Max Denning

It has been almost three years since the Oregon Legislature increased the speed limit from 65 to 70 mph on the stretch of I-84 from The Dalles to Ontario. Late last year, Portland State University released a preliminary analysis of the afirst year of the speed limit increase for the Oregon Department of Transportation on I-84 and the increase on other rural highways from 55 to 65 mph. The one-year data suggest crashes have increased in areas where the speed limit was raised.

“These preliminary findings of the analysis are consistent with other related research and analyses have found increased crash frequency and severity with increased speed limits,” the PSU report concludes.

Tom Strandberg, ODOT Public Information Officer for Region 5, said there’s not enough information to make drastic changes just yet.

“With the short timeframe for this study, it’s too early to tell if the increase in crashes is a trend that will continue,” Strandberg told The Observer. “Another study will be conducted at the three-year mark. For now we are reviewing the data and have shared it with the Oregon Transportation Commission and Oregon legislators.”

The chief sponsors of the 2015 bill proposed raising the speed limits, were Rep. Greg Barreto (R-Cove), the representative for the La Grande area, and Rep. Jim Weidner, who was a representative in Yamhill County but retired in 2017.

Neither Barreto and Weidner could be reached for comment before press time.

The 2015 bill received wide bipartisan support. It passed in the house 52-5 and in the senate 22-6. The governor signed the bill less than a month after the Legislature passed it.

Gov. Kate Brown’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Not everyone thought the bill was a good idea, though. In the early stages of the bill, Troy Costales, administrator of the ODOT Transportation Safety Division, provided written testimony to the House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development in opposition to the bill.

In April 2015, Costales told the committee the transportation department believed raising speeds would lead to more fatalities.

“ODOT is concerned raising speeds will increase the number of serious and fatal injury crashes in the state, especially in rural parts of the state where emergency services are not readily available,” the testimony read.

Costales laid out the case against the bill. He noted excessive speed and alcohol impairment was were the two main causes of fatal car crashes in Oregon. He noted in 2013, Oregon had a fatality rate on rural interstates of .93 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, while Idaho, where the speed limit was 10 mph higher, had a fatality rate of 1.38.

He concluded his written testimony with a concise summary: “Statistics demonstrate increasing speeds will result in an increase in serious and fatal injury crashes.”

Almost four years later, the PSU study suggests Costales was correct.

Compared to the control group, highways where the speed limit was increased from 60 to 65 saw an “increase in total, fatal and injury A crashes, truck involved, and truck involved fatal and injury A crashes.”

Injury A crashes are crashes that cause severe injuries.

Highways where the speed limit was increased to 70 saw an “increase in truck involved crashes. No apparent change in fatal and injury A crashes. A possible decrease in truck involved fatal injury A crashes.”

Nonetheless, the study recognizes more data is needed.

“A longer time series with additional crash data will improve the analysis,” the study concludes in its findings.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer