Congress

Bike riders and pedestrians are dying. It’s drawing rare bipartisan focus in Washington, D.C.

More flashing lights at pedestrian crossings. Different ways of parking cars so the doors won’t crash into bicycles. Special areas where bikes can stop on the streets.

Those are some of the protections Washington lawmakers are trying to fund as the death and injury toll for pedestrians and bikers swells.

Support for the initiatives comes from both Republicans and Democrats. More money for pedestrian and bicycle safety efforts got a big boost with unanimous approval from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The committee agreed to require states to concentrate innovative safety efforts in areas with notably high pedestrian and bicycle fatalities and injuries.

For too long, activists maintain, safety dollars have too often gone to safety just at car crash sites, ignoring the corridors where pedestrians and bicycle fatalities happen.

“We’ve been trying to break into those safety dollars for 15 years. This is a real breakthrough,” said Caron Whitaker, vice president, government relations at the League of American Bicyclists.

House leaders are sympathetic. “What we’re going to do is provide very substantial incentives and dedicated funding in this bill for bike and pedestrian safety,” Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio told McClatchy.

“There’s a lot of stuff out there and we’re going to encourage people to adopt and innovate and do this,” the Oregon Democrat said

Some activists, though, say all this money and ambition is still far from what’s needed. The funding, they maintain, is paltry compared to how much is spent to make highways bigger and faster.

Transportation For America, a nonpartisan advocacy group, argues in a report that “A serious effort to reduce deaths on our roadways requires slower speeds on local and arterial roads. The federal program should require designs and approaches that put safety first.”

Among the group’s ideas, widely shared by other bicycle safety advocates: Roads surrounded by development should be designed to have speeds of 35 mph or less. Such lower speeds have been shown to dramatically decrease the chance of fatalities in an accident.

The Senate bill includes significant new safety programs and encourages states and planning organizations to adopt complete streets designs and plans. But the transportation group is concerned that these programs will be undercut by substantial funding increases for high speed roadways without any additional constraints to improve safety.

Safer street designs shouldn’t be optional, as this bill considers them, the transportation group says. History has shown that “optional” will result in many states failing to take action to save lives, said Transportation for America spokesman Steve Davis.

Activists and lawmakers agree on this much: There’s an urgent need to promote and improve pedestrian and bicycle safety. The nation’s pedestrian death toll hit its highest level since 1990 last year. This year, 25 states are expected to see higher fatality levels, according to data compiled by transportation advocacy groups.

Ten years ago, 4,109 pedestrians died in the United States. The number has risen virtually every year since, and last year, the death toll was up 3.4 percent to 6,283. Pedestrian fatalities in urban areas are up 69 percent over the last 10 years.

Last year, 857 pedalcyclists were killed in traffic crashes, also the highest figure since 1990. The 2018 figure was 6.3 percent higher than 2017, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported.

The House transportation committee is expected to have its highway and safety bill written by the end of the year or early next year. If both chambers pass a version of the legislation, the two versions would be reconciled and one compromise version would be sent to each chamber for final approval. That could happen sometime in 2020.

The current Senate bill has several safety-oriented initiatives. It increases funding for the “transportation alternative” program, which can pay for highway and road-related infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks, bike paths and bike lanes, by about 40 percent.

It also changes some funding requirements in the Highway Safety Improvement Program, which provides safety grants to states, so that states must use some of the program funds on “vulnerable user safety in areas with higher than average fatality rates.”

Also in the Senate bill is a new Center of Excellence on New Mobility and Automated Vehicles, to research alternative methods of transportation, such as bike share and dockless bikes and scooters.

In the House, DeFazio has several ideas, often based on his own experience in his southwestern Oregon congressional district.

One involves dealing with what he called the “T-boning” of bikes, or getting “doored,” by people throwing their car doors open.

“It has happened to me,” he said.

Parking could be relocated in the middle of a street, for instance, making it easier for the street to have separate bicycle and traffic lanes.

“They put the bike lane on the opposite side of the street so they aren’t going to get backed into,” he said. And while it can reduce parking availability, he said, the change can save lives or help prevent injuries.

He also is looking at “bike boxes,” designated areas at the head of a traffic lane that allow motorists to see the bicycles ahead of them.

Another idea that could get a federal push: Safer pedestrian crossings.

On a five-lane highway, for instance, there could an island in the middle. And a flashing signal. “The person pushes a button, and the lights start flashing, and they’ve got plenty of time to cross,” DeFazio said.

The light could be a flashing yellow, flashing until the pedestrian reaches the curb. There is no inconvenience to drivers, though, if there’s no one crossing, because the lights would not flash.

One vexing problem: How to deal with distracted pedestrians. The flashing lights are one way, since they would keep flashing even as someone was reading something on their cell phone while crossing.

But DeFazio conceded dealing with such pedestrians is tougher. “That’s a harder one,” he said. “There are laws against jaywalking.’

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.
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