the VZ solution we won’t talk about

The one thing that no one in the transportation advocacy community wants to talk about is speed-limiting vehicles. Speed-limiting means that vehicles cannot operate over the speed limit selected for a section of roadway. The technology for doing this is largely already in place on modern motor vehicles, as they already monitor their speed and already have available information about the speed limit on the street they are on. Older vehicles of course don’t, and would need to be retrofitted.

Why speed limiting? Because it is a simple solution that cuts through all the other discussion and contortions and expense of other solutions. Some people think education is the solution, as though all the education to date has done any good. Some people don’t want any traffic laws enforced, because ‘freedom’, meaning of course the freedom to operate a vehicle recklessly and kill people. Some people think that the solution is to redesign roads so as to prevent speeding. I’m not against that solution, but our mis-designed transportation system has a value of trillions of dollars, and fixing it will require trillions of dollars. We could spend our money that way, but why when we have so many other good causes to spend on. Vision Zero efforts are admirable, at least when they don’t have the involvement of law enforcement, but there has been very slow progress or regression in the United States because the engineering profession and law enforcement really don’t believe in the idea, giving it lip service while trying to subvert it.

Speed kills. It increase the severity of crashes, making severe injury and fatality more likely. It also increase the frequency of crashes, because drivers have less time to react and avoid, or slow before impact. You have all seen a version of the graph below, and it is important to remember that at every speed, speed is a contributing factor.

Speed limited does not mean changing posting speed limits, though it turns out that reducing speed limits does indeed reduce traffic speeds and reduce crashes and injury severity. However, speed limits are not set to the design speed of the road, but lower than than. As a result, drivers are encouraged by road design to speed, while fingers are wagged and tickets are written. But the problem is not solved. Crashes and severe injuries and death continue apace, or increase in the case of this last year.

With speed-limiting, no vehicle goes faster than the speed limit. If there are no crashes, maybe it gets increased a bit. If there are crashes with severe injury or fatality, then it gets reduced. We don’t need to change speed limit signs, we just change the permissible speed which vehicles respond to and follow.

Of course we should redesign streets to make them friendlier and safer for walkers, bicyclists, transit users, and drivers for that matter. But in the meanwhile, I want no one to die or be seriously injured on the streets and roads we have. Speed-limiting is the solution.

It is worth pointing out that designers and manufacturers of autonomous vehicles don’t want this to happen. They are assuming they will be allowed to violate speed limits, because they know that their primary target driver audience, young aggressive males, won’t buy vehicles that go the speed limit. They are just hoping no one notices that they are going to bypass this, and probably will get away with it.

Reform NHTSA? Hmm…

Congratulations to Californian Steven Cliff on his appointment as interim administrator the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). See StreetsblogCal post Steven Cliff, from California Air Resources Board, Appointed Acting Head of National Highway and Traffic Safety for more information.

The agency has many areas of responsibility including vehicle safety and education. The agency mission is: “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for keeping people safe on America’s roadways.” The agency has for years (long predating Trump) seen its mission as making it safe for people inside vehicles, and has ignored any issues of safety for people outside vehicles. People have repeatedly asked that the agency address vehicle design that would make it safer for people outside, making it less likely that they would be hit by a driver, and more likely to survive if they were hit. Its education programs are rife with victim blaming and bias against walkers and bicyclists. Nearly everyone who is active in the walker and bicyclist safety profession rejects out of hand their educational materials as being so biased as to be unusable. Even though they have officially stopped using the discredited claim that driver behavior is responsible for 94% of crashes, they are still relaying and cheering on this garbage when other agencies and organizations use it.

NHTSA has promoted the ‘shared responsibility’ mythology, that all users of the road are equally responsible for safety, frequently seen along with the message that walkers and bicyclist must wear high visibility clothing, must carry lights, must never use cell phones, must be aware at all times of the hazard presented by motor vehicles and are responsible for avoiding those hazards. This is bullshit. Drivers of vehicles which are designed to be unsafe for people outside them, who think they own the road and that pedestrians and bicyclists should be somewhere else, should be responsible. These drivers are traveling along roadways that were designed to be unsafe for walkers and bicyclists by transportation agency engineers, who also should be responsible.

NHTSA does not have responsibility for roadway design, that lies with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). However, NHTSA has made no effort to work with FHWA to bring together concerns about the safety of vehicle design with the safety of roadway design. The agency view seems to be ‘not our problem’.

