Tell US DOT: Bicyclists’ Safety Counts!
There is only one acceptable number: 0.
While cities like New York and San Francisco have set decisive “Vision Zero” targets to dramatically reduce bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities, the U.S. Department of Transportation has just released proposed safety measures that have no goal, no accountability and no attempt to reduce the 16% of all fatal crashes that include people who walk and bike.
Your comments count: Tell US DOT that we can’t turn a blind eye to the 45,000 bicyclists injured and 5,000 cyclists and pedestrians killed on our roadways each year — we must have a national goal to make biking and walking a safe transportation option.
In 2012, Congress asked the US DOT to set national goals to guide federal, state and local investments in our transportation system. After meeting with USDOT and FHWA officials, we knew they were unlikely to include a specific non-motorized performance measure — or goal to reduce bike/ped deaths. Unfortunately, on March 11 we were proved right: FHWA issued a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” that acknowledged our request — but chose not to include one.
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League comments on National Performance Management Measures; Highway Safety Improvement Program
1. Implementing a Non-motorized Transportation Safety Performance Measure
We appreciate FHWA’s acknowledgement of their consideration of a specific performance measure for the non-motorized modes of transportation, and also note FHWA’s admirable desire for simplicity and clarity in the adoption of safety performance measures. We also note the specific questions raised by FHWA related to the data collection and analysis challenges associated with establishing and implementing a separate non-motorized safety performance measure.
Almost 25 years ago, then-FHWA Administrator Tom Larsen referred to bicycling and walking as “the forgotten modes” of transportation. One indication of this was the lack of data surrounding the two modes. The passage of ISTEA in 1991 dramatically changed the landscape for bicycling and walking investments, safety and use: more than $5 billion of federal money has since been obligated to bicycling and walking projects, with no real change in the data collected about the two modes.
In 1994, the National Bicycling and Walking Study specifically documented our inability to develop fatality or safety rates because of a lack of usage data necessary to do this. The NBWS recommended further research into the data needs related to bicycling and walking, and the proposed study was completed in the early 2000’s with a series of recommendations that remain uncompleted.
In the 20 years since the National Bicycling and Walking Study, the two modes have grown by 50% (NHTS) and the number of fatalities has fallen by significantly more than the targeted 10% — and yet still no fatality rate or injury rate is possible to calculate because states do not collect any meaningful, consistent or comparable usage data for the two modes.
Against this backdrop, we believe Congress made clear in MAP-21 its intent for non-motorized safety to be addressed definitively. The Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) program was amended in Section 148(c)(2)(A)(vi) to improve the collection of data around non-motorized traffic crashes. Section 148(d)(1)(B) requires that states address motor vehicle crashes that involve a bicyclist or pedestrian. Funding is explicitly eligible to be used for addressing the safety needs of bicyclists and pedestrians.
The rule notes “FHWA should be careful to not infringe upon what is already working at the state DOT and MPO level.” The reverse should also be true – and given that the percentage and number of non-motorized fatalities is rising against an overall decline in roadway fatalities and injuries, this suggests things are NOT working at the state and MPO level and FHWA should indeed act. A performance measure will encourage States to focus their research and safety programs on addressing this issue raised in MAP-21, and provide valuable assistance and guidance to MPOs at the same time.
Dozens of cities and states collaborate in a voluntary “National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation project” led by Alta Planning + Design and ITE, and an increasing number of state and local agencies are taking advantage of new technologies to count bicycling and walking activity. Neither of these constitutes a usable, national or state-by-state data collection and analysis system that could yet be used to establish and measure a non-motorized safety performance measure. However, that’s not because of a lack of need, desire, or technology to do so.
What’s lacking is any incentive or expectation for states to collect such data, even though considerable sums of public money are being invested in these modes of travel. Adopting a non-motorized safety performance measure would finally establish that expectation and create a clear incentive for this data collection and analysis to begin immediately.
The proposed rule raises the concern that there may be “too few” recorded non-motorized fatalities to make a performance measure statistically valid or useful. Five thousand lives are lost each year due to motor vehicle collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists – that is significant, and 5,000 too many. We note with enthusiasm that numerous cities are adopting ambitious “vision zero” traffic safety goals, and respectfully suggest FHWA establish the same bold vision and ask states to follow their lead. In three out of five states, non-motorized crash victims already make up more than 10 percent of fatalities – we do not believe that percentage should be allowed to rise even as we make the roads safer for motorists.
A handful of states are already setting specific non-motorized transportation safety goals in their statewide bike and/or pedestrian plans, and in the context of their Strategic Highway Safety Plans – all of them struggle with the data collection and analysis piece. Through this rule, FHWA can help states with this issue.
Time For FHWA to Act
We believe it is time for FHWA to take a bold step up and intentionally act to eliminate this data gap – just as it is doing in respect to injury and hospital data elsewhere in the NPRM. There is no shortcut; FHWA needs to lead. FHWA should commit to make this happen, and should believe in the value of improved non-motorized data collection and analysis – for this safety performance measure, but also in anticipation of the same data needs that will arise in the other proposed performance measures around congestion and system performance.
