As traffic deaths reach record highs, Multnomah County urges extra care this Halloween, turns public health lens on preventable deaths

October 29, 2021

With traffic deaths reaching record highs, Multnomah County officials are urging drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to travel with extreme caution this Halloween weekend. 

And, Chair Deborah Kafoury announced today, the Health Department will turn its public health lens on these traffic crashes — similar to the Domicile Unknown approach —  to better prevent deaths in the future.

“Too often, crashes and deaths are viewed as the result of individual acts or random circumstances, but we know that we cannot improve safety without understanding the patterns, trends and disparities behind the numbers,’’ Kafoury said. “Our Public Health team is working with the Multnomah County Transportation Division, Portland Bureau of Transportation, Environmental Health analysts and our REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) team to get to the root causes.’’

Traffic crashes are a leading cause of preventable injury and death in Multnomah County.

In 2020, preliminary data from transportation and law enforcement shows that 84 people died in traffic deaths, more than any year during the 15-year period of 2004-2018. The 2014-2018 average is 46.

Of particular concern: Death rates from crash injuries among Black residents were nearly twice the rate among white residents from 2013 through 2017. And that disparity had grown when compared to the previous five-year period, according to a report released in February by REACH, in partnership with Public Health.

”The REACH Traffic Safety Report established a baseline on disparities,’’ said Charlene McGee, REACH program manager. “It is a call to action to work collectively on adopting and implementing policy, system and environmental changes that will protect — and promote — the health and well-being of all County residents”

Like other areas of the country experiencing a spike in 2021, Multnomah County is on pace to match last year’s deaths. As of Oct. 25, 2021, there had been 62 traffic deaths in Multnomah County. And new analysis shows the rate of years of potential life lost from traffic crashes in East Multnomah County is about double the rate in inner Portland.

“We’re seeing the pandemic layered with ingrained and systemic racism, poverty, untreated mental health issues, homelessness,” said Brendon Haggerty, supervisor of the Healthy Homes and Communities program. “And you put that on streets that are not designed for safety, and so it’s no surprise we see these numbers.”

Chair Kafoury said in declaring racism a public health issue earlier this year, County leaders committed to better understanding how systemic inequities cause premature illness and death and to working to reduce those disparities. Differences in street design, pavement, speed limits, lighting and sidewalks, for instance, can all contribute to differences in safety for people living in different neighborhoods.

Crash data typically are also collected by police and transportation agencies to establish liability or determine if a crime was committed.  The public health approach will instead examine circumstances that policy makers can address. The team expects to report key findings from its crash analysis by mid-2022.

The differences are also compelling the County’s transportation programs to redouble its efforts to improve the roadways for safety.

“Our Transportation Division has made maintenance, safety and equity our top priority,’’ said Jamie Waltz, the director of the County’s Department of Community Services, which includes the Division and its 269 miles of roads. “We are focusing our safety efforts on our roads in East County cities, where a larger percentage of low-income and BIPOC residents live.” 

Halloween, in particular, is an especially dangerous day of the year for traffic fatalities among children throughout the United States. But County officials said, there are many things people can and should do this weekend to protect themselves and others.

Drivers can expect a lot of people to be in the roadway and even small increases in speed can have deadly consequences. They should:

  • Never drive over the posted speed limit.
  • Slow down this weekend, on residential streets in particular. 
  • Take extra care at intersections or crosswalks.
  • Don’t assume pedestrians and cyclists can see you.
  • Don’t drink and drive.

Families who plan on trick-or-treating with children can 

  • Keep their kids visible by carrying glow sticks, flashlights or decorating costumes with reflective tape. 
  • Be aware that costume masks can block your child’s line of sight.
  • Use sidewalks whenever possible. If there are no sidewalks, walk facing traffic and as far from traffic as possible.
  • Cross the street using traffic signals and crosswalks, reminding children to look both ways before crossing. 
  • Walk instead of run.
  • Don’t assume drivers can see you.

“Halloween is one of the most memorable holidays for children and grown ups,’’ Chair Kafoury said. “We want everyone to make it home safely.’’


What Multnomah County Commissioners are saying about traffic safety:

Commissioner Lori Stegmann: “Far too many lives have been lost in traffic fatalities in East Multnomah County. In partnership with our cities, we are prioritizing behavior, policy, and infrastructure changes that put safety first.” said Commissioner Stegmann, who serves as the Chair of the East Multnomah County Transportation Committee. “We cannot allow these tragic numbers to increase. Each individual who has lost their life was a real person who was loved and we should do all we can to prevent that loss from happening again.''

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson: “Racism is pervasive in our society, and it's not at all surprising that we see racial disparities in the number of fatalities on our roadways,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who represents the County at numerous transportation tables. "We need to counter these deadly tragedies with policies and investments that reduce the number of deaths and build a safe, multimodal transportation system for all residents.”

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal: “The disparities that we see in traffic fatalities, especially among Black residents, means prioritizing road safety as part of the County’s work on addressing racism as a public health issue.   And as we go into darker and rainier evenings, please be an alert and safe driver, and take extra precautions as pedestrians, especially on Halloween.” 

Commissioner Sharon Meieran: “We know that policies and investment choices rooted in racism have contributed to more traffic deaths among Black residents. Along with our local and regional partners, the County is committed to addressing longstanding disparities to protect the health and well-being of all residents and ensure access to a safe and equitable transportation system.”