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accidents

Speed kills

Good long read from the Chron about our dangerous roads and highways. There’s too much to cover here, so I just want to focus on the why we all speed so much.

Houston drivers likely speed, at least in part, because they believe no one with authority is paying attention.

A Chronicle analysis of municipal court data shows that Houston-area law enforcement’s largest agencies are deploying fewer officers for road enforcement and ticketing fewer drivers, even as fatalities increased in the past two years and the area grows in population.

Houston police officers ticketed 41 percent fewer drivers in 2017 than they did in 2012, even as the number of vehicle miles traveled in Houston grew 23 percent.

That reflects a national trend of less traffic enforcement, according to Hersman, the former chairwoman of the NTSB. Federal statistics show that the share of people coming into contact with police through a traffic stop dropped about 11 percentage points from 2002 to 2011.

“We certainly understand what law enforcement is being asked to do and what they deal with, but the reality is fatalities are going up on our roadways,” Hersman said. “What we are seeing nationwide is law enforcement is not doing traffic enforcement.”

Harris County sheriff’s deputies, for example, issued 28 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than they did in 2015, even though the county gained 100,000 people during that period. Houston police officers issued 16 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than in 2015. Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers operating within the greater Houston region are the exception; they issued 11 percent more tickets for speeding than they did in 2015.

I mostly travel on I-10 these days, and I do see (usually unmarked) patrol cars on the shoulders, and occasionally a pulled-over vehicle getting cited. But this is the exception, and there’s nothing quite like the joy of being tailgated when you’re already doing over 70 on a road with a speed limit of 60. I don’t have any solutions to offer here – we could reduce speeding and the mayhem that accompanies it with higher levels of patrol, but of course that’s going to require more patrol officers, and that’s not in the cards. I just miss working in a part of town where I didn’t have to take highways to get to the office.

Let’s kill fewer pedestrians and bicyclists

Crazy idea, right?

Houston officials will find the 10 most dangerous intersections in the city and make safety adjustments where possible following a series of fatal bicycle crashes in 2018.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the initiative on Bike to Work Day, noting that streets need to be safer for bicyclists if the city expects to promote cycling.

[…]

The program will come as a citywide expansion of Houston’s Safer Streets initiative, a pilot project that was implemented last year in five Houston communities to make streets more friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians, Turner said.

The city’s public works and planning and development departments will work with the city’s Bicycle Advocacy Committee and bike safety nonprofit BikeHouston to identify the 10 intersections that will be adjusted.

Narrowing that list down to ten may be a challenge. Here’s a map showing the major incidents over the past two years. Most of them, anyway – as Swamplot notes, locations for about fifteen percent of crashes weren’t identified, so add another hundred dots to that map. Like I said, sure would be nice if we could reduce that number.

The most dangerous places for pedestrians in Texas

There are a lot of them.

Pedestrian safety is a priority driver safety issue in Texas – where non-motorist fatalities have steadily increased every year since 2012.

At the Hill Law Firm, we wanted to be a part of the solution. Pedestrians of any age are amongst the most vulnerable road users. Even at low speeds, a motor vehicle collision with a pedestrian can lead to catastrophic injuries. So, in order to help prevent pedestrian collisions from ever occurring, we first had to find out where exactly pedestrians are at high-risk of being struck, injured or killed by vehicles on Texas roads. We enlisted the help of data visualization firm 1Point21 Interactive and analyzed the four latest available years of crash data (2012 – 2015) from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Our study examines the issue, maps out every location where a pedestrian collision occurred and identifies and highlights high danger areas across the state.

Through geospatial analysis, we identified 73 high-risk zones in the state of Texas, where 10 or more pedestrian collisions occurred during the study period. Within these zones, there were a total of 1088 pedestrian crashes, 1044 injuries, and 41 fatalities – all disproportionately high totals.

Click over for more. There are five Houston intersections listed in their top 25, with Wheeler & Main being the most hazardous. The danger zones in most cities are concentrated in a couple of locations, but in Houston the trouble spots are more spread out. If you’ve ever had to cross one of our many multi-lane thoroughfares, where people often drive like they’re on the freeway, you know what it’s like. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

New study questions Uber effect on DUI

Interesting.

Uber

The introduction of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft hasn’t had any impact on the number of fatalities related to drunken driving, a newly published study finds.

Researchers at the University of Southern California and Oxford University looked at the 100 most populated metropolitan areas, analyzing data from before and after the introduction of Uber and its competitors, and found that access to ride-sharing apps had no effect on traffic fatalities related to drinking alcohol.

Uber has repeatedly pointed to drunken-driving reduction as a benefit of its service. A 2015 blog post on its website, titled “Making Our Roads Safer For Everyone,” notes a survey Uber conducted with the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving that found anecdotal evidence that people believe their friends are less likely to drive drunk since the introduction of Uber.

[…]

In the latest study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the researchers analyzed county-level data from 100 metropolitan areas in dozens of states and controlled for the effects of state laws that could affect drunk driving fatalities, such as bans on texting while driving, marijuana-related legislation and taxes on alcohol.

The authors also separated total alcohol-related traffic fatalities from those that occurred on weekends or holidays, and found no reduction in deaths with the introduction of Uber in either case.

So, why? The authors of the study speculated that drunk people might not want to shell out for the services.

The abstract is here; it looks like the full study is not freely available. I tend to give Uber and its ilk the benefit of the doubt here, as they do provide an option for people who may not have, or may not think they have, any alternative to driving. It may be a few years before we can feel confident in an answer to this. In the meantime, add this to the pile.

Houston Tomorrow presents its Vision Zero plan

Here you go.

Following other “vision zero” programs nationally, Houston Tomorrow encouraged officials – especially Houston lawmakers – to crack down on speeding and distracted driving while investing more in rebuilding streets so that vehicles can share them safely with pedestrians, cyclists and other users.

“Vision Zero does not discriminate based on how you choose to get around,” the report’s authors said. “We want people riding in cars to be safe. We want everyone to be able to ride their bike to work safely. We want people walking around town without risk of losing their life or someone they love.”

Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, Houston and other southern cities where car travel is more common have a far higher incidence of traffic fatalities – a figure that includes drivers, vehicle passengers, pedestrians and cyclists. In 2014, 227 people were killed in Houston in traffic-related incidents. New York, despite having 6.2 million more residents, reported 269 fatalities.

“Almost as many people die on the streets of the City of Houston as are murdered each year,” the report read. “Our response to this shocking statistic should be simple: We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as seriously as we treat homicide, as a major public health and security crisis.”

Here’s the full plan, here’s the executive summary, and here’s Houston Tomorrow’s announcement. I’ve written about Vision Zero, for here and elsewhere, several times. The figure Houston Tomorrow cites for the 13-county greater Houston area is 667 deaths for 2014; there were also 135,170 total crashes and 3,468 incapacitating injuries. For Houston, those 2014 numbers are 60,472 crashes, 1,222 injuries, and 227 deaths. They didn’t include a figure for all of Harris County, which I think would be useful, but at a guess I’d say 400 to 450 deaths. I’d bet that the total number of Harris County traffic fatalities exceeded the total number of Harris County homicide victims.

Some parts of what Houston Tomorrow is calling for is already in the works. Complete Streets, coupled with the ongoing work of ReBuild Houston, will accomplish a lot to improve road safety. Some of what they want will require changes to city ordinances and/or state laws, and some of those things, like texting-while-driving bans and reduced speed limits, will cause a fight. And some of what they want will involve more enforcement of existing laws – speeding, running red lights, the 3 foot rule for bikes, etc. Mostly, they emphasize the need for better metrics. You have to be able to measure something accurately to know how it is trending and whether any of the things you are trying to do about it are having an effect. Read the report and see what you think.