Finally, we note with mounting frustration that states are not paying attention to non-motorized traffic safety of their own volition. Despite the fact that 16% of all fatal crashes on our nation’s roadways have victims that are bicyclists or pedestrians, less than one tenth of one percent of HSIP and 402 safety funds are allocated to address this problem. These funds are available for states to spend on countermeasures and/or infrastructure to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians but there is no incentive, no direction, and no encouragement for them to spend their funds solving this issue, even in those states where the problem represents 20% or more of all traffic deaths. There is no accountability for their general failure to address bicyclist and pedestrian safety. A performance measure focused on non-motorized traffic safety goals would finally enable FHWA and the American public to hold states accountable for the lamentable state of traffic safety for pedestrians and bicyclists – and drivers – in a way that we haven’t seen before.
2. Overall Comments on the Proposed National Safety Performance Measure
No National Performance Measure or Target Proposed
We are disappointed that in more than 30 pages of the proposed rule, there is no actual national target set for reducing the number of people killed and injured on our nation’s roadways. Indeed, there is no mention made of the fact that more than 30,000 people are killed in traffic crashes every year, or that this number should come down.
The FHWA should clearly establish a bold national vision such as Sweden’s “Vision Zero” or the “Toward Zero Deaths” approach that has a similar intolerance of ANY needless death on our transportation system. Over the last decade, the overall number of traffic fatalities in the United States has fallen from 43,000 in 2004 to 33,000 in 2012. FHWA should set the expectation that this number continues to decline and by 2024 is at 23,000 or lower – still a terrible toll, but a dramatic improvement that would result in saving the lives of 55,000 people over the course of another decade.
No Apparent Urgency
MAP-21 was passed in 2012. According to the timetable laid out in the proposed rule, the first actionable moment in determining whether any progress has been made toward a national safety performance measure is March 2020, at which point a decision may be made that affects the funding available to a state in FY2021. There is no sense of urgency in the proposed rule and we believe this is a real missed opportunity to establish a much stronger traffic safety culture at all levels of government that refuses to accept or tolerate such a high level of traffic danger and death.
No Meaningful Sanction for Failure
The proposed rule establishes no real sanction for failure. According to the proposed rule, if a state fails to meet its performance measure in 2020, the sanction is that it will be required to spend its highway safety funds in FY2021 on highway safety projects – at least, up to the amount equivalent to its FY2016 allocation. This is a meaningless sanction and offers no incentive for states to take the process seriously.
“Success” is Poorly Defined
The proposed rule establishes four measures. “Success” is determined to be “making significant progress” toward two of the four measures. Significant progress is further defined as getting within a range – above or below – of a number that’s predicted based on five or more prior years. In the example provided, a state could actually make “significant progress” toward meeting its performance measure with fatality numbers that are higher than in many of the previous years. So states could actually see an increase in deaths and injuries and still pass.
No Challenge, No Change
The proposed rule fails to drive change at the state or MPO level. The proposed measures are not aspirational, they are based more on ability of state DOT’s to predict what’s happening anyway and not stray too far from that rather than saying “here’s where we need to be, what are we going to do to get there?”
The proposed makes repeated reference to the “transformational change” that moving to a performance-based decision-making process will make in the transportation world. However, the proposed rule does nothing transformational at all; it allows states to continue doing what they’ve always done with no sanction for failing to meet a very low bar in meeting the most fundamental and basic responsibility of all: safety. Even that minimal level of accountability is then delayed until 2020.
3. Additional Reasons for a Non-motorized Safety Performance Measure
The NPRM acknowledges that FHWA has heard the call for a non-motorized safety performance measure. Here are the reasons we believe it is time for FHWA to heed this call.
a) The number of non-motorized fatalities is increasing. After years of decline and a general trend downwards, the number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed in traffic crashes has increased for the past two years. A total of 5,000 people on foot and on bike were killed in 2012 – that is a significant number of people; a significant number of lives to have lost on our nation’s roads.
b) Because that has happened against a backdrop of an overall decline, bicyclists and pedestrians now account for more than 16% of all traffic fatalities – up from 12% just a few years ago. This means one out of every six fatal traffic crash victims is a cyclist or pedestrian, and without specific countermeasures and strategies focused on reducing this number, we are likely to see the percentage continue to grow.
c) Bicyclist and pedestrian safety is worst among populations that remain underserved by the transportation system and existing programs. The Centers for Disease Control has determined that compared to white bicyclists, the bicyclist fatality rate was 23% higher for Hispanic and 30% higher for African-American riders. FHWA has determined that Hispanic and Black populations have disproportionately higher involvement in fatal bicyclist and pedestrian crashes.
d) There is an old saying that “what gets counted, counts”. We believe that without a specific and intentional focus on strategies that address the safety of people outside motor vehicles, we will continue to build a transportation system – and the communities that they serve – that is inherently inhospitable to people on foot and on bicycle. At a time when these two modes are increasing in popularity and use, and when communities are actively promoting the two modes, we should simultaneously be increasing the safety of the two modes.