I encourage you to read Don Kostelec, who has been one of strongest voices highlighting the victim-blaming of agencies like NHTSA and the mis-design of roadways by engineers. He does a better job of this than I ever could.

20% of roadway fatalities in 2019 were what NHTSA calls ‘nonoccupant fatalities’, meaning people walking and bicycling. Or eating in cafes, or sleeping in their beds, or shopping in stores, or any number of other ways in which drivers kill people when departing the roadway. During the pandemic there has been a huge increase in poor (criminal) driver behavior, and after the pandemic there will be a large increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). In some places, vehicles miles traveled (VMT) has already increased nearly back to where it was before the pandemic, even though many people are taking few or no trips. Those who are taking trips have increased their motor vehicle use. This does not bode well. NHTSA does not directly contribute to this problem, but it has had a central role in absolving drivers of responsibility for crashes that kill and maim walkers and bicyclists, and for that, I hold them responsible.

7,338 walkers and bicyclist died on the roadways in 2019. The numbers will probably be similar in 2020, though some cities have seen huge increases. Ironically, the percentage of total fatalities may decrease since there has been such a huge increase, of about 1.5 times, in single vehicle crashes, mostly due to speeding. (https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/Publication/813054)

I don’t think that NHTSA can be reformed. The culture of windshield perspective and victim blaming is so deeply ingrained in the agency that, short of casting off all the administrators, department heads, and much of the employee base, no reform is possible. While other agencies and organizations at all government levels have shifted away from victim blaming and windshield bias, many kicking and screaming, NHTSA has not shifted. It is still stuck in the 1970s mindset that plagues transportation agencies, that the purpose of roadways is to move the maximum number of motor vehicles at the maximum possible speed.

So, Steven, I wish you the best of luck and professional success in this position, but I’m not holding my breath. The anti-safety culture is just too deeply embedded in NHTSA. Of that 7,338 people who died in 2019, I would guess that half of them would be alive today if NHTSA actually took its stated mission of roadway safety seriously.

Dangerous by Design 2019

Smart Growth America has released its ‘Dangerous by Design 2019‘ report for 2019. Pedestrian (walker) fatalities have increased 35% over the last decade, becoming a bigger percentage of roadway fatalities, now at 16%. Sacramento (the Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade Metropolitan Statistical Area MSA) ranks 46 of 100 on the list of most dangerous areas for pedestrians, and the danger increased 4.9% from 2016 (year of the first report they did) to 2019. California ranks 16th on the list of states, and had an increase of 3.8%.

The National Complete Streets Coalition is part of Smart Growth America, so it is expected that the report emphasizes complete streets and roadway design. However, by focusing mostly on that, it misses some important issues. The report acknowledges, on page 7, that the design of vehicles, particularly the explosion of pedestrian-killer SUVs, is important, but then fails to list a significant action related to it. If these vehicles are 2-3 times more likely to cause fatalities, as research indicates, then that could explain more of the increase than many other factors.

Another issue that the report does not even mention is driver behavior. Though an increase in the number of poorly designed roadways could explain part of the overall increase in pedestrian fatalities, I doubt that it could account for all of it. Though most of our roadways are dangerous by design, we are building fewer of the most dangerous ones, and have fixed some of the worst of the worst. I will speculate, without research backing but with anecdotal and direct experience, that a precipitous decline in driver behavior is a significant cause. More pedestrians are being killed because more drivers are killing them. Yes, roadway design is responsible, and is the easier problem to solve in the long run (than human behavior), but if behavior, violation of the law, is in fact a significant contributor, we miss the boat by only talking about design.

Though ultimately, the redesign of our roadways is the best solution, in the meanwhile we need to prevent fatalities, and addressing driver behavior is part of that. This is not a minor issue. This morning, while using a clearly marked crosswalk, I was nearly hit by a driver who passed through the crosswalk without even slowing down. If I had not jumped back, I would not be here writing this post right now.

The report uses the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) as data for the number of people walking, and says there has actually been a decline in walking over four years and a slight increase over ten years. However, the NHTS only counts commute trips, and assigns all commute trips to the category of the longest leg. Therefore, a transit and walking commute would be classified as transit only. Data about overall walking rates is lacking, and Smart Growth America can hardly be blamed for that. California performed one broad-based survey in 2013, and the results varied significantly from the NHTS data. I realize that Smart Growth America is a nonprofit with limited resources, but at least a small sample analysis using other sources of data would really help illuminate the cause of the increase in fatalities. We can’t adequately assign fatality rates if we don’t really know the rate of walking. It would seem to me that one of the key actions at the federal, state and local level would be better pedestrian trip data, but that does not show up in the report.

As I have said many, many times, here and other places, the model complete streets policies that Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition promote do not give sufficient weight to the frequency of safe crossings. As a result, most local policies fail to address this issue at all. If we end up with a national policy that continues this weakness, we won’t really be solving the problem. So I can’t, at this time, support the recommendation, on page 7, for a national complete streets policy. NCSC needs to clean up its act before asking others to clean up their act.

Foxx challenges mayors, but not funding

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx challenged the nation’s mayors to reduce pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and injuries on his Fast Lane blog and detail. The challenge has been repeated many places, including Streetsblog USA. Though I’m happy that the secretary is bringing attention to the issue of rising pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities (while motor vehicle driver fatalities are declining), I have to see this campaign as disingenuous. Of his seven challenge activities, not one of them mentions funding. Yet a significant contribution to pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and injuries is that we continue to spend transportation dollars on motor vehicles and not on pedestrians and bicyclists. Though pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities are now 17.3% of the total, we spend only about 2% of our transportation funds on protecting pedestrians and bicyclists.

FARS-trends-chartFoxx says “Unfortunately, in the five years from 2009 to 2013, bicyclist deaths were up 15 percent and pedestrian deaths are up 16 percent. In 2013, more than 5,000 pedestrians and bicyclists were killed, and more than 100,000 were injured.” More significant is that pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities are have continued to be an increasing portion of total fatalities. In the chart at right, the blue trend line, of total fatalities is clearly down, and NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Commission)  and others have tooted this horn at every chance. What they rarely talk about, and in fact try to hide in their reports, is the other trend, shown by the red bars, that the percentage of fatalities for pedestrians and bicyclists has continually climbed. These are not two unrelated trends. We have spent tremendous amounts of transportation money, and imposed increasing requirements on car manufacturers, in order to reduce the fatality and injury rate of motor vehicle drivers. But this reduction has led to an increase in pedestrian and bicyclist rates. They are inversely correlated to a remarkable degree. This data in the chart is from the NHTSA Fatality Analysis and Reporting System (FARS).

If Foxx were serious in his commitment to pedestrian and bicyclist safety, he would do everything in his power (considerable but not complete) to shift transportation funding to the protection of pedestrians and bicyclists, and would be before Congress daily supporting this change (for the portions he cannot control).

So, here is Dan’s challenge to Secretary Foxx: Take pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities seriously by immediately shifting the federal portion of transportation funds to match the fatality rate of 17.3%.

Junk statistics and junk reporting

The Governor’s Highway Safety Association issued a report titled Bicycle Safety. The report is full of junk statistics, and the Los Angeles Times reported on the report with junk reporting. SABA and other advocacy organizations reposted on Facebook. It would take many posts or many paragraphs to respond to this junk, but here are a few points.

  1. Reporting bicyclist fatality COUNTS for different states is pointless and irresponsible. Yes, California has more fatalities. It also has more people. This is like comparing some statistic from Lichtenstein with the same from China. Nonsense! If a number is reported at all, it should at least be a number per 100,000 population. But the report author know that would be much less sensational, so doesn’t. Junk statistics.
  2. The report states “Adequate exposure data are not available to accurately monitor changes in bicycle travel…” and then goes on to draw all sorts of conclusions. The right way to report any crash statistic is as a rate, such as how many people were killed per mile traveled on bicycle (and in different settings that would distinguish recreational riding from commuting and errands). Unfortunately Caltrans and other states transportation agencies steadfastly refuse to gather bicycle use data, and the Governor’s Highway Safety Association should know this as well as anyone. Junk statistics.
  3. The report states “Lack of helmet use is a major contributing factor in fatalities.” But it provides absolutely no data to support this claim. Is there anything here to support the idea that these people would not have died if they were wearing a helmet? No. The other “research” cited is full of holes and assumptions leading to foregone conclusions. The report states that helmet requirements in Canada and Australia are examples of success, increasing helmet use and decreasing fatalities. In fact, there is plenty of initial data to indicate that these laws decreased use and increased the fatality rate per 100,000 people. Fewer people biking means a higher risk per person. Junk statistics, again.
  4. The LA Times articles opens with a photo of a crash test dummy flying through the air. Worthy of Fox News, for sure, but the LA Times? Blood leads. Junk reporting.
  5. The report and the Times article lists several solutions that have to do with separated facilities. But it makes the common leap of faith, prevalent among some in the advocacy community, that a preference among many bicyclists for separated facilities (which is certainly true) would lead to a decrease in fatalities. Do we know that? No. There has been some research to indicate that is true, but the same research has also been widely criticized. The truth is that we don’t know yet. I’m not suggesting that we not discuss the benefits of separated facilities, but to a priori claim that separated facilities are the solution to bicyclist fatalities is nonsense.

