• September 24, 2023

Report: Oakland traffic collisions are a ‘public safety epidemic’

Oakland’s roads have become so dangerous that severe and fatal crashes are now a “public safety epidemic,” according to a new city report.

The Safe Oakland Streets initiative’s second annual report, presented at the City Council’s Public Works Committee Tuesday, describes in stark terms the situation on city roads for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers, while also providing an overview of the ways the city has tried to make streets safer for everyone. This includes a summary of specific actions taken by the city following the deaths of 36 people on Oakland roads last year.

The report should help residents and city leaders understand the high level of traffic violence as well as the investments Oakland has made in the last four, Deputy City Administrator Joe Devries said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Traffic violence in Oakland is horrible and met its record last year of 36 traffic deaths, and these are all preventable,” Devries said.

Five people have already died this year from traffic collisions, according to OakDOT.

Safe Oakland Streets is a citywide initiative across different city departments to “prevent severe and fatal crashes and related disparities impacting Black, indigenous, and people of color communities, persons with disabilities, seniors, and low-income populations.”

Investigations and design changes on deadly and dangerous streets

According to OakDOT Director Fred Kelley, the city started construction on 158 traffic improvement projects in 2022, many of which were chosen because they were somewhere in the “high-injury network,” a group of streets where the majority of deadly collisions happen.

130 of the traffic improvement projects in 2022 were small changes at a single intersection or along one block, and all were built in less than a year. This included 52 speed bump additions. The rest of the traffic improvement projects were more complex and sometimes included cooperation with other county and state agencies.

Kelley said in the report that the city will update the high injury network this fall, adding new streets while potentially removing others from the list, using data from the last few years of traffic collisions. This will guide work in future years.

Still, traffic safety advocates and families of collision victims have criticized the city in recent years because of what they say is Oakland’s slow response to make specific streets safer after someone has been killed. Last year, eyewitnesses to a fatal collision on Foothill Boulevard told The Oaklandside that it took the city nearly a year to make changes to the road to slow down cars. This year, OakDOT appears to be speeding up its responses, although the efficacy of the changes is not yet known.

OakDOT said in the new Safe Oakland Streets report that they conducted 24 traffic violence investigations last year at locations where someone died from a collision in 2022 and three more investigations at intersections where someone suffered a serious injury.

As a result of these 27 traffic collision investigations, the transportation department completed nine new projects to improve safety. In one case, the city installed center hardlines on 55th Street and Shattuck Avenue in North Oakland, the area where East Bay sommelier Jonathan Waters was killed when he was struck by the driver of a car while riding a bike on his way home last year.

OakDOT’s Weir said at the meeting Tuesday that the OPD was a critical partner in developing faster interventions.

“We reach out to them, they notify us within hours, and we have a meeting with them within days [of a deadly collision] to better understand circumstances around fatalities and what near-term improvements we can implement,” she said.

Some of the locations flagged in 2022 are still waiting on OakDOT to install new traffic safety infrastructure. For example, the spot on International Boulevard where airline worker Lolo Soakai was killed after an illegal police chase is in line for a “quick build” project, although neither the city nor AC Transit has specified exactly what they’ll do to make the area safer. Some traffic advocates have called for hard rubber or cement separation between the car and bus-only lanes to prevent cars from using the bus lanes to speed past traffic.

An explanation of how OakDOT spends its funds, and new data on street repairs and traffic enforcement

In March, Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Janani Ramachandran asked OakDOT to explain how much of the department’s budget is spent on traffic violence prevention efforts. On Tuesday, OakDOT Assistant Director Megan Weir said two-thirds of OakDOT’s budget, or about $50 million of its $80 million available for the 2021-22 cycle, was used for traffic violence prevention.

The project that used up the most money was the Complete Streets Pavement and Sidewalk Management program, which used about $54 million in the 2021-22 cycle.

That the pavement program took up most of the budget for the last cycle was not a surprise, as the transportation department has focused on using paving projects to not only repair potholes but to fix other parts of roads that create unsafe conditions. For example, things like new sidewalks, new paint for crosswalks, and even removing street corner parking spots to improve visibility and space for cars and bikes to turn—called “daylighting” by traffic engineers—are part of the pavement program.

According to OakDOT, 25% of pavement costs go to local streets and 75% to major streets. Of the local streets, “at least one-quarter [of the pavement program cost] is related to standard safety improvements like high-visibility crosswalks and daylighting, as well as hazard-reduction work like sidewalk repairs.”

Over the last four years, the city has used about 62% of its transportation budget, or $154 million, on projects to enhance pedestrian safety, bicyclist safety, and implement safe routes to schools.

The city also discussed in the new report a data collection effort that could help shed light on why International Boulevard is such a dangerous road. OakDOT is partnering with the Alameda County Public Health Department to gather data on people who are hit and injured on International Boulevard. This will help OakDOT build relatively quick traffic violence interventions through its partnership with AC Transit. That partnership is expected to build new safety interventions by the end of 2023.

The Oakland Police Department also made a significant trove of data available to the public Tuesday.

According to OPD, there are five driving behaviors involved in 69% of all collisions causing severe injuries or deaths. About 19% of these collisions, come from drivers’ failure to yield to pedestrians, bicyclists, or other drivers with the right of way, 18% come from speeding, another 18% are when drivers run stop signs or red lights, 15% happen when a driver makes an unsafe turn, mostly left turns, and 10% of collisions are associated with people driving while impaired from alcohol or drugs.

The report also provided the first look at the performance of the Oakland Police Department’s Motor Enforcement Traffic Squad, which started again last Fall. According to OPD, 72% of stops last year were for dangerous driving, contributing to “severe and fatal crashes, as compared to just 40% in 2019.”

Overall on-the-road traffic stops, the types where officers notice a violation and act quickly, as opposed to a dispatch call, also went up from nearly 3,000 in 2021 to 4,010 in 2022. The department noted that traffic stops are still disproportionately conducted against certain racial groups, with 77% of all traffic stops made on Black or brown drivers.

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