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%.

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