Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Road Safety


These videos teach bike etiquette with LEGO

How can we show cyclists, drivers, and everyone else on the street how to share? The city of Edmonton, Alberta produced these five six excellent videos using LEGO figures teaching the new rules of the road.

Interactions between cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers can often be contentious. Lighthearted videos like this can help everyone understand their rights and responsibilities in the urban realm.

Thanks to WABA for the heads-up.


"Good Roads" and the push for complete streets today

Today's push to improve streets for pedestrians and cyclists mirrors the push a century ago for paved roads. Both ideas stated small but grew to become popular movements by increasing public awareness.

1912 Good Roads map. Photo by Orange County Archives on Flickr.

Over 100 years ago, maps of "Good Roads" led the push for paved roads by letting travelers know which roads were likely to be passable. In Slate magazine, Rebecca Onion recently posted an 1897 map of "Good Roads" in and around Philadelphia. Onion says that maps like these were a necessity in a time where standards on road quality and the funding for infrastructure was haphazard and sometimes non-existent.

Efforts like this are still happening today. While most of our roads and highways are now paved, many communities recognize that our streets need infrastructure upgrades in order to help more people feel safe while traveling on foot or by bike, as well as driving.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the "Good Roads" movement pushed governments to pave more roads to accommodate the newly-invented bicycle. Today, there is a push to create protected spaces for cyclists to use. Many cities are adopting "complete streets" policies that seek to standardize our street infrastructure and emphasize that roads are safe and accessible for all users whether they're on foot, riding a bike, or driving.

Like the "Good Roads" movements, maps are an important tool in advocating for complete streets. Both advocacy groups and local governments publish maps that show where the best routes to bike are. This isn't a new idea, either. Bicycle maps were being published in California as early as 1896.

In every debate over a new bike lane or changes to street parking, opponents sometimes argue that the status quo is fine and question why it should change. "Good Roads" maps show that our infrastructure is always changing, and the desire for better and more accommodating streets is nothing new.


How will "connected vehicles" affect urbanism?

A consortium of Virginia schools will soon start testing vehicles in Fairfax County that can talk to each other and their surroundings. But what will "connected vehicles" (CV) really mean for transportation and urbanism?

Photo by Steven Mackay.

Researchers have attached tracking equipment to light poles and other roadside infrastructure in and around Merrifield, including stretches of I-66, Lee Highway, and Route 50. The roadside equipment will communicate with devices about the size of an E-ZPass installed in 12 "connected vehicles," including a bus, semi-truck, cars, and motorcycles.

The devices collect data such as acceleration, braking, and curve handling. Researchers hope that the new system will dramatically reduce highway crashes, increase fuel efficiency, and improve air quality.

"The intersection can say 'there is snow happening right here,'" explains Gabrielle Laskey of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Conversely, if a connected car were to experience a loss of traction, it would relay that information to the roadside devices so authorities would know the precise location of hazardous conditions.

Left: a CV data collection unit. Right: an in-car CV display. Photo from the VTTI.

The research will focus on ways to improve both safety and mobility. "If we can detect initial braking, we can slow vehicles down and message the driver, saying something like 'Slow traffic ahead. Reduce speed to 45 mph' or 'Left lane closed ahead; merge right,'" said VDOT Spokesperson Cathy McGhee.

Study will involve area drivers and "regular" cars

The CV technology will go further than the Active Traffic Management System of overhead dynamic signs VDOT will soon install on I-66. The CV system "can give information directly to the driver and provide an additional level of information," said McGhee.

Although the CV roadside equipment is already in place in Merrifield, the connected vehicles are undergoing final road testing on the Virginia test track in Blacksburg. In January, those vehicles plus another 50 operated by VDOT will roll out on Merrifield highways.

In the spring, researchers will seek out drivers of an additional 200 "regular" vehicles through ads on Craigslist and in the Washington Post. Their cars will receive communication devices similar to test vehicles' which will notify drivers verbally or by tone through a GPS-sized display. Drivers who volunteer for the program will not need specialized driving skills. "We want to use na´ve participants and make these devices as useful and available as a cell phone," says Laskey.