e) We agree that the number of bicyclists killed in traffic crashes is thankfully small in many states, and that addressing one or two fatal crashes in a state each year that have very unique causes circumstances is challenging to include in a State or MPO performance goal. However, we note as before that in the majority of states non-motorized fatalities make up more than ten percent of all roadway fatalities, and in certain states the problem is particularly acute. Florida, California, Texas, New York, for example report 40% of bicyclist fatalities – a focused effort in these states is warranted to bring these numbers down; and success would have a significant impact on the national numbers.
f) This argument is even stronger when you look at pedestrian numbers. In several states, the percentage of pedestrians killed is more than 20% and, in the case of New York, pedestrians are one third of all traffic fatalities. We believe this warrants a national performance measure – even if actions to meet the performance measure are targeted at states above a certain threshold.
g) The proposed inclusion in the national performance measure of an injury rate and number for all traffic crashes, as well as the fatal number and rate, adds to the significance of the bicycle and pedestrian safety question. NHTSA currently estimates that 45,000 cyclists are injured in traffic crashes every year – but we know from other NHTSA and FHWA studies of hospital data that only one in ten bicyclist crashes are “reported.” This means that almost half a million cyclists are injured each year – a significant number by any measure. Many of these are single person crashes that don’t get recorded by the police. However, they may still be caused by roadway design, an interaction with a motor vehicle, and other factors over which state DOTs do have some measure of control; just as they do when it comes to single-vehicle crashes that result in the death or injury of motorists.
h) MAP-21, which ushers in this new era of performance-based management, specifically encourages states to focus on, not only crash locations and crash history, but also those common elements of roadway design that we know contribute to crashes and crash types (in the Highway Safety Improvement Program). We believe the same approach should be adopted as FHWA interprets Congressional intent in establishing this performance measure. We know certain roadway designs and operations actively discourage bicycle use and walking because they create conditions in which most people simply don’t feel safe riding a bike or walking. A non-motorized performance measure and target would incentivize states to move away from highway designs that we know are inherently dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians (and therefore actively discourages bicycling and walking) – something that simply won’t happen if we focus exclusively on high-crash locations that are dominated by motor vehicle crashes.
i) In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that improving the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists is quite likely to improve the safety and operational efficiency of streets for all road users – but the same is not true when roadways are designed primarily for the safety and operational efficiency of motor vehicles. Decades of experience has shown that safety “improvements” for motor vehicles have been consumed as performance benefits — i.e. greater speed and more risk-taking — that negatively impact the safety and convenience of cyclists and pedestrians (and often doesn’t improve the safety of motorists either). A performance measure that does not distinguish motorized and non-motorized safety will exacerbate this situation. Conversely, a performance measure that requires attention to the safety of non-motorized users will have the effect of improving the safety of motorized users.
j) Driving a car is not an option for growing number of adults. Bicycling is an optional activity or choice for most adults. This distinction is important in a number of ways. Survey after survey identifies “fear of traffic” or “lack of safety” as the number one deterrent to bicycling, and as bicyclists are quite vulnerable this lack of safety significantly discourages bicycle use for all kinds of trips. Given that bicycling is a desirable mode of transportation, especially for short trips, this is unfortunate. Unless we focus on making our roads (and drivers) safer for bicycling, we will never realize this potential. The same is true for walking. By contrast, driving is generally seen as a necessity and we vastly underestimate and underplay the dangers of driving; we tolerate an exceedingly poor overall standard of driving — and we struggle to take away the privilege of driving from people even when they behave appallingly on our roadways. We must change this dynamic to address traffic safety, and can only do that by focusing attention on both motorized AND non-motorized system users.
k) One of the reasons given for not having a separate non-motorized performance measure is the paucity of data available to establish and track bicyclist and pedestrian crashes. We completely agree that there is a woeful lack of data on bicyclist and pedestrian crashes – and see the establishment of a separate performance measure as a critical first step in addressing that problem. We note that the same lack of data — especially related to hospital records and injury crash statistics — is not seen as an impediment to an injury rate and injury number being used as a performance measure; states are given until 2020 to determine how the data can be gathered and used for the proposed rule. We suggest that gaps in data related to non-motorized crashes and safety be treated the same way. For example, we have seen that the average age of bicyclist victims has risen markedly during the past 25 years (from an average age in in the low 20’s to an average age now of more than 40 years old). We have no idea why this has happened – attention to such factors would be forced by a performance measure that holds states and the federal government accountable for bringing the bicyclist crash number down.
Safety is the guiding principle and “north star” of transportation agencies at the federal, state and local level. Yet traffic deaths remain stubbornly high despite dramatic improvements in vehicle technology, emergency response, changing social attitudes and highway design. We believe that a strong federal performance measure, translated into specific, clear and transparent state goals, will re-focus attention on issues such as speed, distracted driving, drinking and driving, and roadway designs that ignore the needs of non-motorized users – and drive down the number of traffic fatalities in this country to a level more comparable to other developed nations. Ultimately, we believe there is no other acceptable performance measure for FHWA to set than zero. In the meantime, strategies built around “Vision Zero” or a “Toward Zero Deaths” philosophy are essential to progress: to saving lives and enabling more people to walk, ride a bike, and travel safely on our public roads regardless of their chosen means of transportation.