Anatomy of a Crash

Sam Adams apparently has some concept of the limitations of his power as Transportation Commissioner. Last week he convened what he’s calling an “operator’s steering group” of all the agencies that have something to with operating transportation in the City of Portland. I scored an invitation, I’m not sure whether it was for my Streetcar connections, or to provide some leavening as a citizen activist (there was one other neighborhood activist invited as well).

It was interesting just how many different folks have their hand in transportation in the city, as illustrated by one of the items on the agenda.

We spent so much time on one agenda item that we had to push out several items to a future meeting. The featured agenda item was the “anatomy of a crash”. We got a detailed analysis of a fender bender on I-5 (northbound) during a recent morning rush hour.

The non-injury accident (75% of accidents in the city are property-damage-only) closed 2 lanes on the freeway, and took 1 hour and 8 minutes to clear. The estimate of the dollar value of the delay for drivers and freight is $150K.

So how can we do this better? Clearing the accident 10 minutes faster would save $25,000 in productivity, shaving 20 minutes off would be worth $50,000. Given that this happens many times per year, it seemed to Commissioner Adams that we might do something about this, and this was the major topic of conversation at the meeting.

The first reaction was to say that ODOT should get tow vehicles out sooner. But surprise, towing on the Portland stretches of the freeway system is governed by a contract managed by the Portland Bureau of Revenue (which regulates tow operators). Did the Bureau of Revenue include performance metrics for clearing freeway accidents in its contract? Why would they if they don’t see themselves having a transportation mission. Now they do!

Some of the other barriers identified:

  • Tow is not requested until an assessment is done on whether there are injuries – rolling a tow truck on a contingency basis my cost money in some cases, but save a lot of economic value in other cases.
  • Evaluating tow contracts for the dispatch location might provide better geographic coverage.
  • The vehicle owner can request a specific tow company (some states don’t allow this) potentially slowing the process.

Another idea was to equip ODOT’s Comet quick response vehicles with limited tow capability to at least get vehicles off the freeway.

Hats off to Commissioner Adams for getting all the involved parties to think together. I hope future meetings of this group are equally productive.

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