Over the next couple of years, a consortium of research institutions consisting of Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and Morgan State University will conduct 19 separate CV research studies, about half of which will have components in the Merrifield test bed, at a projected cost of $14 million.

One study looks at road signs that can switch from "yield" to "stop," depending on conditions. Another examines how to dim or shut off roadway lighting when it is not needed. And a study in Baltimore involves the use of smart phones and looks at safety and congestion issues related to public transit, transit passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

The new CV technology can also work in conjunction with some current safety systems which use video to "see" non-connected items, such as a pedestrian in a crosswalk, then alert the connected vehicle. The system helps connected vehicles operate on the roadways before a fully connected or automated roadway system exists.

How will CV influence our transportation network?

CV technology could change the way we use and design our streets. Since connected vehicles will alert drivers to imminent collisions, CV technology is expected to drop the crash rate at least by 50 percent, according Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which is coordinating the public-private venture.

Dingus and a CV motorcycle. Photo by the Jessamine Kane-Wiseley.

Connected vehicles will be able to safely travel much closer together than cars can today, vastly improving the efficiency of existing highway infrastructure. At the CV system's public debut on June 6, Governor McDonnell noted that the technology "could do as much to help alleviate congestion as the building or widening of new highways."

Researchers say CV technology could be in widespread use within five years, which Virginia and Maryland should keep in mind as they decide how to spend billions in new transportation funding. Cars traveling closer together will require less space, so road widenings might not be necessary. On already wide streets, the extra space could be used for bike lanes, sidewalks, or landscaping. Building smaller streets not only costs less, but it frees up room for buildings and open space, making communities more compact and preserving land.

If you'd like to learn more about connected vehicles, USDOT is holding a public meeting in Arlington from September 24 to 26. The agenda includes information about the CV safety program and the Intelligent Transportation Systems Strategic Plan for 2015 to 2019.


Will leaders stand up against the death toll?

Tragically, people are getting killed on District streets, two in one day in February. Experts acknowledge that stopping these deaths is a major challenge. In something of a reversal from decades past, as demographics and living patterns shift, it's also a serious problem in suburban areas such as Montgomery County.

Photo by Hawkins on Flickr.

What is the D.C. Council doing about it? Adding police? Investigating thoroughly? No. In fact, in the budget the council passed this month, Chairman Phil Mendelson dedicated considerable future revenue to ease punishment for those whose dangerous actions put others at risk, while simultaneously restraining the police from expanding enforcement.

I'm not talking about murder and similar violence, though violence in our city is no laughing matter. This problem strikes far closer to home for most of us: distracted driving, speeding, unsafe right turns on red or through crosswalks, red-light running and other forms of unsafe driving.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.



NBC story on cameras actually discusses safety

Something astounding has happened: A news story about speed camera tickets actually discusses whether or not they deter drivers from speeding, one of the acts which makes roads unsafe.

Mark Segraves dug up some information on whether drivers get more repeat tickets at DC or Maryland cameras:

Segraves got data from DC, Montgomery, and Prince George's about the percentage of drivers who get multiple tickets, out of all the drivers who get a ticket from the cameras. Ticketed drivers are twice as likely to have multiple tickets in the Maryland counties, and 20 times as likely to have 5 or 10 tickets.

What would cause this discrepancy?

This could be because the fines were much higher in DC in Maryland (they decreased in DC thanks the last year's camera bill). It could be that the lower fines mean people are less worried about getting caught. Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker thinks that's true. Anecdotally, I've heard from other drivers who say they're much more afraid of speeding in DC.

It also could be that different groups of drivers get tickets in each jurisdiction. John Townsend of AAA (who can sound entirely reasonable when he tries) thinks that the Maryland cameras are in neighborhoods where the same drivers ply the roads day after day. A possible counter-argument is that drivers who live nearby know where the cameras are, so they shouldn't get tickets.

