AASHTO Chief: Don’t Blame Street Design for Cyclist Deaths

This is a pretty revealing (read: depressing) exchange between a U.S. representative and the president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which represents state DOTs.

The transportation agencies that comprise AASHTO essentially dictate how streets are designed throughout the U.S. They are aware that pedestrian and cyclist deaths are not declining as fast as total traffic fatalities. But don’t worry, says AASHTO President Jon Cox, because there is absolutely no problem with the design of America’s streets.

Around 49 seconds in to this clip from a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on Tuesday, Representative Rick Larsen of Washington State questions Cox about the rising share of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities:

A few of us asked the [Government Accountability Office] to look at this trend. And one suggestion we’ve heard is that we’re over-engineering or overbuilding roads so the posted speed limit may not match the size of the road. As a result that contributes to a more unsafe road for bikers and pedestrians. Has AASHTO looked at this issue — the relationship between design standards and road safety for bikers and pedestrians?

Cox, who runs the state DOT in Wyoming — the least populated state in the union! — gave this response (emphasis added):

Yes. The simple answer is, yes, AASHTO is looking at that. Let me just expand here for one second. I will tell you that in Wyoming, and I think this is a microcosm of the discussions going on in other places… I’m talking about the highway system, non-urban, at this point (in Wyoming)… The legislature there is talking about how does highway design and driver and cyclist behavior interact in terms of the fatality count. We quintupled this last year… in terms of cyclist deaths. But when we analyzed that — and by the way those numbers are not nearly as big as what they might sound — when we analyzed that… what we found was behavior — driver behavior and cyclist behavior — was really 100 percent the issue, not the design of the pavement. 

And that’s all Cox had to say about it. Classic! Here we have a state highway official from Wyoming, based solely on his experience with rural roads, deflecting all responsibility for national trends in traffic fatalities from the engineers he represents.

So no need to worry about whether street design plays a role in thousands of preventable deaths every year. Satisfied?

The GAO report Larsen refers to has yet to be released, but it sounds like it will be an interesting read. Larsen has also been pushing for a bill he calls “TIGER cubs” that would help small- and medium-sized cities compete for direct access to federal funding for their transportation projects.

46 thoughts on AASHTO Chief: Don’t Blame Street Design for Cyclist Deaths

  1. “When we analyzed the cause of why all the cars were stolen from the front of our auto dealership, we found that behavior was really 100 percent the issue, not the fact that our standard practice is to leave the doors to all our cars unlocked with the keys in the ignition.”

  2. If this is true, why is it that collision, injury and fatality rates are plummeting on complete streets retrofits (see a report coming next week)? Sure, motorists and bicyclists make mistakes, but they needn’t be fatal — unless the mistakes of the engineers make them so.

  3. No need for airbags, crumple zones, or seat belts in cars, I suppose. After all, it’s not the design of the cars that kills people, it’s their behavior behind the wheel. Why should we do anything that might lessen the consequences of bad choices?

  4. Kudos to Jon Cox for being candid about the AASHTO mindset.

    Secretary Foxx just announced that AASHTO has “partnered” with US DOT on the “Toward Zero Deaths” program, which aims to educate the public on dangerous behaviors like distracted walking and drunk cycling.

    Best to know where everyone stands.

  5. Remember AASHTO is the Association of American *State Highway and Transportation Officials*. They do state highways, which are mostly either freeways, expressways, or rural roads (very few states maintain and operate urban arterials, other than those which have come about through suburban/exurban creep).

  6. While state DOTs often do not directly maintain urban arterials, they still require AASHTO standards to be followed on most designated routes. Highways are also the main streets of many rural towns that should have safe walkable cores.

  7. Exactly. If I’m driving, walking, or biking, my behavior is most certainly influenced by my immediate surroundings. Design a road that encourages speeding and drivers will speed on it.

  8. In Cox’s twisted mind, design has no bearing on behavior. Sadly, this seems to be the pervasive view among traffic engineers. It’s mind boggling that people with engineering degrees can be so divorced from reality.

  9. Guns don’t kill; people kill. Obviously it’s ultimately behavior that is responsible for these deaths. Behavior like driving too fast for conditions, impatient and aggressive lane changes caused by congestion, and just the excessive time behind the wheel itself due to lack of transit. But all of these behaviors are influenced by the design. If a kid is killed because he played with a gun then, yes, that’s behavior. But if you don’t keep a loaded gun in your house to begin with then you avoid the risk altogether by design.

  10. Wyoming actually has a lovely, paved, separated bike path (complete with its own underpass under a highway!) that goes eighteen miles or so from Jackson to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. It’s fabulous. I recommend it highly.


