Making Roads “Safer”?

By Dom Nozzi

A story by Dan Tracy in the Orlando Sentinel on February 26, 2012 reported on a study that found that Metro Orlando roads are becoming far more safe for motorists — but not for pedestrians and bicyclists.

This is an all-too-common outcome. Too often, modifying a road for “safety” is a code word for something that will REDUCE road safety – if bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users are taken into account. And exposes the hidden (?) agenda that it is all about cars. Pedestrians and bicyclists be damned.

How can that be? Why are true safety advocates not up in arms about such an inexcusable, callous, selfish state of affairs?

For one thing, conventional traffic engineers claim that their proposed road modification will make the road “safer,” which tends to falsely reassure safety advocates. But what most miss is that “safer” tends to mean “safer to drive at higher speeds without the motorist having to pay attention.” That obviously reduces overall safety.

In addition, when we make roads “safer” in the above-mentioned way, we create what is known as a “barrier effect,” as colleague Michael Ronkin (and I) often point out. That is, roads that are “safer” for high-speed, inattentive driving are, by definition, less safe or comfortable for pedestrians, bicyclists, or transit users.

Conventional traffic engineers tend to “improve road safety” by using what is called a “forgiving” street design. Such design commonly includes widening a road, removing “friction” such as on-street parking or street trees, and aggressively discouraging pedestrian mid-block crossings. Car speeds tend to increase after such “improvements.”

An unintended consequence of this form of “safety improvement”? Such “improved” roads reduce the number of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users because they are less safe for such users to travel on.

By reducing the number of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, we’ll have less crashes for those groups – not because it is safer for such users to use the “safer” road, but because there are less of them (again, because the increased danger has chased many pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users away from the road).

The result is that the modified road creates the misleading impression that it is now safer for all users. After all, don’t the numbers show that there are less pedestrian and bicycle crashes?

Real road safety is the opposite of what conventional traffic engineers seek: Real safety comes from designing roads to obligate slower speeds. Lowering car speeds is most effectively done by narrowing roads, installing on-street parking and adding other forms of “friction,” NOT by putting up signs with lower speed limits. It means, in other words, moving away from “forgiving” road design. Moving away from “forgiving” road design will increase motorist attentiveness, which is essential for increased road safety.

Eighty percent of all crashes are due to motorist inattentiveness. And the single-minded effort over the past 80 years to build “forgiving” roads has, tragically, substantially reduced motorist attentiveness. Motorists multi-tasking by eating, texting, combing hair, or cell phone chatting while driving is now epidemic – at least in part due to the enabling nature of forgiving roads. So rather than increasing safety, conventional traffic engineers have been decreasing safety. And doing so, ironically, in the name of “improving safety.”

Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?


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1 Comment

Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Urban Design, Walking

One response to “Making Roads “Safer”?

  1. Pingback: My Neighborhood | Traversing Tulip Lane

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