Another possibility is that DC gets more tourists, who come in, speed, get a ticket, and then aren't around to get more. Martin Austermuhle muses that perhaps Maryland drivers are just worse.

One way to better analyze these possibilities would be to break the data down by state. Are DC drivers re-offending at the same rate on DC cameras as Maryland drivers on Maryland cameras? Are Maryland drivers (most of whom do commute) getting more or fewer tickets on DC cameras than the DC drivers do?

Or, to investigate Townsend's claim, what about just the DC cameras that are in neighborhoods? AAA mostly complains about the ones on freeways, but the most serious safety problems are where major streets cut through neighborhoods. Do people get multiple tickets at higher rates on those DC cameras?

Was it wise to lower fines?

The task force Councilmembers Tommy Wells (ward 6) and Mary Cheh (ward 3) put together couldn't find convincing evidence one way or the other, so the councilmembers decided to lower the fines because of the political blowback. I argued at the time that AAA is orchestrating a lot of that blowback, so if they want to trade peace for lower fines, they'll have to follow through.

Townsend hasn't. Instead, they've sent out a stream of press releases attacking the cameras, and given lots of juicy quotes to the press. He's called cameras "the mother's milk of additional revenue" for government, even though DC lowered the fines.

Townsend even complained about red light cameras after arguing in the task force for keeping the fines high. He told Ashley Halsey III, "The District collects nearly two-thirds, a stunning 61.6 percent, of the [red-light camera] revenue total for the national capital area."

Let's debate the actual safety, not the fake anti-government frame

Maybe cameras won't work. Mount Pleasant ANC Commissioner Jack McKay doesn't think they do. MPD does, but doesn't have good enough data to really prove it. It would be great to have a real debate about what measures will and won't make streets safer.

That's not the debate we are having, however. Instead, AAA is using misdirection. They aren't saying the measures don't improve safety; they are saying the whole thing is a government conspiracy to squeeze money out of drivers. And the non-revenue elements like bike lanes are a "war on drivers" and an attempt to force people out of cars.

This is a pernicious theme because it plays right into the press's existing biases to cover stories as government vs. the people. AAA doesn't want to talk about the people who get hurt from drivers turning right without stopping; they want everyone to blame the evil gummint.

For some reason which escapes me, most reporters seem to eat it up. Halsey led off his story with the extremely biased line, "The lucrative battle to keep drivers in the District from running red lights seems to be achieving more profit than success." It's amazing that there had to be a letter to the editor to point out that illegal driving is more than a revenue issue, it's a safety issue.

Let's look at that success, seriously. A debate about the cameras based on safety would be welcome. There are plenty of angles for reporters to investigate that relate to the actual safety, or the appropriate level of fines. Mark Segraves has taken one step toward that. Will others follow?


On crosswalks, research and safety campaigns conflict

Marlyn Eres Ali was killed last week in Wheaton, crossing Connecticut Avenue on foot at an intersection with no traffic light. She was in a crosswalk that has wheelchair ramps and a paved median refuge but no markings on the pavement. Why aren't crosswalks like this one marked?

Crosswalk where Marlyn Eres Ali died. By permission of nbc4 news.

Legally, a pair of crosswalks exists at every intersection, regardless of whether there are markings on the road. Most of the general public believes that marking those crosswalks makes them safer to use. But the Federal Highway Administration disagrees. Sometimes, at least.

Its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or MUTCD, the traffic engineer's bible, states that on roads with 4 or more lanes, speed limits above 40 mph, and heavy traffic:

New marked crosswalks alone, without other measures designed to reduce traffic speeds, shorten crossing distances, enhance driver awareness of the crossing, and/or provide active warning of pedestrian presence, should not be installed across uncontrolled roadways.
Local agencies, reluctant to make cars go slower and short of funds to install the pedestrian warning lights called hawk beacons, usually take this as an injunction to simply leave the crossing unmarked.

The MUTCD bases this provision on studies of crash data. Pedestrians crossing big highways, these studies report, have a greater chance of being hit by drivers at marked crosswalks than at similar unmarked ones.