Bike safety is also car safety

It’s been two years since bicyclist Chelsea Norman was killed by drunk hit-and-run driver Margaret Mayer. The city has taken numerous steps to help make the streets safer for bicyclists. How are we doing on that?

“I personally don’t feel that the streets are any safer,” said Hector Garcia, who helps organize cycling events around Houston.

Up-to-date, verifiable counts for cyclist fatalities can be tough to obtain, but online databases and Houston Chronicle archives show that nine bicyclists were killed this year through Nov. 29 in the Houston area, excluding crashes in rural areas of counties adjacent to Harris County. That compares to 14 in 2014.

Even with the likely decline, however, cyclists say more must be done to reduce accident rates, especially inside Houston’s city limits.

[…]

Outreach to local politicians, meanwhile, has increased since Norman’s death, said Michael Payne, executive director of BikeHouston. To some extent, the advocacy group’s growth can be traced to the attention Norman’s death and others received in 2013.

“Cities and conditions change when people get involved,” Payne said. “Cycling, civil rights, you pick the issue. Houston has the cyclists. For too long we were a highly-fragmented group. United, we are getting recognition and a seat at the table.”

The city, with some prodding by Payne and others, is developing a bike master plan. That in itself is progress, Payne said.

“The city must set goals on how it wants to evolves and come up with a plan to get there,” he said.

Change will be gradual. Bike lanes and other features would commonly be added as streets are repaired or redesigned, meaning it could be years before new infrastructure is in place. Designs for improvements to Alabama and T. C. Jester incorporate bike amenities.

Payne says progress since Norman’s death has been limited.

“While not strictly a failure, I would have liked to have seen the city council and the mayor take a more aggressive stand on issues like distracted driving, speeding and DUI,” Payne said.

Recall that Mayer and Norman’s collision had fatal consequences, based on the investigation and trial, because Mayer had been drinking, not because Norman was on a bike.

“These are behaviors which are killing very large numbers of Houstonians, mainly people in cars, and we know that we can make improvements here with a bit of courage,” Payne said.

That’s something that I think tends to get overlooked in the often-polarizing discussion about bike safety in Houston: A lot of the things we could do to make the roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists would also make them safer for cars and their occupants. That’s largely because the vast, overwhelming majority of accidents are caused by drivers. As this recent NHTSA press release notes, “NHTSA research shows that in an estimated 94 percent of crashes, the critical cause is a human factor. In contrast, vehicle-related factors are the critical reason in about 2 percent of crashes.” (See this Reuters story and this Ars Technica story, which is where I found that NHTSA link, for more on that.) Anything we can do to reduce the likelihood of drivers doing the sorts of things they do that lead to accidents makes us all safer. That includes things like Complete Streets, texting while driving bans, continued education and outreach about drunk driving, actually enforcing existing ordinances like the Safe Passing law, and more. We all know you can’t fix stupid, but you can mitigate against it.

San Antonio implements Vision Zero

Good for them.

Tuesday marked the official launch of San Antonio’s Vision Zero, a multi-national awareness and educational initiative that calls for zero traffic fatalities. It’s a lofty goal, but proponents of the plan say these deaths, especially those of pedestrians, are preventable accidents that can be systematically addressed with infrastructure and safety education.

Last year 54 pedestrians were killed while walking in San Antonio, an average of one death per week. To pay tribute to those individuals, 54 people stood on the steps of City Hall as Mayor Ivy Taylor, Council members, and City staff launched the initiative.

“We suffer human losses because of culture and public policy decisions that have resulted in the built environment we have today,” said Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5), who has long advocated for more City investment in complete street, or multimodal, infrastructure and led the Council’s backing of Vision Zero.

According to the ethos of Vision Zero, individuals and roadway design should share the burden of ensuring safe passage. Priority is often given to vehicles, leaving pedestrians and cyclists to fend for themselves in an environment built for tires and steel.

“We have a high number of traffic fatality rates because we have a fundamentally dangerous environment,” Gonzales said.

Aside from infrastructure like better sidewalks and safer street crossings, the City is looking into reducing speed limits to create a safer environment for those walking and bicycling.

“We’ve made and continue to make policy decisions and direct City staff to construct projects that keep everyone and every mode of transportation in mind,” Mayor Taylor said.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the city’s official plan. The basic idea here is that the way our streets are constructed now, it’s dangerous for anyone who isn’t in a car, and this is reflected in the number of accidents and fatalities involving pedestrians and bicyclists. This doesn’t have to be the way things are, it’s the way we currently choose to do them. If we do them differently, and think in terms of everyone who uses the streets and not just the cars, we could have fewer accidents and fewer deaths. That seems like a worthy goal, no? I look forward to seeing what kind of results they get, because that is how this will ultimately be judged. The Current has more, and you can sign petitions to bring this to Houston and Austin if you are so inclined. Streetsblog has more.

More on Uber and drunk driving

We have a study.

In this work, we investigate how the entry of the driving service Uber influences the rate of alcohol related motor vehicle homicides. While significant debate has surrounded the entry of driving services like Uber and Lyft, limited rigorous empirical work has been devoted to uncovering the social benefits of such services (or the mechanism which drives these benefits). Using a difference in difference approach to exploit a natural experiment, the entry of Uber into markets in California between 2009 and 2013, findings suggest a significant drop in the rate of homicides during that time. Furthermore, results suggest that not all services offered by Uber have the same effect, insofar as the effect for the Uber Black car service is intermittent and manifests only in selective locations. These results underscore the coupling of increased availability with cost savings which are necessary to exploit the public welfare gains offered by the sharing economy. Practical and theoretical implications are discussed within.

From the introduction:

Uber

Preliminary analysis conducted by Uber and several industry analysts suggest that introduction of Uber and other ride sharing services has a negative influence on DUI arrests. However, these studies have been questioned on several grounds: including involvement of Uber in the data analysis, methodological rigor (i.e. single city estimations), and the presence of confounding factors such as changes in city’s population, bar scene, and tougher enforcement.

Moreover, a limited understanding of the mechanisms by which such services influence the rate of DUIs exists. On one hand, it is plausible that the decrease in DUI is simply the result of availability of vehicles for hire and that patrons are willing to pay a price premium for such services. Insofar as it is often difficult to hire a taxi, based on time, location, or even the race of the patron (Meeks 2010), it is plausible that the presence of the platform mitigates these market inefficiencies by soliciting the driver electronically, thereby significantly reducing search costs (Parker and Van Alstyne 2005) and creating excess utility for the consumer. On the other hand, it is equally plausible that the effect is a result of both availability and cost. Drawing from rational choice theory (Clarke and Cornish 1985, Cornish and Clarke 2014) it is conceivable that individuals who make the decision to drive under the influence do so based on the costs associated with conviction, the cost of searching for and hiring a taxi, and the probability of being stopped by the police and/or striking another driver. This broad question: what is the impact of Uber’s introduction on alcohol related motor vehicle homicides in the local area and by what mechanisms, forms the core of the research investigated in this paper.

Empirically, we exploit a natural experiment, the introduction of the ride sharing service Uber into cities in the State of California between 2009 and 2014, to investigate the effect. Leveraging this econometric setup offers us several advantages. First, to the extent that the entrance of Uber is staggered temporally and geographically, we execute a difference in difference estimation to establish the effect. Second, Uber offers multiple services in each of the treated areas with varying price points (note that these services also enter at varying times and orders). On one hand, UberBlack, a town car service, offers transportation with a significant markup over taxicabs (~20% – ~30% price premium). On the other, the UberX service is a personalized driving service which offers significant discounts over taxis (~20% – ~30% price reductions). To the degree that each of these services identifies a different mechanism being at play (availability v. availability and price point), we are able to cleanly identify the dominant mechanisms at play. We test these using hand collected data from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) safety and crash dataset and a custom webscraper which indicates when each service entered a geographic area in California.

Results indicate that while the entry of UberX strongly and negatively affects the number of motor vehicle homicides which occur in townships, limited evidence exists to support previous claims that this occurs with the Uber Black car service as well (indicating that prior claims about the efficacy of Uber may have been overstated (Badger 2014)). Further, results indicate that the time for such effects to manifest vary is significant (upwards of 9 – 15 months). These results are robust to a variety of estimations (e.g. OLS, Poisson, and Quasi-Maximum Likelihood count models) and operationalizations. Finally, findings suggest an absence of a heterogeneous pre-treatment homicide trend in treated locations, indicating that the primary assumptions of the difference in difference model are not violated (Angrist and Pischke 2008, Bertrand et al. 2002). Further, results suggest no effect of Uber when surge pricing is likely in effect, thereby underscoring the importance of cost considerations. Economically, results indicate that the entrance of Uber X results in a 3.6% – 5.6% decrease in the rate of motor vehicle homicides per quarter in the state of California. With more than 1000 deaths5 occurring in California due to alcohol related car crashes every year, this represents a substantial opportunity to improve public welfare and save lives.

Emphasis mine, as that’s the key point. The paper overall is fairly technical and written for an academic audience, but you get the idea. We’ve discussed this issue before, and now that there appears to be some solid evidence behind the idea that Uber (and presumably Lyft) can help reduce the vehicular homicide rate in a city where those services are legal, it’s a factor that needs to be taken into account when they are debated. Sure, the people who are now using Uber to get themselves home after a night on the town could have called a cab in the past, but they didn’t. Uber is the option they prefer, and it comes with a benefit. Of course, Uber also comes with its own problems that haven’t been fixed yet, too, so this isn’t a debate ender. It’s just another point to keep in mind. Link via Streetsblog.

Where the forest and the trees collide

Headline atop Tuesday’s Chronicle: Spike in Metrorail crashes prompts a second look at safety measures.

Metro recorded a record 17 accidents on its rail system in June, and most of them involved the kind of action Marchetti narrowly avoided: people or cars moving into the train’s path or, in one case, a bicyclist riding into the side of a train, Metro officials said. Even so, the incidents renewed criticism that at-grade trains like Metro’s are rolling disasters. Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, meanwhile, are looking for new ways to keep drivers, cyclists and pedestrians from wandering into the paths of the trains.

The 17 June crashes – which involved 13 vehicles, three pedestrians and one bicyclist – were the most in any month since the agency began rail service in 2004. It was only the third time the number of accidents exceeded nine in a month. The spike was alarming, Metro officials said, but was not an indication of flaws in operations.

Metro said three of the collisions might have been prevented if agency employees had acted differently. For example, a train was exceeding Metro’s maximum speed for the area when it collided with an ambulance in the Texas Medical Center. The cause, however, was the ambulance turning illegally in front of the train.

Metro officials said no single factor determines the level of safety on the rail system. Different segments face different challenges, they said.

The June numbers, in fact, might have been an aberration. As of July 24, Metro had logged five rail accidents in the month, within the agency’s normal range.

In fact, if you look a little farther down in the story, you’ll see a graphic that shows the monthly accident totals going back to June 2013. In the 24 months from June 2013 to May 2015, there were 106 total accidents, or 4.4 per month. Also farther down in the story is this paragraph:

Traffic accidents in general in the Houston area are up, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council. Based on miles traveled, the regional accident rate increased 13 percent in 2014 from the previous year, to 229 vehicle collisions per 100 million miles of driving. Bus crashes increased 9 percent from 2013 to 2014.

And here’s what the top of the houstonchronicle.com homepage looked like a bit later on Tuesday:

OverturnedBigRigHeadline

The story:

Traffic was snarled early Tuesday morning on portions of Interstate 10 after a big-rig overturned near the 610 Loop just west of downtown.

The single-vehicle crash happened about 5:40 a.m. on the inbound Katy Freeway ramp to the West Loop.

No information was available about possible injuries or what caused the crash.

The wreck forced officials to block the ramp from the westbound Katy Freeway to both the northbound and southbound West Loop while crews cleared the scene. It was not known when the ramp would reopen.

Just for grins, I did a search on “overturned truck” on the Chron. On the first two pages of results, I got eleven results for just this year. Here are the story links:

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Overturned-truck-blocks-freeway-ramp-6171566.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Overturned-truck-slowing-traffic-at-I-10-and-US-59-6067056.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Overturned-truck-snarls-Beltway-8-East-6050920.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Truck-crash-snarls-I-10-downtown-6332716.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Lost-load-causing-serious-accident-backups-on-6068407.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Overturned-big-rig-snarls-Eastex-Freeway-6161012.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Accident-has-I-10-closed-for-hours-6150578.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Truck-crash-slows-East-Freeway-6089338.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Around-the-area-state-Truck-spills-hot-tar-6069099.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Fiery-tanker-crash-blocks-North-Loop-6399486.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Crash-blocks-East-Loop-6096418.php

That’s one search term and likely not all possible results. Lord knows, plenty of things besides overturned trucks can cause huge problems on the freeways. My point is this sort of thing happens all the damn time, without being front page news. But by all means, let’s worry about a weird one month jump in the number of accidents involving the train. Unlike all the overturned rigs, at least Metro is trying to do something about it.

Pushing for Vision Zero

Jay Crossley opines in the Chron for a lower speed limit in Houston.

Texas law requires a 30 mph speed limit in the city of Houston on local residential streets unless a different speed limit is posted. If you are walking and are hit by a car traveling 30 mph, you have a 60 percent chance of survival, while at 20 mph, you have a 95 percent chance of survival. In the legislative session that just ended earlier this month, Houston Tomorrow worked on SB 1717 with the city of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department and Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis to change the local street speed limit to 25 mph and allow the city to use 20 mph where appropriate. Unfortunately, the bill was never taken up for consideration by the Senate Transportation Committee.

[…]

We need streets and sidewalks designed for little boys doing what little boys do. Two urban road safety approaches address this need. The Complete Streets concept, which the city has embraced, is the idea that all Houstonians matter – whether they’re in cars, on two wheels or on foot. And it’s a crucial element of Vision Zero, a multinational road-safety project. Specifically, it is the idea that we should design, allocate funding and build our transportation system for the safety and comfort of all users, regardless of age, ability or mode of transport.

[…]

We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as the public health crisis it is.

Cities around the world are taking a comprehensive approach to bringing the number of people who die on the streets to zero. New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, San Jose and Austin are all committed to Vision Zero. While we have made progress on bicycle deaths with the Goal Zero bicycle safety program, Houston is now the largest city in America without a Vision Zero plan that would attempt to eliminate traffic deaths for people using all modes of travel.

The Houston region’s 134 mayors should commit to Vision Zero by the end of this year, starting with Houston Mayor Annise Parker. And every Houston mayoral candidate should commit to pursuing this vision and making serious progress over the next six years. This crisis will not be fixed overnight, but we can begin making progress immediately.

See here for some background on Vision Zero, whose goals were just approved by the US Conference of Mayors. Crossley is not the first person to call for this in Houston, though I couldn’t say how much traction the idea has gotten. Part of the Bike Plan that the city is currently working on includes Goal Zero Fatalities, which doesn’t specify a speed limit but does call for creating “streets that encourage safe speeds”.

You may be wondering what all the fuss is about. This would be the reason.

Crashes involving a motorist and a pedestrian or bicyclist have jumped 63 percent here since 2010, contributing to more than 220 related deaths, and Houston has the dubious distinction of leading the state in such accidents.

More than 4,000 wrecks between motorists and pedestrians or bicyclists were recorded in Houston city limits from 2010 to June 2015, according to data obtained from the Texas Department of Transportation. Austin places second with a little more than 2,580.

Motorist-pedestrian collisions saw the largest increase, according to the data, jumping 71 percent since 2010.

The string of fatal crashes here in the past month alone has motivated local enthusiasts to demand that city leaders fulfill their promises to provide safer roadways.