    Someone in Wyoming understands cycling safety, but it’s not this guy. However, think of the cognitive dissonance involved here. If he admitted, “yes, the way we design roads in this country is responsible for killing thousands of cyclists and pedestrians each year, and I (along with my entire profession of traffic engineers) have directly participated and/or abetted in causing these deaths,” he then is morally obliged to transform both himself and his entire profession to atone for the damage inflicted. There are very few people cognitively, emotionally, or spiritually able to step up to the plate on an issue like this.

  11. “what we found was behavior — driver behavior and cyclist behavior — was really 100 percent the issue, not the design of the pavement. ”

    Okay, let’s go with this idea and see where it takes us. So why add guard rails on highways along cliffs then? I mean, after all, one doesn’t just fly off the side of the road unless somebody made a mistake (speeding, not paying attention, etc.), right? And why even add those concrete median barriers (Jersey barriers) between opposite directions of freeways when clearly one doesn’t just cross to the other side unless somebody made a mistake, right? Or why have speed bumps before toll booths since clearly if you’re paying attention you don’t need them. Or why have all those repeated flashing lights warning motorists of an upcoming tight curve when if they are paying attention it’s obvious?

    I could go on and on giving examples were roads are specifically designed to have certain safety qualities that help minimize damage and injury when a motorist screws up. In all these cases, if the motorist did not screw up, none of these features would be needed. So why add them?

    Of course, the answer is obvious: because good road design accounts for mistakes. Otherwise, you could save a lot of costs by getting rid of safety features. It’s a cold, dark place in which nobody wants to live if we think people should die every time they make a mistake. And of course, this logic doesn’t apply to motorists; as long as they are safe, to hell with second-class citizens who choose to move themselves under their own power.

    Yet to arbitrary draw the line and decide that design changes which help pedestrians and cyclists (and not motorists) are not the responsibility of the traffic engineers is incredibly biased and anachronistic thinking. According to AASHTO, motorists are worthy of spending money on safety features to save their lives, but cyclists’ or pedestrians’ lives are not worthy. That is exactly what Cox and AASHTO are saying, and it’s sickening that we still have people that think like it’s 1950 and we don’t know better.

  12. The subtext I read here is mostly CYA. If there’s an admission of fault then multiple roads agencies have opened themselves up to lawsuits that they do not want to fund.

    Is there a face-saving approach that can get this attitude turned around without bankrupting government jurisdictions?

  13. Not excusing Cox’s comments or anything but Wyoming’s roads were rather idea for cycling. Almost all the major 2 lane rural highways had shoulders. That’s about all one could expect in a state where a cyclist rides by on a certain road about 1 time in a week.

  14. Beyond that, the space for cyclists is often the very space that motorists are supposed to use to avoid crashing when they screw up. Which they do, but then they take out a cyclist.

  15. Exactly. Here’s a road that just opened in my area. The engineers realized that the road is so over-designed that they’ve gone ahead and installed a speed feedback (“speedback”) sign before there is even a history of a “problem” with speeding (several got a “SLOW DOWN” message as they blasted past me when I took this picture). Worst of all, they marked a crosswalk at the top of hill. I can only see bad things coming out of that.

    The problem is all the more egregious because this was not just a repave job, but a brand new road that was freshly built. It was a blank slate and has no crossings whatsoever, which is the perfect opportunity for a separated bikeway. However, they didn’t even so much as provide a gutter stripe bike lane. At least the speedback sign works for bikes too, so this might actually become a reasonably popular route with cyclists out to challenge themselves.

  16. “Ideal for cycling” = the shoulder on a rural highway.

    Got it. There can be no higher standard than that. If bike riders aren’t flooding the rural highway shoulder then they don’t deserve anything better (which isn’t even possible because the shoulder of a rural highway is the pinnacle of design for bicycle transportation).

  17. Isn’t the 85th percentile speed limit based on the theory that drivers respond to the road? That whole theory is that drivers respond to infrastructure. Also, Cox is talking about highways, not urban areas, where there are many more distractions and people walking and biking. Urban streets may be a totally different story.

  18. Mr. Cox is not a transportation engineer. He is a transportation official. His background is criminal justice and he served in law enforcement.

  19. Again, in a super rural, super sparsely populated state like Wyoming, the shoulders were a rather ideal solution. Again, everything is context sensitive. Wyoming’s rural highways had better shoulders than in neighboring Idaho where I worked. This is NOT to say such a solution would be ideal in a major city or other densely populated place.

