross those wide and busy roads.

'A pedestrian (island) costs about $40,000, but it drives down injury rates exponentially,' Adams says. Transportation officials say they reduce pedestrian-car accidents by 40 percent.

'The magic of having one-time money and investing it … the one-time expenditures can have lasting safety benefits,' Adams says.

Included among the city's traffic safety improvements for next year are the new traffic signals - one at Southwest Clay Street and Second Avenue and two on 122nd Avenue - at Southeast Stark and Division streets.

The city also plans to install crosswalks in six 'main street' corridors. Among possible locations: Northwest 23rd Avenue, Southwest Capitol Highway, Southeast Belmont Street and Southeast Milwaukie Avenue.

City transportation officials also are studying changes to traffic-signal timing on certain roads, and the increased use of reader boards that show drivers their driving speed.

Said Adams: 'When I see a concentration of injuries and accidents on specific roads, and when I know that with some specific moderate investments … we can reduce deaths from both drivers and pedestrians, I'm going to focus on that.'

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Graphics:

Portland traffic fatalities

Portland's most dangerous intersections


Red-light cameras are set to multiply

Red-light cameras were first installed at three locations in Portland in October 2001. Two more were added in January 2002. A sixth came in April 2003.

The city is planning to install six more cameras during the next fiscal year, which would bring the total to the maximum allowed for Portland under state law. The city has not finalized where the six new cameras will go.

Here are where the current cameras operate:

• East Burnside Street at Grand Avenue, northbound approach

• Northeast Sandy Boulevard at 39th Avenue, westbound approach

• Northeast Sandy Boulevard at 39th Avenue, northbound approach

• Southeast Grand Avenue at Madison Street, northbound approach

• West Burnside Street at 19th Avenue, eastbound approach

• Northeast Broadway at Grand Avenue, westbound approach

- Todd Murphy