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: ## 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.

DeFazio, Norton, and Larsen are asking the GAO to investigate “the relationship between vehicle speed and roadway fatalities” and more specifically, “challenges that states face in improving pedestrian and cyclist safety (including roadway design speeds and FHWA guidelines for road design)” — particularly “the effects of the common road engineering standard that sets speed limits at the rate 85 percent of drivers would use under regular conditions.”

They also want to know what federal initiatives and funds are needed to help states improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

It’s a lot different than what advocates are expecting from the GOP majority in the spring: more calls to cut federal funding for active transportation. The League of American Bicyclists noted in a recent email to members that while bike activists have been able to fend off five recent attempts to strip bicycle and pedestrian funding from the federal transportation bill, “with the changes to Congress in the November elections it’s going to be much harder this year.”

When the 114th Congress is sworn into office January 3, DeFazio will take over the top Democratic spot on the committee from West Virginia’s Nick Rahall, who never counted active transportation as a major priority. Before even assuming the post, DeFazio is showing advocates that he’ll fight harder for bike and pedestrian priorities, and that he gets it.

After all, as he likes to say, he’s the only former bike mechanic in Congress.


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

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), […]