There are several possible reasons for this.

  • Traffic engineers often locate marked crosswalks at the places where they interfere least with vehicle movement. Pedestrians may put a higher priority on safety when choosing where to cross.
  • Politicians may demand crosswalk markings at the intersections with repeated crashes, meaning the crashes are not a consequence of the marked crosswalk but the cause.
  • Researchers have other suggestions, too, as Tom Vanderbilt discusses on page 198 of his book Traffic.
Whatever the causes of this phenomenon, if it is real, there is an easy way to save lives: FHWA and state transportation agencies could instruct pedestrians to ignore crosswalk markings when they cross highways without traffic lights. Cross at whatever intersection feels safest, not the one with a marked crosswalk.

Of course, you will never hear that advice in a safety campaign. They urge pedestrians, as the current DC effort puts it, to "always use a crosswalk." Pedestrians understand this to mean a marked one, and the campaigns reinforce that belief with images of marked crosswalks.

FHWA safety poster.

The FHWA's own pedestrian safety campaign does not explicitly recommend using marked crosswalks. Butsomewhat like advertising for an escort servicewhat isn't said matters more than what's said. The text assumes that the reader already has an idea of what's going on and carefully avoids correcting that impression. The real message is in the pictures.

Why would highway agencies promote pedestrian behavior that their research shows to be unsafe? One potential reason is that the traffic engineers don't really believe the research. The study results are often inconsistent; the researchers offer many cautions. Scientists know that when you get a result contrary to common sense, it's most often wrong. If it still stands up after checking and double-checking, you may have a great discovery, but more often you'll find a subtle mistake buried in your work.

The other possibility is that safety isn't really what this recommendation is about. Rather, it may reflect drivers' desire, reinforced by the historic biases of the traffic engineering profession, to get pedestrians out of unmarked crosswalks where they slow down cars. Peter Norton has shown that safety campaigns, when they started in the 1920s, aimed to push pedestrians off the streets and make room for cars.

Intentionally or not, the traffic engineering profession gravitates toward conclusions that support its existing practices and priorities. When the research supports a road design that speeds trafficwonderful! A safety recommendation that would slow down vehiclesunthinkable!


Speed camera bill now would make streets more dangerous

Tomorrow, the DC Council will take its second vote on its bill to lower speed fines. It's likely to pass, given that it passed unanimously on first reading, but it contains some extremely dangerous provisions, including one that would force the District to set speed limits based on the "engineering perspective" over neighborhood livability.

Photo by ph-stop on Flickr.

ANC 3E goes further and argues, in a unanimous resolution, that the bill would harm safety rather than enhance it. I have a hard time disagreeing, given that Chairman Phil Mendelson removed many of the important provisions in the original bill that came from the task force I served on, and added some harmful new ones.

I previously listed some troubling provisions that made it into the transportation committee markup, mostly at Mendelson's behest, but the most damaging is this section, which the committee didn't pass but which Mendelson added anyway:

(a) By November 1, 2013, the Mayor shall complete a District-wide assessment that evaluates the speed limits on the District's arterials and other streets. The report of the assessment shall include the criteria used for assessing the speed limits. Upon its completion, the assessment shall be posted to the District Department of Transportation's website. The assessment shall:
  • (1) Utilize factors common among transportation officials for the determination of speed limit;
  • (2) Evaluate whether comparable arterials should have comparable speed limits, and similarly do so for other streets;
  • (3) Include, based solely on an engineering perspective, speed limits for the District's arterials and other streets.
(b) By January 1, 2014, the Mayor shall revise, through rulemaking, existing speed limits throughout the District. The speed limits shall include comparable speeds for comparable arterials, and other comparable streets. Notwithstanding this requirement, the Mayor shall not cause an anti-deficiency as determined by a fiscal impact statement obtained by the Mayor from the Chief Financial Officer.
"Engineering perspective" shouldn't be only factor in speed limits

Mendelson apparently is trying to ensure that speed limits get set without regard for revenue or politics, and fairly between different arterials in various parts of the city.

