Federal Report: Bad Street Design a Factor in Rising Ped/Bike Fatalities

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A new report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office [PDF] examines why people walking or biking account for a rising share of traffic deaths in the United States. While the conclusions aren’t exactly earth-shattering, one culprit the GAO identified is street design practices that seek primarily to move cars.

The investigation was ordered by U.S. representatives Rick Larsen (Washington State), Peter DeFazio (Oregon) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC) in response to increasing pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Between 2004 and 2013, traffic deaths dropped steadily for drivers, but inched up for people walking or biking, according to the GAO. The cause of the discrepancy isn’t clear.

The GAO interviewed officials from state and local transportation agencies, U.S. DOT, and bike and pedestrian advocacy groups about obstacles to safety. Its conclusions reflect the attitudes of the institutions that were interviewed, without adding much in the way of data analysis.

One factor the GAO points to, for instance, is “alcohol use” — a favorite of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (one of the groups interviewed). This can refer to both drunk driving or a victim who was struck while drunk. The GAO notes that in 14 percent of pedestrian fatalities, the victim was drunk or high. But the report presents no data to support the notion that intoxicated pedestrians account for the rising share of pedestrian fatalities. Nor is it clear why alcohol-related fatalities would increase for pedestrians and cyclists while declining in the aggregate.

Another part of the report, however, does delve into institutional obstacles to safer streets. The GAO notes that many transportation agencies, especially state agencies, still don’t see protecting pedestrians and bicyclists as a priority.

GAO also points to “historical engineering standards,” saying:

Design efforts such as widening lanes or minimizing sharp curves may have contributed to motorist safety, but may also have contributed to declines in pedestrian and cyclist safety. Wider, straighter highways could lead to motorist speeding, which not only increases the likelihood of crashes with a pedestrian or cyclist, but also the probability that those crashes will cause death or a serious injury.

The report is actually somewhat apologetic about this problem, devoting a great deal of space to listing actions that U.S. DOT has taken to improve bike and pedestrian safety, including the recently proposed rule change that would make it easier for local governments to design major streets for walking and biking.

GAO also reported engineers have been resistant to adopt new standards that are safer for walking and biking “because they have more experience with other standards.”

  • Bobberooni

    One likely reason for rising pedestrian fatality percentage is a variety of safety measures that have pushed down fatalities for people inside cars, without affecting the ped rate. I’d like to see absolute numbers here.

  • laldm109

    Are new traffic engineers taught with the better, new standards (ie NACTO)? ie when the baby boomer engineers retire who are stuck in their highway-building ways, is the situation likely to improve?

  • chekpeds

    Exactly and the answer is no .

  • AndreL

    If we look at Table 1 of the aforementioned GAO report (PDF), we will notice that rather than a significant increase on deaths of cyclists or pedestrians, the trend is dominated by an overall reduction on total traffic deaths.

    Why does Streetblog keeping doing these repeated mistakes with data just to make it fit a pre-conceived narrative?

    Now are cyclist and pedestrian deaths a problem? Sure. But such deaths are not increasing, more people are not getting killed on their feet or bikes. Instead, the reduction in traffic deaths for drivers and car passengers has not been matched by reduction in deaths for other road users. That is a completely different problem.

  • AndreL

    Here they are

  • Bicyclist and pedestrian deaths rose in both absolute and proportional terms. There was no mistake. The fact that this happened during a period of declining overall traffic deaths is what makes it more alarming and concerning.

  • MarkinArl

    Absolute bike and ped deaths rose (if at all) because from 2005 to 2013 walking was up 21% and cycling was up 62%, so the death rate declined. Only because driving got so much safer did the others look needing. All outerwear needs to include retro-reflective threads or embellishments to start making the improvements to pedestrian and cyclist safety that dozens of innovations have made to car safety. Cyclist helmet wearing, light use and other law compliance needs to be supported with enforcement.

  • MarkinArl

    What is interesting to compare is the death vs. injury rates for pedestrians compared to cyclists. In 2013 there were 4.65 times as many pedestrians as cyclists, yet only 1.4 the injuries, making cyclists much more injury prone. Deaths were the opposite, where pedestrians died at a higher rate. Safest of all, of course, is driving or public transit.

  • AndreL

    Whereas the death counts are precise (though there are a few cases such as people who are severely injured, never recover and die months later from complications), the injury counts are estimates (see footnote).

    In any case, you are right in the sense that cycling is more dangerous in terms of injuries than walking for obvious reasons.

    In the Netherlands, where I am currently living for work, people inside cars account for less than half of total traffic related deaths. Pedestrians (mostly hit by cars) and cyclists (mostly hit by other bicycles or mopeds), together comprise almost 55% of total traffic deaths. Increasing walking and cycling in US should, statistically, increase the number of injuries and deaths, while reducing the death (injury) per traveler rate as well.

  • neroden

    Ludicrous. We shouldn’t have to wear flashing reflectors to walk down the street. That’s completely insane.

  • neroden

    Based on the numbers in table 1, Bobberooni is almost certainly correct. Nothing whatsoever has been done to make pedestrians safer, while something has been done to prevent people inside cars from being injured even if they get into crashes. This fits with what we know.

    We’d want to look at the crash rate (injury or no injury — some crashes have no injuries –) to verify this. I’m betting the crash rate is constant or rising.

  • woobat

    Or we could lower speed limits and require improvements to cars (lower clearances, better design for protecting peds in the event of a crash).

    But, hey, victim blaming might also work!

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