[…]

The recent uptick in fatal crashes is significant for Houston, which has reported an average of five fatal bicyclist accidents per year in city limits since 2010.

“It’s unusual, and that’s very concerning,” said Michael Payne, BikeHouston executive director. “These weren’t accidents caused by reckless cyclists or cyclists who were drinking. These were cyclists who were obeying the law.”

Payne says the city needs to get serious about reducing collisions for pedestrians and people who ride bicycles. In 2014, the city recognized a need for improved cyclist safety and partnered with Payne and BikeHouston to launch a major bike safety campaign designed to enforce road safety.

That’s an awful lot of death and injury to pedestrians and bicyclists. Yes, sometimes it is the fault of the pedestrian or bicyclist, but let’s be real here: The automobile always wins these collisions, and the person not in the vehicle pays a vastly disproportionate share of the price for it. Surely we can do better than this, and yes, it’s something the Mayoral candidates ought to be speaking about.

Safe passing law update

The city of Houston has an ordinance requiring vehicles to give bikes a three-foot buffer on the streets. How much of an effect has it had so far?

A law authorizing police to ticket drivers for encroaching on bicyclists and pedestrians has yielded fewer than a dozen citations in the 20 months it has been on the books, though law enforcement officials and biking advocates said they are reluctant to use enforcement as a measure of success.

“You don’t have to ride around Houston very long to know that this is a very low number of citations given the frequency of the occurrence,” said Michael Payne, executive director of BikeHouston, which is working with city officials on cycling improvements.

[…]

Officers didn’t write a citation for violating the ordinance until Dec. 11, 2013, more than seven months after it took effect and 10 days after a Montrose-area cyclist was struck and killed by a driver who fled the scene. The fatal collision led to criticism of officials for not doing enough to enforce the safe passing law. The driver involved recently received a 15-year sentence, which some in the cycling community believe sent a message that bike safety would be taken seriously.

Since that first ticket, 10 more have been written, including four during targeted enforcement initiatives in February and March 2014. Those tickets, [Lt. Michelle Chavez, who oversees some traffic safety operations] said, came from multiple enforcement efforts.

“What we found is we really weren’t seeing egregious violations,” Chavez said of the operations, where police rode on bikes and reported violators to waiting patrol cars ahead. “Still, we know the cycling community does face people who are violating the law.”

Payne said cyclists estimate, based on anecdotes and observation, that a vehicle gets too close about once every time someone rides.

“My staffer who rode in six miles this morning said he counted three cars in the zone,” Payne said Monday.

Throughout the law’s creation and implementation, cycling advocates said raising awareness among drivers was the critical benefit. It was never about punishing drivers, but a tool to educate them to share the road, cycling proponents said.

See here and here for the background. It’s the outreach and education about this that most people are interested in, and while there’s progress there, there’s room to do a lot more. The comprehensive bike plan the city is working on should help; at the least, it will spell out what the city will be doing to make biking safer. The continued expansion of the off-road bike trails will help as well, perhaps with an assist from Neighborhood Greenways. Of course, as good and useful as off-road trails are, you don’t want to make it seem like that’s the norm and that riding on the streets is somehow exceptional. We all need to learn how to coexist safely. The Highwayman has more.

How does a 25 MPH speed limit for downtown Houston grab you?

Christopher Andrews makes the case in Gray Matters:

Does anyone know the speed limit in downtown Houston? Probably not. Casual observation shows speeds there normally range anywhere from gridlock to Gran Prix.

I don’t believe there are any speed-limit signs. But there is a speed limit. And no, it’s not “however fast you can drive between lights.” According to Section 45-91 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances, in the absence of speed-limit signs, the speed limit is 30 miles per hour, just like any other local street in our city.

Until recently, 30 mph was also the local speed limit in New York City. But on November 7, New York City’s speed limits dropped to 25 mph, unless posted otherwise. This was part of New York’s Vision Zero initiative aimed ending traffic deaths and injuries — including the deaths and injuries of pedestrians.

[…]

It’s easy to make the case that Houston needs to slow down. Recent studies show that among large cities, Houston ranks above average for bicycle and pedestrian deaths, and that our average number of such deaths has risen. As Houston grows denser, and as more people choose to walk or bike here, that danger will naturally grow. Complete Streets — those new-style streets built with pedestrian-friendly wide sidewalks, street trees and other amenities — are great. But they’re not safe when drivers speed right through them.

Andrews’ original post is here. He references this Vox post about New York City’s Vision Zero initiative and the experience of London, which has lowered speed limits in some parts of town and seen a significant drop in accidents and fatalities as a result. This idea of lower municipal speed limits has an advocate in San Antonio, which I noted here. Another idea that has been proposed here for increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety is Neighborhood Greenways, which aims to leverage side streets as a way of connecting neighborhoods to off-road hike and bike trails. That idea would be a complement to lower speed limits, not an alternative to them, so doing both is an option as well. Yet a third idea is making lane widths narrower. Michael Skelly advocated for that in a recent op-ed.

Every few years, the city of Houston revises its “Infrastructure Design Manual” to make sure it’s up to date. Public Works is reviewing its current standard of 12 foot-wide lanes. It’s time to put to work the free lessons being learned around the country and reduce the standard lane width to 10 feet.

You’d think that there’s not a lot new in road design – but you’d be wrong. Over the past decade, cities have figured out that one of the smartest things we can do is narrow traffic lanes – often from 12 feet to 10 feet. Reducing lane width reduces road fatalities, makes cities more walkable, saves precious real estate and gets us more bang for our limited tax dollars.

Cities like Chicago have figured out that drivers don’t respond to posted speed limits, but rather to conditions around them. The most effective way to influence driver behavior is by modifying those conditions.

When faced with a wide-open road, even if it’s in urban Midtown, drivers hit the gas. When conditions are more complicated, as when other cars are close by, cars are parallel-parked and pedestrians are out and about, studies show that drivers naturally slow down. You can see this difference yourself next time you find yourself driving quickly down Travis through Midtown or easing off the gas on Heights Boulevard. The former is treated like a speedway by most drivers, and the latter has slower, more cautious traffic. Lower speeds mean fewer, less deadly accidents. Speed matters. Pedestrians hit by a car going 30 mph vs. 20 mph are seven to 10 times more likely to die. The severity of automobile accidents increases dramatically with increases in speed.

There is simply no need for outsized 12-foot lanes. The iconic Texas Suburban has actually shrunk from 79.6 inches in width in 1973 to 79.1 inches today. Buses are wide, but cities around the country manage just fine with 10-foot lanes. And let’s not forget that for a bus system to work, we need safe sidewalks and a walkable environment to allow folks to walk safely to the bus stop.

I can’t say that I’d expect any lower speed limit proposal to be popular in Houston, at least at first, but all of these ideas deserve consideration. There’s a petition in support of ten-foot lanes, if you want to sign it. What do you think?

Speed limits and pedestrian fatalities

Here’s a topic that won’t be the least bit controversial, I’m sure.

The New York City Vision Zero goal is simple and precise: to end traffic deaths and injuries on city streets. This is not a mere sound bite in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his Vision Zero initiative before he took office and is moving the transportation safety work started by his predecessors, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Polly Trottenberg, the current New York City Transportation Commissioner, was an opening speaker at the inaugural Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in mid-November where she restated her commitment to safety for all transportation modes, including walking and cycling.

The symposium, organized by Transportation Alternatives, brought together 300 government and non-government participants from dozens of cities across the U.S. and the world. Transportation Alternatives is a grassroots organization that has worked for decades to improve cycling and walking safety in New York City. It reached a major milestone in 2013 when the city adopted the Vision Zero Action Plan. The 10-year plan sets a high bar through better street design and changing road user behavior. The details are as complex and comprehensive as you might expect for a plan that will create sweeping cultural and engineering changes to the nation’s largest city, but it is built on two fundamental principles: Reduce the chance of collisions and reduce injury by reducing speed.

