When will transportation departments start making roads safe for all?

Traffic deaths have fallen dramatically, but safety advocates still pay too little attention to the potential of better street design.

  • Pedestrian bridge

    Pedestrian bridge

    This enclosed pedestrian bridge was built across Ella Grasso Boulevard in New Haven because otherwise students at Barnard Environmental Magnet School could not safely walk to the West River for environmental programs. The Connecticut DOT reconstructed an intersection here, installing double left-turn lanes and making it especially dangerous. Photo by Philip Langdon

Philip Langdon, New Urban Network

Sometime soon, probably this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will tell the country how well we’ve done in the past year at reducing the number of people killed on the nation’s streets and highways.

The last report from the agency, issued in March 2010, was encouraging: During 2009, fatalities in motor vehicle crashes dropped by 10 percent. This brought the rate to a historic low of 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel — 25 percent lower than it had been in the year 2000.

In 2005, America suffered 43,510 fatalities. In 2009, by contrast, 33,808 people lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes, the smallest number since 1954.

Can we save still more lives in the next several years? Will state transportation departments pursue actions that reduce the death toll much further? Those questions ran through my mind Thursday as I listened to emergency physicians, police officers, transportation managers, and others grapple with fatalities during a traffic safety conference in New Haven.

“Motor vehicle crashes are still the leading cause of death for from ages 3 through 34,” Dr. Federico Vaca, professor of emergency medicine at Yale School of Medicine. emphasized. “They are taking our youngest people away. There are 93 deaths every day, one death every 16 minutes.”

The purpose of this first Southern Connecticut Community Traffic Safety Conference was to motivate people from varied fields to act on a number of different fronts. Though progress is being made, the techniques that new urbanists use to make the streets safer got too little attention (more about that later in this piece).

Fewer traffic deaths

NHTSA figures show that the fatality rate declined slowly for much of the past decade, from 1.53 deaths per 100 million miles of vehicular travel in 2000 to 1.42 in 2006. After that, it started dropping more rapidly — to 1.36 in 2007, to 1.26 in 2008, to 1.13 in 2009.

Dr. Vaca, who earlier in his career had a two-year medical fellowship with the US Department of Transportation and NHTSA, thinks a sizable part of the improvement stems from “the financial state of our nation” — the jump in gasoline prices around 2008 and the spike in unemployment after Wall Street brought the economy down. People reduced their driving. Young people — always the most dangerous on the road — postponed applying for drivers’ licenses.

Additional reasons offered by NHTSA for the fatality reductions of the past decade:

• Seat belt use nationwide has risen to 84 percent. Ejection from a vehicle accounts for 27 percent of all passenger vehicle occupant fatalities; but only 1 percent of occupants who wore seat belts at the time of a crash were ejected.

• Drinking by motorists seems to have diminished. The number of fatalities linked to alcohol-impaired driving fell from 13,325 in 2000 to 10,839 in 2009.

The other causes are more speculative. Perhaps there’s been better enforcement. Certainly there has been a big increase in construction of roundabouts, which are much less accident-prone than conventional right-angled intersections.

Traffic-calming measures, including narrowing of streets and narrowing of travel lanes, have been introduced all over the country. Bicycle lanes and other means of reducing conflict between bikes and motor vehicles have begun to proliferate. Undoubtedly there are other factors as well.

The conference in New Haven — sponsored by Yale Medical School’s Department of Emergency Medicine, Section of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care, and Surgical Emergencies as well as by Yale-New Haven Hospital and Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital — looked at numerous ways of further reducing the death toll.

Among them:

• Stronger public education campaigns against “distracted driving,” such as using cellphones while driving. In Connecticut, people are prohibited from using hand-held phones while driving, and sometimes they’re ticketed, but still, drivers continue using cellphones as if the law didn’t apply to them.

• More effective action against repeat offenders, many of whom have “psychological issues, addiction issues,” or other personal problems that lead them to continue driving dangerously, according to Susan Naide, adjunct instructor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven. “There’s a group of people for whom all of your ideas will not penetrate,” Naide said. She believes a “psychiatric consult” is often needed to properly identify the source of the individual’s problem.

• Installing cameras that identify vehicles (and drivers) that ignore traffic signals.

• Requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Motorcyclists accounted for 13 percent of traffic fatalities in 2009. Forty-three percent of motorcycle riders were not wearing helmets.

Reading between the lines of the NHTSA’s 2009 Traffic Safety Facts, a person could well conclude that a sizable number of motorcyclists are members of a cultural underclass — unwilling or unable to accept the norms of reasonably well-functioning individuals. Motorcyclists involved in fatal crashes were alcohol-impaired more often than were drivers of any other kind of vehicle — car, light truck, or heavy truck. Motorcyclists were much more often speeding. More than a fifth of motorcyclists involved fatal crashes were driving with invalid licenses.

