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Safety in Numbers: Biking Is Safest in Nations With the Most People on Bikes

The more people bike in a country generally the safer it is for cycling. This phenomenon is called "safety in numbers." Graph: International Transport Forum via Amsterdamize

Countries with high cycling rates also have low rates of fatalities per distance biked. Graph: International Transport Forum [PDF] via Amsterdamize

The more people get around by bike, the safer it is, according to the “safety in numbers” rule first popularized by researcher Peter Jacobsen.

This chart from the International Transport Forum [PDF] shows how the safety in numbers effect plays out at the national scale. As you can see, biking is safer in the countries where people bike the most.

There was, however, some variation country to country. The report noted that Korea’s cycling fatality rates were greater than what its biking rates would suggest. Researchers speculated that might be due to a rapid recent growth in cycling. Perhaps, they write, “neither cyclists nor other transport participants have had time to assimilate each other’s presence.”

Meanwhile, in some nations with high cycling rates, biking has become even safer over time. That was the case in Denmark, where cycling rates have been high but fairly stable for the last decade, but fatality rates have dropped 40 percent during the same period.

The safety in numbers has been observed at the scale of cities too. Recently, for example, bicycle injury rates in Minneapolis have declined as total ridership has risen. The same trend has played out in New York, as cycling has increased while total injuries and fatalities have not.

Do more people on bikes cause cycling to become safer, or does safer infrastructure attract more people to bike? There’s no conclusive evidence either way, but the answer is probably a mix of both. Safer infrastructure entices more people to ride, and more people riding instill greater awareness on the part of motorists and increase the demand for safer infrastructure.

Streetsblog NYC 22 Comments

Life-Saving Truck Design Fix Sidelined By Federal Inaction

This is the second post in a Streetsblog NYC series about safety features for large vehicles. Part one examined the case for truck side guards and New York City’s attempt to require them for its fleet.

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Large trucks operating in New York City are not required to have side guards to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: dos82/Flickr

American cities are beginning to take the lead on requiring side guards on large trucks in municipal fleets. That’s a good first step toward saving lives, but without addressing privately-owned vehicles, city streets will not be safe from trucks that tend to crush people beneath the rear wheels after impact. The federal government continues to drag its feet, and without a national mandate, the prospects for meaningful action from the states look slim.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended installing side guards on all large trucks, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates truck design, has yet to pass a rule requiring them. NHTSA says it might begin soliciting input on new trailer guard rules by the middle of next year. Traditionally, the agency has focused on guards for the back end of trucks, which protect car occupants in rear-end collisions. There’s no guarantee that any progress toward new rules next year will include side guards.

In the absence of federal rules requiring side guards for trucks, New York state and local legislators have taken tentative steps toward addressing the problem. Albany’s previous attempts at similar legislation don’t inspire confidence, however. A recently enacted state law mandates “crossover” mirrors to reduce the size of blind spots in front of trucks weighing at least 26,000 pounds that operate on New York City streets. Enforcement of the mirror law is dismal, in part because of a loophole that exempts trucks registered out-of-state. The ultimate fix would be a national crossover mirror mandate, but the federal government has not shown any inclination to take that up.

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NHTSA Touts Decrease in Traffic Deaths, But 32,719 Ain’t No Vision Zero

Twenty-four-year-old Taja Wilson was killed near the Louisiana bayou in August when a driver swerved on the shoulder where she was walking. Noshat Nahian, age 8, was killed in a Queens crosswalk on his way to school in December by a tractor-trailer driver with a suspended license. Manuel Steeber, 37, was in a wheelchair when he was killed in Minneapolis while trying to cross an intersection with no crosswalk or traffic signal on a 40-mph road. One witness speculated that Steeber must have had a “death wish.”

Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a motorist on his way to school in Queens with his sister, Nousin Jahan Nishat, 11. Photo: ##http://accidentsinus.com/Victims/detail.aspx?Victim=ea990b8d-8312-4526-bf61-b326706ffdf9##Accidents in US##

Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a truck driver on his way to school in Queens with his sister.
Photo: Accidents in US

These are just three of the 4,735 pedestrians killed in 2013. Believe it or not, that was an improvement, down 1.7 percent from the year before.

New data [PDF] from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that overall, traffic fatalities went down in 2013 — reassuring news after a disturbing uptick in 2012. But 32,719 preventable deaths on the country’s streets is still an alarming death toll. Tens of thousands of lives would be saved if the United States achieved a traffic fatality rate comparable to the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan.