The myths about New York City transportation safety defy the facts. A popular myth is that New York streets are dangerous, but the fact is their streets are far safer than San Antonio’s streets. In 2012, there were 268 deaths from traffic violence in New York City. Of those, 127 pedestrians and cyclists were killed. During the same period, San Antonio traffic fatalities per capita were 297% that of New York City, and pedestrian/cyclist fatalities per capita were 176% greater that of New York City, according to 2012 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers.

New York City outperforms San Antonio, and almost every other city in the nation, in traffic safety. Yet, the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers share San Antonio’s culture of indifference to traffic deaths. However, a growing group of transportation safety activists throughout New York City steadily chipped away at that indifference and in the past 24 months made powerful breakthroughs. First was the adoption of Vision Zero, followed by establishment of Families for Safe Streets. Families for Safe Streets is a coalition of families who lost a child, parent, or spouse in a pedestrian or cycling collision with an automobile. Families for Safe Streets was a powerful, watershed organization, but one that no one wants membership in.

The establishment of Families for Safe Streets was a pivotal step. Their tragic stories, their conviction to ending this culture of indifference compelled the state legislature to pass a bill permitting New York City to set a city-wide default 25-mph speed limit. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, a taxi trade association, has joined as partners. Major arterials are being converted to 25-mph speed zones. Streets and intersections throughout the city are being redesigned to reduce chaos, instill discipline, and convert automobile lanes to dedicated cycling and pedestrian uses.

It’s the citywide 25 MPH speed limit that I’m sure will give everyone reading this heartburn. Author Kevin Barton discussed that topic in an earlier post in which he notes that on military bases, in San Antonio and around the country, where speed limits in housing areas are 20 MPH and more rigorously enforced, there are essentially zero traffic fatalities. This Wired article goes into some detail:

“I’d estimate that a person is about 74 percent more likely to be killed if they’re struck by vehicles traveling at 30 mph than at 25 mph,” says Brian Tefft, a researcher with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety who wrote a 2011 report on the subject. He looked at 549 vehicle-pedestrian accidents occurring across the US between 1994 and 1998, accounting for factors like vehicle size and pedestrian BMI. The risk of serious injury (defined as likely to result in long-term disability) for a pedestrian hit at 23 mph was about 25 percent. At 39 mph, it jumped to 75 percent. Analyzing his findings, Tefft says, “25 to 35 mph, they’re almost three times as likely to be killed.” 35 mph, he found, was the median impact speed for fatal pedestrian crashes.

A 2010 study in London had similar findings: “In all of the pedestrian datasets, the risk of fatality increases slowly until impact speeds of around 30 mph. Above this speed, risk increases rapidly – the increase is between 3.5 and 5.5 times from 30 mph to 40 mph,” the author, D.C. Richards, writes.

So why doesn’t a 20 percent change in speed just mean a 20 percent change in serious injuries? There are lots of variables at work here (is the car an Escalade or a Fiat? is it a direct hit or a side swipe?), but, it turns out, the 30 mph mark is something of a limit for what our bodies can live through. Above that speed, organs and the skull aren’t necessarily strong enough to withstand the kinetic impact of a bumper and windshield.

“It has to do with fracture forces,” says Dr. Peter Orner, a licensed physician and former engineering professor who consults on injury biomechanics in car crashes. “As velocity increases, you’re crossing thresholds.” Though he’s skeptical of the comprehensiveness of studies like Tefft’s, Orner also says that at higher speeds, “the car is going to scoop them up.” And when you’re talking about cars, what gets scooped up is usually smacked against a windshield or thrown onto the ground. That can easily lead to brain trauma.

This Smart Growth America report on how dangerous various cities are for pedestrians tells us that for the period of 2003 through 2012, there were 1,073 pedestrian fatalities in the Houston-Baytown-Sugar Land MSA. Granting that that’s a large population, it’s still a lot of dead people, and that doesn’t include bicyclists and passengers or drivers of motor vehicles. I feel reasonably sure if you put all that together the total would exceed the equivalent tally for homicides, yet somehow it gets much, much less attention. Lower speed limits in residential areas, combined with tighter enforcement, could have a large effect on that, and I say this as someone whose driving habits would most definitely be affected. It’s a subject that deserves some discussion. Here’s some further information about Vision Zero in New York, and an assessment of how the first year of it has gone. What do you think?

Re-revisiting red light cameras

This horse is dead. Please stop beating it.

Gone

Gone

Four years after Houston voters rejected red-light cameras, the divisive issue unexpectedly resurfaced Tuesday when police officials presented figures indicating that removing the cameras made 51 busy intersections more dangerous.

Auto crashes have more than doubled at those intersections since voters banned use of the cameras in a 2010 referendum, according to figures presented to a City Council committee by the Houston Police Department.

Executive Assistant Chief Tim Oettmeier acknowledged the analysis was imprecise, however, noting that the data did not split neatly into four years of collisions when the cameras were in place and four years when they were not. In addition, Oettmeier said police did not examine the traffic counts at those intersections to see if the increase in collisions might be related to the streets being busier.

Oettmeier did discuss citywide crash figures, which show steady increases over the last four years.

The red light camera statistics were only a slice of Oettmeier’s presentation, which focused on HPD’s proposal to increase the force by 590 officers over the next five years. The discussion follows a staffing study that showed the department is short-staffed in some areas and did not investigate 20,000 cases with workable leads last year.

Some council members questioned the methodology behind the red light crash data and the purpose of including it in the presentation. Among them was Councilman Michael Kubosh, a bail bondsman who, with his brothers, led the 2010 referendum effort that got the cameras banned.

“I don’t know why it’s in this report,” he said. “There’s a charter amendment that says we’re not going to do this. There was a vote of the people; the people said no, and why you even waste your time to put this in the report to us today, I do not know. Maybe it’s that I’m sitting on council – that’s the only reason I can see.”

Oettmeier did not respond to Kubosh’s comments, but said later that he included the camera information to anticipate questions about whether HPD still needs as many police officers with its large recent investments in technology.

Red-light cameras are “a thing of the past,” Oettmeier said, adding he had no “hidden agenda” in mentioning them Tuesday. City Attorney David Feldman confirmed the city would not be able to deploy red light cameras without another public vote.

“The red light camera portion of the presentation was just an attempt to validate that that type of technology does, in fact, cause an effect, and it does help police officers out,” Oettmeier said.

That’s all very nice, and I get that Oettmeier was speaking in the context of HPD staffing levels and personnel needs. But seriously, just stop. We are not going anywhere near red light cameras any time soon, for good reason. Plus, no one who doesn’t already believe in red light cameras buys the crash data. Hell, I spent way too much of my life trying to make sense of the various crash studies done here in Houston, and I have a hard time accepting any of it. Just make your case for more traffic officers and leave it at that, OK? Thanks.

Please watch out for the trains

Seriously, people.

Three MetroRail collisions this week highlight persistent safety concerns that arise when trains share the road with cars – a problem that Metro officials hope to control as they prepare to open two new rail lines.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has experienced a relatively high number of accidents in its decade running light rail along Main Street. The agency has made adjustments to improve safety, but this week’s accidents show the problem is far from solved.
Raw Video: Car swerves into path of Houston…

A car veered into the path of an oncoming Metro train headed north. The Tuesday morning crash…

The collisions occurred Tuesday and Wednesday over a period of less than 36 hours. The Tuesday crash occurred along Fannin in the Texas Medical Center, where cars can cross onto the tracks to make left turns. The Wednesday incidents were in the Medical Center and along Harrisburg, where Metro is testing trains in advance of a December opening of its Green Line.

Preliminary analysis indicates the train operator was at fault in one of the Med Center crashes, and motorists likely caused the other incidents. Two of the accidents led to reported injuries.

