Agencies must embrace new design standards to improve safety, according to federal report

By Chris McCahill
The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report addressing the recent increase in deaths and injuries among pedestrians and bicycle users. The report outlined the causes, responses from transportation agencies, and remaining challenges to address the disparity in crash trends between car drivers and those using non-motorized transportation. Three congressional representatives ordered the report in December 2014. In addition to some of the more commonly recognized factors—increases in walking and biking, alcohol use, and distracted driving—the report also acknowledges historical road design practices as a major contributor to current safety trends.
The GAO explains:

“According to FHWA officials, the purpose and goal of street design in the United States for decades was, in general, to move motor vehicles from their origins to their destinations as expeditiously as possible, and this design may have overlooked the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. Design efforts such as widening lanes or minimizing sharp curves may have contributed to motorist safety, but may also have contributed to declines in pedestrian and cyclist safety. Wider, straighter highways could lead to motorist speeding, which not only increases the likelihood of crashes with a pedestrian or cyclist, but also the probability that those crashes will cause death or a serious injury.”

SSTI also wrote about this issue for the League of American Bicyclists in November 2014.
According to the report, many state and local agencies have begun revising their design standards to better accommodate all road users, but officials also note that engineers are often reluctant to use newer standards because those practices are unfamiliar to them. This reinforces the notion that even after adopting new standards, agency leaders must continue working with staff to provide training and support, and they must hold engineers accountable for administering new standards properly.
Another area in which agencies are stepping up their efforts is in collecting and analyzing data to help address pedestrian and cyclist safety issues. However, as the report notes, many cite the difficulty in gathering reliable and consistent data as a major challenge, along with the difficulty in getting support and funding needed to tackle these issues.
Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.