Those are good instincts, but requiring an "engineering perspective" for speed limits is the wrong approach. The traffic engineering profession has a deeply ingrained practice of setting speed limits solely for car traffic, and with the motivation of making roads move traffic as fast as possible for the safety of drivers.

They traditionally use a simple "80% rule": Set the limit at the rate that 80% of drivers move on a particular road. The idea is that some people are speeding, but if most people travel at a particular rate, that rate is probably safe. And on a limited-access highway, that's not a terrible idea, because there is only one kind of road user (maybe two, if motorcycles are separate).

But our neighborhood streets, including arterials, have to balance the needs of many modes. 80% of drivers gives no thought whatsoever to the speed that will allow people to cross the street at unsignalized intersections (where it's legal) without the danger that a driver won't come around a curve so fast that they can't see the pedestrian or stop in time. It doesn't consider the traffic flow that would allow bicyclists and drivers to coexist safely and efficiently.

The "engineering perspective" doesn't have to ignore these factors; engineers could easily devise another algorithm that is better. But they generally haven't, and the guy in charge of speed limits for DDOT, James Cheeks, personally wrote a whitepaper when he worked for the Institute of Transportation Engineers advocating for the 80% rule.

That document says the 80% rule is "a case of majority rule." Actually, we often don't set laws just based on majority rule. We protect vulnerable minority groups and have legal processes to ensure majorities don't trample their needs. On the roads, motorists are the majority but pedestrians and cyclists are a vulnerable minority we need to protect.

At the task force meetings, Cheeks reiterated that the 80% rule was his preferred way to set speed limits, but when pushed, also added that DDOT always talks to residents and also thinks about pedestrian and bicycle safety. My fear is that the "engineering perspective" in Mendelson's provision will specifically push DDOT to follow the dangerous method in this whitepaper, which specifically comes from engineers, and not to incorporate other needs or listen to communities.

ANC 3E wants escalating fines

The Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Tenleytown, AU Park and Friendship Heights, ANC 3E, asked the Council to turn down the bill entirely, saying, "We believe the stated basis for enacting the Bill does not support the Bill's passage. Without material changes, we believe the Bill would fail adequately deter repeat offenders and lead to unnecessary deaths and injuries."

The ANC primarily is concerned that repeat offenders will get off easy for ignoring the laws time and again. The task force originally supported having some system that would give first offenders lower penalties, and chronic repeat offenders higher ones. The original bill also prescribed much higher fines for higher levels of speeding on the belief that traveling 20-30 mph over the limit is act much more intentionally flouting the law than speeding 11 mph over.

The ANC's resolution states:

ANC 3E believes the current fine regime, which per the legislative history puts DC near the middle of state fine regimes, is not unduly harsh. Evidence is strong that speed cameras save lives in DC. By contrast, the evidence is weak that higher fines do not promote more safety, as economic theory predicts, or that a majority of DC residents want to see fines lowered.

Whether or not the Council chooses to reduce some fines, however, we strenuously urge the Council to establish a system of fines for moving violations that escalates after a set number of offenses of a given severity. The escalation scheme should parallel the point system for violations in a police officer's presence. Thus, an owner whose vehicle is ticketed three times in a two year period for driving 16 mph over the limit should receive a fine on the third offense whose magnitude would be akin to the magnitude of license suspension for a 6+ months. Although we do not formally recommend such a sum, we believe that it should be at least $500.

If the Council does not amend the Bill to create such an escalating scheme, we respectfully urge the Mayor to veto it, and respectfully urge the Council to reconsider creating such a scheme.

The resolution also argues that absent more evidence that lower fines don't lead to more speeding, it doesn't make sense to lower the fines. It says that most residents do support the fines, and asks the Council not to listen to organized lobbying from a few special interest groups.

Update: Tina pointed out that this gem of a video is very relevant here. Everyone who thinks that the same old "engineering perspective" is the right way to make traffic decisions needs to see this.

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