Metro officials said Thursday that they don’t see the need for any immediate changes to address problems at the crash locations, but they are always looking for ideas to improve safety. Many Metro critics have cited an at-grade system’s potential for accidents in arguing that Metro should have built its lines above or below street level.

Of course, it costs a lot more money to elevate or build below street level. These same critics would have been first to declare that Metro couldn’t afford to build any lines if that had been the plan. I’m just saying.

From October 2013 until the end of June, Metro reported 47 light rail collisions. None of the months has exceeded Metro’s goal of no more than six collisions per month.

Regardless of cause, Metro has seen far more collisions than other light rail systems when the system’s size is factored in.

The eight serious collisions Metro reported last year were the same number as Portland, Ore., where the light rail system travels five times as many miles. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which also travels five times as many miles as Metro, had one fewer accident. Both cities have at-grade systems, but most of Dallas’ system is separated from auto traffic.

Based on Metro’s analysis, 22 of the accidents in the past decade – an average of about two per year – were deemed preventable by the train’s operator.

“In a large sense, it is a motorist who is making a call that is not a good one,” said Margaret O’Brien-Molina, spokeswoman for Metro.

In fact, accidents among automobiles as a whole are up in 2014, compared to the past four years, according to Houston TranStar. In June 2014, emergency officials responded to 874 accidents along major freeway and highway corridors, compared to 799 in June 2013 and 733 in June 2012.

Clearly, this is the fault of the red light cameras. (Sorry, my sarcasm reflex was on autoplay there.)

As MetroRail officials prepare for the December openings of the Green Line along Harrisburg east of downtown and the Purple Line along Scott and Wheeler southeast of downtown, they have focused on community awareness.

“Metro has been out talking to every citizen group it can get itself in front of,” said Diane Schenke, president of the Greater East End Management District. “They have lights at every intersection that flash. It is very difficult to think what else can be done.”

Still, Schenke said, the new line is “weighed against years and years of people driving on this road. Change is hard.”

[…]

Few of the conditions present in the Medical Center – spots where cars sit on the tracks to make left turns – exist along the Green and Purple lines. In many spots along the two new routes, the track is on a slightly elevated platform and largely fenced in, said Andy Skabowski, operations director for Metro.

That might be enough of a buffer to make a difference, Schenke said. Still, she acknowledged transit officials face a challenge.

“There are people to this day that do not pay attention to pedestrians and bicyclists,” she said. “We are conditioned in Houston not to expect anything but cars on the street. That’s what some people think.”

And a lot of those people think they’re the only car on the street. We’ve all experienced drivers like that. There’s only so much Metro can do to prevent accidents. Maybe you think they’ve done enough and maybe you don’t, but at some point it’s on all of us to avoid them. We have a role to play, too, and it’s far from clear that we’re doing what we should be doing.

Walk carefully

Texas cities are not so safe for pedestrians. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are.

dont_walk

Houston pedestrians better cross with care. The city is the seventh most dangerous in the nation for people on foot, according to a new report from the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit that advocates for neighborhood safety.

Texas ranked as the 10th most dangerous state for walking commuters, with nearly 4,200 pedestrian deaths between 2003 and 2012. That’s roughly 10 percent of such deaths nationally during that time period, according to data compiled from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.

Although the total number of traffic fatalities has decreased nationally, the number of pedestrian deaths has grown. In 2012, 15 percent of all traffic fatalities involved people on foot.

As Congress considers reauthorizing MAP-21, a 2012 law that funds national transportation infrastructure, nonprofits like Smart Growth America and their pro-public safety allies are urging lawmakers nationwide to pass additional federal policy that would ensure pedestrian safety.

“This is about making smarter choices, investing our transportation dollars in projects that help achieve multiple community goals, including public health and supporting local economies,” said Roger Millar, the director of the coalition.

Using numbers from the National Weather Service, the reports says the number of pedestrian deaths in the past decade — 47,000 — is 16 times higher than the number of people who died in natural disasters. But “pedestrian deaths don’t receive a corresponding level of urgency,” Millar added.

[…]

There are two key explanations for the danger of Houston streets, said Jay Blazek Crossley, a policy analyst at Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that examines urban issues in the region. One is the design of city streets, which he said prioritizes speed over safety. The other is that the region has chosen to spend on toll roads over safer urban design, he said.

“Our money is focused on building toll roads in the middle of nowhere,” Crossley said. “Instead of redesigning streets with safety in mind, we’re putting our attention there.”

Crossley added that Houston has made some recent strides. In October, Mayor Annise Parker announced an executive order establishing a citywide Complete Streets policy aimed at protecting pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and public transit riders.

Dallas and San Antonio are also on the list, though not as high up as Houston. I don’t think there’s any question that the way our streets are built, to accommodate cars first and foremost, is the main reason behind this. As Wonkblog points out, cities that are safer for pedestrians tend to be older ones where the main street grid was built before cars existed, and thus were engineered for walking. The Complete Streets directive will help, but to say the least that’s a long-term fix. I don’t know what there is to do in the short run, but raising awareness can’t hurt. Ed Kilgore has more.

The other three foot rule

This is a little bold for my taste.

A Houston bicyclist is testing a year-old safety ordinance intended to ensure motorists don’t get closer than three feet from riders.

While riding in the designated bike lanes of the Memorial area this month, Dan Morgan has been filming drivers who hit a flag pole sticking out three feet from the side of his bike.

“The whole purpose of the flag was to demonstrate that we exist on the roads,” said Morgan, 47, an automation safety manager. “That flag could have been a person.”

He’s been met with anger from motorists who aren’t acquainted with the law, as seen in the videos he’s collected on his YouTube channel. Most motorists shown are angry about their cars being damaged.

Via Hair Balls, you can see some of the videos Morgan has shot on his Facebook page; here is one example. Note that Morgan is in the little bike lane by the curb – there’s plenty of room to pass him safely. I admire what he’s doing, though I don’t have the cojones to do it myself. We all know there are some reckless bicyclists out there, who ride unpredictably and who ignore the rules of the road. I’ve shaken my fist at more than a few two-wheeled idiots. But whether you like it or not, bikes have the same right to the road as you do, and it’s your responsibility as a driver to pass them safely. Remember, in any confrontation between a bike and your car, the bike and its rider are going to lose, badly. Do you want that on your conscience? If you have to slow down for a few seconds to safely pass a bike, do it. You’ll still get where you’re going. People need to live this, and HPD needs to enforce it. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the law.

Did I mention that HPD needs to enforce this law? Turns out, they’re on it.

In Houston, cops are taking a novel approach to arresting jerks who cut off cyclists. They’re going undercover on two wheels, and when things get too tight for the law, they’re calling in for support.

In 2012, if you were cycling around the country, Houston ranked as one of the worst cities to make a stop. Out of 51 American cities in the last Alliance for Biking and Walking report, listed from low to high cyclist fatalities, Houston beat out other lethal cities for number 41.

But Houston could turn itself around, especially now that it’s implementing a “Goal Zero” bike safety program that aims to keep all its cyclists alive. Last Tuesday, Mayor Annise Parker announced a series of changes to the way the city went about its transportation business. Among those changes: Sting operations from plainclothes policemen riding bikes to catch drivers who pass cyclists too closely for the city’s three-foot mandated standard.

“We asked them to put police officers in plain clothes on bicycles with support in the area, so if someone did pass them too closely, they could call on their support to pull over that driver and issue a citation,” explains Mike Payne, executive director of BikeHouston, the organization that originally went to the mayor’s office with the idea. “They just started running special missions, if you want to call them that, where they send people out to different neighborhoods to do this. And they start writing citations and warnings.”

Consider yourself warned. Pass bikes safely, and you won’t have to worry about it.

We still need to do more to protect bike riders

The story of Chelsea Norman just breaks my heart.