The Vision Zero movement is growing around the country, but advocates are still trying to come up with a way to bring the movement for zero deaths to the national level, instead of just city by city.

Moreover, though the overall situation improved in 2013, beneath the surface there were some disconcerting trends and facts:

  • Bicyclists (categorized as “pedalcyclists” in NHTSA reporting language) were the only group to experience more deaths in 2013 than 2012. With more and more people riding bicycles, the 743 cyclists killed in 2013 probably still represents fewer deaths per miles ridden, but it also reveals a blind spot in many places in the country that have yet to adapt their roads to the reality of more people biking.

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Here’s How Much Safer Transit Is Compared to Driving

Traffic fatality risk by transportation mode. Image: Journal of Public Transportation

Traffic fatality risk by transportation mode. Image: Journal of Public Transportation

Keep this in mind the next time a high-profile train crash generates more press coverage than a year’s worth of car wrecks: Despite the media sensationalism and overwrought regulatory responses that follow such events, transit is already a lot safer than driving.

Looking at traffic fatalities per mile traveled in the U.S., analyst Todd Litman found that riding commuter or intercity rail is about 20 times safer than driving; riding metro or light rail is about 30 times safer; and riding the bus is about 60 times safer. Factoring in pedestrians and cyclists killed in crashes with vehicles, the effect is smaller but still dramatic: the fatality rate associated with car travel is more than twice as high as the rate associate with transit. Litman’s study was recently published in the Journal of Public Transportation [PDF].

Litman notes that most transit travel involves some walking or biking, which carry a relatively high risk of traffic injury. But those risks are mostly offset by the health benefits of physical activity. Living in a place with good transit has safety benefits as well: Litman cites research showing that cities with higher transit ridership rates tend to have lower per-capita traffic fatality rates.

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DeFazio, Norton, and Larsen Take on Dangerous Street Design

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is already proving that he’ll put some muscle into the fight for bike and pedestrian safety in his new post as ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Before even starting his new job as Ranking Member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: ##http://bikeportland.org/2012/03/27/rep-defazio-takes-us-inside-the-transportation-fight-and-the-republican-psyche-69482##Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland##

Before even starting his new job as ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland

DeFazio and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), top Democrat on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, have signed on to fellow T&I Democrat Rick Larsen (D-WA)’s letter asking the Government Accountability Office to look into the recent rise in bike and pedestrian fatalities, which increased 6 percent between 2011 and 2012.

At the state and federal level, efforts to improve the safety of walking and biking often blame the victim — as the Governors Highway Safety Association did when it flagged the recent increase in cyclist fatalities without noting that biking rates have gone up much more. DeFazio and company are emphasizing a much more fundamental problem: street design.

In their letter, they state:

[W]e are concerned that conventional engineering practices have encouraged engineers to design roads at 5-15 miles per hour faster than the posted speed for the street. This typically means roads are designed and built with wider, straighter lanes and have fewer objects near the edges, more turn lanes, and wider turning radii at intersections. While these practices improve driving safety, a suspected unintended consequence is that drivers travel faster when they feel safer. Greater speeds can increase the frequency and severity of crashes with pedestrians and cyclists who are moving at much slower speeds and have much less protection than a motorized vehicle affords.

The GAO responds to lawmaker requests like these by investigating the matter and reporting back to help members of Congress develop a deeper understanding of the issues so they can set better policy. The GAO itself makes recommendations for improvement in the reports.

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Kentucky Threatens 17 Louisville Street Trees, Citing Safety [Updated]

The Kentucky Department of Transportation objects to street trees on this stroad. Image: Google Maps

The Kentucky Department of Transportation says trees make this road dangerous. Image: Google Maps

Here’s a classic story of traffic engineering myopia. Officials at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet are threatening to remove 17 newly planted street trees in a Louisville suburb.

As reported by Next City and Louisville’s Courier-Journal, the trees had been selected and planted in part to ameliorate the area’s growing urban heat island problem. Louisville has lost 9 percent of its tree cover over roughly the last decade.

But Kentucky officials say the trees are a hazard to motorists along Brownsboro Road in Rolling Hills.

“We are not anti-tree at the Transportation Cabinet,” state highway engineer Matt Bullock told the Courier-Journal. “We are pro-safety.”

The state has given the city until Christmas to remove the trees. Local officials have accused the state of “selective enforcement” and even “harassment.”