  20. People who ride bikes do not all share the same preferences. A smoothly paved shoulder is okay to some, but the same next to 50 mph car traffic is unacceptable to others.

    Beyond that, we need to consider the needs of all the potential bicyclists just as much or even more than those already out there.

  21. I ride my bike nearly everyday and nearly everywhere I go. I take my kid to school. I take myself to work. I go shopping. I lead numerous community bike rides every month.

    A rural highway is not ideal for bike riding. There are bike-survivalist techniques that make it possible to ride on these type of roads, but it is not ideal.

  22. Just because you won’t ride on it doesn’t mean other people won’t. Couching it in terms of “survivalist riding” doesn’t encourage more people to get out and ride either.

    Look, I’m not arguing against better infrastructure, but given the choice between spending lots of money on a bike path next to a rural road that few people will use, and a bike path in town that a lot of people will use, the one in town is more worthwhile. If the choice is between adding a bike path next to a road with a shoulder, and adding a shoulder to a road that lacks one, I’ll still take the latter because it’s improving the worst conditions.

  23. @Matt BK – This is confusing. One cyclist states an opinion and when someone disagrees, you write, “Even if cyclists tell you ….” Another cyclist also disagrees and you respond with, “Just because you ….” So it would seem that one cyclist gets to be an exemplar but the other needs to be lectured that cyclists differ?

  24. Good point, Michael! We should always be looking not only at the behavior of motorists and cyclists but also at how the infrastructure in place influences cyclist and motorist behavior. For instance, an installation like this one http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=people+for+bikes+guadalupe&id=B30C02390FAD40E9E4C388DB93C0A1034801B839&FORM=IQFRBA#view=detail&id=B30C02390FAD40E9E4C388DB93C0A1034801B839&selectedIndex=0 really encourages people to ride their bikes without and drive their cars without examining whether they might collide! That street was safer for cyclists, easier to navigate for cyclists, faster for cyclists, and more convenient for cyclists before the installation was done.

  25. Actually, the state DOTs’ main power comes from funding. Regardless of designation, if a locality refuses state funding for the road, there’s pretty much nothing the state can do to force them to use AASHTO standards. There have been a few standoffs over this, where the road was simply allowed to deteriorate until the state DOT gave in and said “fine, you do what you like, it’s your money” — or said “we really want to do it our way so we’re paying for it”.

  26. Since when are people that design things ever responsible for safety? Except for housing, medicines, toys, utilities, food, electronics, water, etc, etc, etc…

  27. But part of the reason that more people don’t ride more often is probably because the biking accommodations only consist of a shoulder. If riding in the shoulder is the expectation, not exception, then it probably needs a separated facility. A major two-lane road sounds like such a place to me. Being in the country, is the ideal location for one anyway because side roads and driveways are relatively few and far between, with plenty of space to design safe intersections.

  28. Did you ever live in rural Wyoming or Idaho? I have! Cars pass on said highways several times an hour. Cyclists pass one ever few days? What else would you have the local state DOT do out in these locations?!?! I can’t believe I even needed to clarify this!

  29. A well-paved shoulder is a perfect solution in the most sparsely populated state in the Lower 48 (and most other rural states too). If you cannot tolerate a single car passing you on said shoulder once ever 10 to 15 minutes (sometimes 30 minutes) out in the middle of nowhere, then please go back into you plastic bubble and not ruin it for us that are not afraid of our own shadows!

  30. No, I have lived all my life in fairly built up cities and one metropolis. The people here talk like we’re in Wyoming (“this is a small town”, “I moved here for the rural characteristics”), but my experience is very different and separate facilities rule the day in my imagination of a better street/road design paradigm.

  31. AASHTO and TRB through the NCHRP process actually publishes some very good material to help advance transportation science, operation and safety for all modes. Implementation seems to be the biggest problem not the availability of how-to information. Its about state and local agency leadership. Does executive management direct implementation of modern standards? Or is the mindset still 20 years behind the times. Some states get it and are advancing, others are years behind and not doing much to catch up. Every day there are over 90 fatals and 6,500 injuries. Every day. And about 93% are driver error. If everyone would support a significant increase in transportation taxes much would be improved. As a user, participate in creating road design policy.

  32. Yes a paradigm that has no practical application in the middle of the high, sage brush steppe with the next town 75 miles away. This is the reality in 95% of Wyoming yet their DOT made sure to have nice wide shoulders on these highways, WITHOUT rumble strips if I recall. This is a very cost effective and desirable solution for those who would actually attempt to cycle across Wyoming, and I saw several of them the day I took driving across the state. NO, it may not be the best solution in an urban environment.

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