They call it the “ghost bike.” It is painted completely white, even the tires, and chained to a street post in Montrose.

The shrine near West Gray and Waugh marks where cyclist Chelsea Norman was hit 10 days ago by a motorist and later died of her injuries.

There are no known witnesses. The driver fled. Exactly what happened remains a mystery that police and Norman’s family continue to probe.

The bike is flanked by candles and flowers to honor the 24-year-old who was riding home at about 10:25 p.m. from her job a few blocks away at Whole Foods Market.

The spot has quickly become sacred ground. Tears are shed. Memories are shared. It is also a rallying point for cyclists calling for more safety among their own ranks as well as denouncing motorists who they say drive with impunity from the law and disdain for sharing the road.

Hundreds of riders are expected to converge on the area at 7 p.m. Wednesday to remind Houston of the Dec. 1 incident and pressure authorities to reduce the chances of it happening again by enforcing laws and enhancing bike paths.

Among the riders who vows to be there is Fred Zapalac, co-owner of the Blue Line Bike Lab bike shops.

“I would say the cycling community is by and large very angry,” he said. “This beautiful 24-year-old girl that was struck down and killed has really lit a fire under people. I think anybody that knows anybody who rides a bike in this city would be very concerned about this – and anybody who has a heart.”

[…]

Dan Morgan, an organizer of the Wednesday ride, said the goal is to push the city to enforce laws to keep cyclists safer as well as ask the public for help to solve the mystery of Chelsea’s death.

Among the people who plan to join the effort is John Williams, 30. In late August, he was riding alone at night, like Chelsea, down Waugh on a route he’d traveled many times.

He was riding far to the right and was hit from behind by a pickup, according to a police report. He was knocked out, broke several vertebrae and cracked his skull.

He regained consciousness several days later in the hospital. The injuries have left him with myriad problems, including not being able to drive, and hefty medical bills.

Williams, who rode for years with cyclists from Blue Line Bike Lab, said he is still angry at the man who hit him. He supposedly had a vision impairment that should have kept him from behind the wheel, Williams said, but he is grateful he stopped.

I don’t know how the driver that hit Chelsea Norman can live with himself or herself. It’s not possible that he or she could be unaware of what’s happened, though I suppose denial can be a powerful thing. I really hope the cops make an arrest.

Whether an arrest gets made or not, the fact remains that despite the big advances Houston has made in bike-friendliness, it’s still dangerous out there. Part of that is due to drivers’ sense of privilege. Part of that is because sometimes there are no safe routes to take. I’m pretty set from my house if I want to travel east-west – the bike trails are great for that – and I can go north pretty easily. But going south, my choices are the deathtrap that is Studewood/Studemont, or Heights Boulevard. The latter is fine up to Washington Avenue, but past that it’s mighty hairy, with the merge from what was Yale that suddenly forces you between lanes of moving traffic, and the entrances to/exits from Memorial. It was farther south, at Waugh and Gray, which really should be a reasonably safe stretch of road, where Ms. Norman was killed. I’d love one of these years to ride my bike to the Art Car Parade instead of being part of the parking problem. I just don’t have a good way to get there.

And part of the problem is that drivers still aren’t being held accountable for accidents they cause with bicyclists. Houstonia tells the rest of the story of John Williams.

Unlike the Norman case, the person who hit Williams did stop and render aid. The man was sober, but told police he was visually-impaired and did not see Williams right in front of him, despite the fact that Williams had more-than-adequately equipped his bike for night-riding.

“I had lights, a helmet, I rode predictably, staying in a straight line,” Williams says. “I did everything I was supposed to do. Maybe that gave me a false sense of security.”

The Tacoma driver told police his visual impairment forced him to watch the curb rather than his lane, but Williams says none of that made it into the crash report.

And here’s the thing. The Tacoma driver was not given so much as a single traffic ticket for all-but-destroying the life of John Andrew Williams.

Maybe the cop thought the Tacoma driver had suffered enough. Maybe it was enough that he was not drunk and stopped to render aid.

Williams most decidedly does not think so. “What, it’s alright to hit somebody if you didn’t mean it?” he asks. “I see this as a total devaluation of my humanity.”

Williams contends that had he been in a car and rear-ended by the Tacoma, the truck driver would have at least been ticketed for failing to maintain a safe distance or possibly reckless driving. He believes the sole reason that the Tacoma driver drove away scot-free was that Williams happened to be riding a bike rather than riding a car.

And what of the Safe Passage ordinance recently passed by City Council? Under that new rule of the road, car drivers are supposed to give cyclists, pedestrians, people in wheelchairs and even horseback riders three feet of clearance. (Large trucks must give six feet.) To put it mildly, that’s something the Tacoma driver certainly failed to do, Williams points out. Where was the $500 fine that man could have been assessed?

“There’s just not much concern for people not in cars,” he says. He believes there’s an ironclad and ingrained bias against cyclists on Houston’s roads, that they are somehow seen as unworthy of equal protection. “Motorists just don’t believe we have the rights to use the road,” he says and adds that as long as drivers are not so much as ticketed for maiming them, nothing will ever change.

Williams is right – if he’d been rear-ended while driving and the cops had come to the scene, the other guy would have been cited. It’s ridiculous that the driver wasn’t cited for rear-ending a bicyclist, especially given his admission of vision impairment. Everyone – drivers, bicyclists, and law enforcement – needs to do their part to make biking in Houston safer.

Please try to avoid getting hit by the new light rail trains

Seriously, watch where you’re driving when you drive along or past the new rail lines. The train is bigger than you and your car, and if you pick a fight with it you will lose.

Metro is working to make sure drivers and pedestrians get that message. Starting next year, Houston will have 15 new miles of operating light rail tracks.

“It’s a change in mindset for Houston. It’s an absolute change in mindset.”

That’s Metro Margaret O’Brien-Molina.

“This is bigger than just the East End, it’s bigger than the North Line, it’s bigger than the Southeast Line. This means all of Houston, because at some point or the other, we’re all going to cross those tracks.”

O’Brien-Molina says the big thing drivers need to remember is that the trains hardly make any noise, so if you’re driving along a street like Fulton, Harrisburg, or Scott, a train could appear at any time.

That means drivers need to be especially careful when they make left turns. There are also new lights and signs, and crosswalks for pedestrians to get to rail stops.

“We’ve already educated 14,000 children and asked them to bring that message home. We’ve prepared packets to show kids exactly how this works, what the lines are going to look like.”

I sure hope it works, because that first year after the Main Street line opened was ridiculous. Many of the problems occurred in the stretch of Fannin where cars did have to drive onto the light rail right of way to make a left turn. I’ve done that in recent years, after many changes were made to make it less confusing, but it was still a bit unclear, and a bit nerve-wracking. Be that as it may, the vast majority of the accidents were caused by driver error – running red lights, making illegal left turns, and just plain not checking their six to make sure there wasn’t a train right behind them that they were about to turn into. There wasn’t much of an awareness campaign back in 2003, at least not one that I remember, so whatever is being done now will be an improvement. I hope the message sinks in.

Accidents down overall in Houston

I know I said I was done litigating the red light camera question, and I am, I swear it, but I can’t let this pass without comment.

Automobile accidents on Houston streets have declined 13 percent in the last five months, mirroring a trend noted in other major Texas cities, according to police and state highway statistics.

The citywide decline was not as large as the 16 percent reduction in accidents at 50 intersections where the city’s red light cameras quit recording violators Nov. 14, shortly after Houstonians passed a referendum to end the program last fall.

“In Houston, we’re seeing the same declines in overall collisions and crashes on roadways and that confirms what we think has happened at red light intersections — that fewer miles driven contributes to fewer collisions,” said Rice University professor Robert Stein, who has conducted studies of Houston’s red light camera system.

However, fatal traffic accidents in Houston have remained steady during the last three years, according to state crash statistics.