Missing from the action

What disappointed me was how little the discussion focused on the design of streets, roads, and communities. Dr. Vaca praised “the push to build walkable communities,” and noted that with traffic-calming and better road geometry, “engineering has a lot to offer in this area.” Yet no experts in traffic-calming or community design were included among the 14 speakers. That indicates to me that transportation departments (Connecticut DOT played a large role in the conference) are a long way from giving pedestrian-friendly street and road design the attention it needs.

Colleen Kissane, transportation assistant planning director for Connecticut DOT, pointed out that her agency is allocating about $4 million in “enhancement funds,” about half of which will go to regional planning organizations to complete bike trails that have missing segments. That’s worth doing, but it isn’t really “transportation.” Most people who bike to jobs, stores, schools, and other daily destinations want to be able to safely use the streets and roads to get there. They are not primarily interested in off-road trails, which are mainly the province of recreational riders.

Kissane also said Connecticut DOT is “working with traffic people” to reduce travel lanes on some roads from 12 feet to 11 feet so that cyclists can be given a somewhat wider shoulder. The state recently decided that when a road widening, intersection improvement, or other state road project (beyond a routine repaving) is undertaken, “we will pay for installing the sidewalk” along the road. Until six months ago, the state had told municipalities that they would have to find the money to do that themselves. “Communities were always mad at us,” Kissane observed.  

About a month ago, the department also appointed a “nonmotorized transportation coordinator,” who will try to “enhance routes to transit centers” and “include bike and pedestrian concepts” in designs.

Nonetheless, Connecticut DOT has repeatedly taken the wrong approach in many of its projects, including those in the state's largest cities. It has yet to demonstrate a genuine commitment to making places where pedestrians (and cyclists) are safe and comfortable. And that’s the case with most state transportation departments.

An old mindset endures

“The DOT mindset is to move as many cars as fast as possible,” New Haven Alderman Greg Dildine told me during a conference break. “I can’t figure out who they think their constituency is. ... They’re pretty insulated.”

New Haven Police Chief Frank Limon identified the most dangerous stretches of road in New Haven. For the most part, they are state roads, some of which have been altered by DOT within the past decade. One stretch with a terrible accident record is Foxon Road in a low-density northern part of the city; as reconstructed by DOT, it has turned into an area of big-box stores and vehicular crashes.

Another is the intersection of Derby Avenue and Ella Grasso Boulevard, where DOT installed multiple turn lanes, and broad expanses of pavement, within the past five years, making it one of the intersections for which Chief Limon  advises: "Don't go near it."

When the New Haven Board of Education rebuilt the Barnard Environmental Magnet School at that corner, roughly $1 million ended up being spent to construct a long, enclosed pedestrian passage over the Boulevard (actually a wide road with no median). Children use this costly passage to walk from the school to the nearby West River for environmental programs. Without the million-dollar bridge, children would face too large a risk of being killed.

Even today, DOT continues to carry out pedestrian-hostile projects in New Haven. Mark Abraham, leader of the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition, points to the current widening of Whalley Avenue, a thoroughfare that carries commuter traffic between downtown New Haven and suburban Woodbridge. 

Says Abraham: "Whalley Avenue, in a densely settled area of New Haven, along a site that has been the scene of hundreds of crashes, including one that killed an 11-year-old girl in a hit-and-run, was unfortunately converted from a 2-lane road into a 4-lane road with no pedestrian medians, raised intersections, or other measures typically used to make streets in urban areas safer to pedestrians. In addition, there are long sections with no crosswalks whatsoever."

"Hundreds of neighbors and elected officials pressed for reasonable design changes, but the DOT, working in tandem with city government, was simply unwilling or unable to take significant steps that would have made the area safer but also supported retail activity along the street. Recent studies have shown that walkable streets have far fewer retail vacancies and 50 percent higher retail rents."

Abraham sums up: "This is just one of countless examples of negligent, even bordering criminal, design in New Haven and other cities around Connecticut."

Alderman Dildine said that in his view,” a road diet is the only solution for residential neighborhoods.” DOT, he said, often seems to drag its heels on initiatives and policies that would make places function better for people who are not behind the wheel.

NHTSA has consistently found that three of every 10 fatal motor vehicle crashes involve speeding. In 2000, 30 percent of fatal crashes involved speeding. In 2009, despite progress in other respects, 31 percent of fatal crashes involved speeding. And as research has shown, the speed of a motor vehicle is what’s lethal for a pedestrian. Bring down the speed and a person who’s hit by a car has a far greater likelihood of surviving.

What all of this tells me is that community design, and particularly street design, are crucial ingredients in traffic safety. Communities are not going to be able to control driver behavior adequately through ticketing, red-light cameras, distracted-driver campaigns, and other measures of those sorts. Street design has to be an important element in the government response. Street design must be on the agenda of any conference looking comprehensive solutions to the reduced, but still grievous, plague of traffic deaths.

We have a long way yet to go. Not everyone is on board. Lip service from state transportation departments is a disservice to us all.