Junk statistics. Junk reporting. Junk. Junk. Junk. Don’t get sucked into this nonsense.

Yes, we should actively and intelligently seek answers to both the causes and solutions to bicyclist fatalities. Unfortunately, neither this report nor the LA Times article adds anything of value.

Slaughter on the roadways

In the last there days, Monday through Wednesday, at least four people died when struck by car drivers, and two others were injured. I know that the Sacramento Bee does not report all pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and injuries, so there may have been more in the region, but this is an incredible level of slaughter.

The SacBee articles so far are:

The better of these articles describe the outcome and location in a factual manner. The poorer ones place the blame on the victim. This victim blaming is aided and abetted by the law enforcement officers who make the assumption that either a) it was a “tragic accident” that could not have been prevented or b) the driver was not drunk and remained at the scene, so clearly it is the pedestrian or bicyclist’s fault. Both are nonsensical statements and ideas.

Continue reading “Slaughter on the roadways”

Fatality trends

The Sacramento Bee today had an article titled Fatal wrecks decline across Sacramento region. I was curious about where the data came from, and asked the author, Phillip Reese. He pointed me to the FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System) database. With reluctance, I finally dove in to this database which I’ve long been curious about but afraid of. It is quite hard to use, and it does not allow retrieval of multiple years at once. I compiled a data table of fatalities in the Sacramento region for the last ten years, and the table and graph are below. I used the SACOG region, which includes the six counties of El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba, so my numbers do not exactly match the four county region used by the Sacramento Bee for the map and 170 number.

The chart shows that there is in fact a downward trend in fatalities in the region, though it is not a consistent decline. Part of the reason 2011 looks good is that 2010 was bad.

Let me say, as I’ve said before, that fatality counts are a mis-measure of roadway safety. The best measure is the rate per vehicle mile traveled (VMT). Injuries are just as important as fatalities because they indicate trends in driver behavior, while fatalities reflect the internal safety of motor vehicles for occupants, and the effectiveness of the emergency medical system in responding to crashes. I will look more at the data, including looking specifically at pedestrians and bicyclists, and the rate for all modes. In meanwhile, here is the data and chart, to be taken with a grain of salt.

chart of traffic fatalities in Sacramento region
chart of traffic fatalities in Sacramento region

Pedestrian and Bicyclist Fatalities Up? More data flaws!

California Walks tweeted an LA Times articles entitled Highway deaths at lowest level since 1949; bike, truck fatalities rise. The misinformation and misunderstanding in the article includes:

The article misses that the Traffic Safety Fact: 2011 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview (TSF), linked from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) press release, also shows that the injury rate per vehicle mile traveled (VMT) has been flat for three years. What does this mean? It probably means that the number of crashes has not declined, just the likelihood of fatality in a crash. The rate per VMT is the only useful measure of traffic safety. Fatality counts and injury counts are a mis-measure because they are affected by the rate of driving and a number of other factors, rather than the safety of driving.

The TSF provides counts of pedestrian fatalities, up 3%, and bicyclists (the NHTSA uses the obscure term pedalcyclists), up 8.7%. To go with the counting game, this is an increase of 130 dead pedestrians and 54 dead bicyclists in just one year. No statistics are presented on the fatality rate per bicycle mile traveled. Why? I believe that it is because NHTSA is too lazy or too disinterested to compile information on bicycle miles traveled. Though pedestrian miles traveled would be difficult to compile, at least a rate could be developed per pedestrian trip, which would be a more accurate measure of the rate of fatalities. Again, the NHTSA can’t be bothered. I am certainly not the first to point out that pedestrian and bicyclist fatality counts are a mis-measure of safety, yet the federal, state, and local governments continue to ignore the issue.

Continue reading “Pedestrian and Bicyclist Fatalities Up? More data flaws!”