Charles Marohn, the civil engineer who founded Strong Towns, said Kentucky is looking at the problem in the wrong way. ”Street trees are dangerous,” he said, but only if “you have fast moving traffic.”

“They’re focused on the street trees and not the speed. Street trees are not a problem at reasonable speeds.”

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Hastily-Debated Collins Measure Could Put More Tired Truckers on the Road

Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number. Screenshot from ##http://6abc.com/traffic/police-truck-driver-fell-asleep-prior-to-crash-on-i-95-in-del/144318/##6ABC##

Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number. Screenshot from 6ABC

It just wouldn’t be Congress if we weren’t trying to debate substantive policy changes, with drastic implications for public safety, with a government shutdown deadline fast approaching.

As Congress tries to wrap up the hideously-named “cromnibus” (continuing resolution (CR) + omnibus) spending bill for the rest of FY 2015 by Thursday, one provision is attracting a heated debate over road safety.

An amendment introduced over the summer by Maine Senator Susan Collins would repeal elements of a 2011 U.S. DOT rule requiring truck drivers to get adequate rest. The two basic pillars of that hours-of-service rule are: 1) drivers have to take a 30-minute rest break within the first eight hours of their shift, and, more contentiously, 2) drivers have to take a 34-hour “restart” period once every seven days. That 34-hour rest period must include two consecutive overnights between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. According to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, “The net effect of these changes was to reduce the average maximum week a driver could work from 82 hours to 70 hours.”

The Collins amendment would maintain the 34-hour rest mandate but would remove the requirement that it include two overnights, and it would allow drivers to take more than one restart in a seven-day period, thereby starting a new 70-hour workweek.

Truck crashes caused 3,921 deaths in 2012 [PDF]. Bloomberg News reports that the fatal-crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend.

Sec. Foxx noted in his blog post that most truckers “behave responsibly and drive well within reasonable limits,” but that the rules guard against those “who are tempted to push the limits.”

“Additionally, new research available on the subject demonstrated that long work hours, without sufficient recovery time, lead to reduced sleep and chronic fatigue,” Foxx wrote. “That fatigue leads drivers to have slower reaction times and a reduced ability to assess situations quickly.” He added that drivers often can’t accurately assess their own fatigue.

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Four Reasons Pedestrian Injuries Have Plummeted Along Protected Bike Lanes

Dearborn Street, Chicago.

pfb logo 100x22

Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Protected bike lanes are good at making it safer to bike. But they are great at making it safer to walk.

As dozens of thought leaders on street safety gather in New York City today for the Vision Zero for Cities Symposium, some of them will be discussing this little-known fact: On New York streets that received protected bike lanes from 2007 to 2011, total traffic injury rates fell by 12 to 52 percent.

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Talking Headways Podcast: That Indie Flick You Were Looking For

podcast icon logoIf you’re a Netflix member, you’re part of the downfall of the brick-and-mortar video store. There are all kinds of reasons to be sad about that, but we look at its implications for urbanism and transportation. Besides, now where will you find esoteric foreign films to impress your friends? There are reasons to believe a few hardy indie-shop survivors could keep hanging on for a while (and we encourage you to bike to them).

Next, we shift gears to talk about how Vision Zero is unfolding in New York City. Streetsblog has called attention to the need to go beyond grand policy pronouncements and do the dirty work of changing the very culture that surrounds mobility. Specifically, the police need to stop forgiving deadly “errors” by drivers and start taking death by auto as seriously as other preventable deaths.

And then we called it a day because really, that was a lot.

Tell us about your favorite video store, or your least bike-friendly cop, or whatever you feel like telling us, in the comments.

And find us on iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Zero Deaths, Zero Cars, Zero Tundra Voles

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Special guest Damien Newton of Streetsblog LA joins Jeff and me on this episode to tell us all about the Los Angeles DOT’s new strategic plan, which includes a Vision Zero goal: zero traffic deaths by 2025, a vision all of our cities should get behind. He walks us through the oddities of LA politics and the pitfalls that may await the plan, as well as one really good reason it could succeed. (Her name is Seleta Reynolds.)

Then Jeff and I move on to Helsinki, Finland, and its even more ambitious goal: Zero private cars by 2025. They have a plan to do it, which includes many elements that American cities are experimenting with on a tiny scale. We talk about what Helsinki has in store that could get them to their goal.

And then we research Finnish fauna.

I know you’re listening to this podcast on your phone while you’re on on your bike or whatever, but when you get to a safe place to stop, shout at us in the comments.

And find us on  iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.