Houston police say 23,432 accidents were recorded throughout the city from mid-November until April 15, a decline of 13 percent from the 26,662 crashes that were reported between mid-June and Nov. 14.

After the city’s camera system was shuttered, there were 362 accidents during the next five months at the 50 monitored intersections – a 16 percent reduction from the previous five months.

The difference between thirteen percent and sixteen percent is noise. To enumerate that, the total number of accidents at former camera intersections would have been 431. A thirteen percent decline from that is 375, so the difference between that and a 16% drop is a grand total of 13 accidents, spread over five months at 50 intersections. A sixteen percent decline in accidents at a subset of intersection is not remarkable when the overall rate of decline is thirteen percent. It’s noise. There were not two separate stories here. There was one story about how the accident rate in Houston had declined noticeably in the past five months, and that decline was about the same at former red light intersections and other intersections. Bad on the Chronicle for not presenting it that way.

Accidents down at former red light camera intersections

I guess some arguments are never going to go away.

In the five months after Houston voters forced city officials to turn off a camera surveillance system that fined motorists for running red lights, traffic accidents at those 50 intersections with 70 cameras have decreased 16 percent, according to recently released data.

The drop in accidents surprised Houston police administrators who say a possible explanation is the unusually dry weather during recent months has made driving conditions safer. They also wonder if years of electronic monitoring have made Houstonians better, if not more cautious, drivers.

Assistant Chief Brian Lumpkin said he had assumed accidents at those intersections were increasing since HPD is still receiving raw data from the camera vendor indicating motorists were running lights with much greater frequency at many intersections. The HPD records show accidents decreased at 32 intersections, increased at 21 and stayed the same at 17.

“It’s too soon to really tell. I think we’ll get a better idea of what’s going on in another year,” Lumpkin said. “But we also have to remember we’ve had some really great weather, and anybody who rides patrol on a regular basis knows as soon as that rain hits, the wrecks start to happen.”

While HPD officials called the accident data a “valuable snapshot” for traffic enforcement purposes, it did not break down the severity of the accidents or the number of fatalities, if any.

This would be the flip side of this previous story about the violations going up in the same time period. The data about how severe the accidents are would be nice to know, but at this point I mostly don’t care any more. The election is over, the voters have spoken, the cameras are turned off and they aren’t coming back on, and I have no interest in re-litigating any of this. Let’s just move on down the road.

Traffic deaths decline in Texas

Those of you looking for silver linings in the economic slowdown, here’s one.

In 2009, Texas saw a 12.1 percent decrease in the rate of traffic deaths, compared with a 9.7 percent drop nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The number of traffic deaths in the United States in 2009 was the lowest since 1950 – when there were a fifth as many cars on the road.

The sharp decrease is explained by a combination of factors – the sluggish economy (fewer jobs, less discretionary driving), an increase in seat belt use, safer roads and vehicles, and more enforcement and awareness programs, both on the state and national levels.

But experts agree that a decrease in fatal crashes involving young drivers is also key.

“The traffic safety problem in this country and in this state is far too significant to expect some solution from any one thing,” said Bernie Fette, a research specialist at the Texas Transportation Institute, part of the Texas A&M University System.

Over the years, the rate of fatal accidents involving drivers under 20 – historically, the most reckless age group – has steadily declined. Chandra Bhat, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Texas, said young drivers account for 6.5 percent of the driving population but are responsible for about 13 percent of fatal crashes.

“Clearly, young drivers contribute more than their share to accidents. That is not a question at all and has been known for a long time,” Bhat said. “The [overall fatality] decline is because of a decline among incidents involving young drivers.”

The full report is here. There’s a lot of reasons for the decline in fatalities, with an overall change in the culture that makes certain kinds of risky behavior such as drinking while driving no longer socially acceptable.

It’s hard out here on a pedestrian

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to learn that Houston is not a good city for pedestrians, at least from a safety perspective.

Houston ranked eighth on a new list of the most dangerous urban areas for pedestrians.

And the hundreds of deaths and injuries to pedestrians can’t all be written off as mere accidents, according to a report released Monday by two advocacy groups. Poor roadway design and lack of safety features like sidewalks and medians contribute to the death rate.

[…]

The statistics are startling. Almost 5,000 pedestrians die in the U.S. after being hit by cars every year, according to the report by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, two nonprofit, national coalitions that promote more efficient and equitable transportation policies.

All of the Top 10 dangerous cities for pedestrians are in the South, where new growth after World War II created development patterns that favor cars over pedestrians.

You can see the study here (PDF). I find myself in agreement with, and sharing the frustration of, Robin Holzer at the county’s attitude that they only build roads, not sidewalks. Seems to me they’re doing the residents out there a disservice, not to mention jeopardizing their health. But I suppose nothing will change until voters demand it. Swamplot has more.

Safe Clear reduces wrecks

So says a study commissioned by the city.

Houston’s mandatory towing program has continued to reduce crashes on the city’s freeways, according to a city-commissioned study released Monday.

The study examined the effect of the Safe Clear program from 2005 through 2008. It found there were 120 fewer accidents per month, on average, compared to the baseline year of 2004. The program began in January 2005.

[…]

The new study could not discern if crashes declined because wreckers were no longer racing each other to a scene or because rubbernecking was reduced.

But the study did take into account other influences on the crash rate, such as rainy days, gas prices and the amount of traffic.

“It makes the program look exceptionally effective,” said Bob Stein, a Rice University professor who co-authored the study with Tim Lomax of the A&M Texas Transportation Institute. (Stein’s wife works for the White administration as a City Council agenda director.)

The study showed a correlation between Safe Clear response times and the number of monthly accidents. The faster towing trucks responded to a call, the fewer accidents on the freeway. For every minute decrease in response time, monthly collisions dropped by 80 on all Houston highways, Stein said.

I don’t have any trouble believing that SafeClear has been effective. Hell, just not seeing thirty-seven wreckers at every fender bender on the Loop makes it a win in my book. I have to ask, though, was there no one else available to do this study? Stein’s a fine political scientist, but his last traffic-related effort wasn’t so hot. I hope this one at least is a bit less controversial.

UPDATE: Here’s the Rice press release on the study, with charts. Thanks to Joe White for finding this.

Our teen drivers are better than yours

Good news is always welcome.

A new report by the Texas Transportation Institute found that the state’s rate of fatal teen crashes is dropping faster here than anywhere. Researchers looked at 37 states that put restrictions on teen drivers’ licenses and found Texas is alone in seeing the number of teen drivers involved in fatal crashes drop for five consecutive years.

“Texas is doing a better job than any of the other states,” said Texas Transportation Institute researcher Bernie Fette, co-author of the 46-page report released Monday. Fette credited not just the license restrictions but also programs in high schools to get kids focused on safe road behavior.

Since 2002, when 625 teen drivers were involved in fatal crashes, Texas’ numbers have come down each year. In 2007, 419 fatal crashes involved teen drivers.

[…]

Teen driving risks have been on the minds of lawmakers in Texas at least since 2002, when new rules for young drivers known as graduated driver’s licenses took effect.

Since then, new Texas teen drivers have had to spend six months with a learner’s permit before getting a license. After that, they must spend another six months with other restrictions, including a prohibition against driving between midnight and 5 a.m.

This year, lawmakers extended those probationary periods to 12 months each, and outlawed the use of cellphones by young drivers.

But Fette said his research suggests that tougher laws are only part of the reason for Texas’ success in making fatal crashes involving teen drivers less frequent.

After all, Texas’ laws have not been as strong as those in many other states. And some states with graduated driver’s license laws actually saw their fatal crash rate go up, Fette said.

In Texas, he said, 300 school districts are implementing a first-in-the-country program called Teens in the Driver Seat, an initiative that gets teens talking to their peers about the risks of driving. Preliminary research says the program, begun in 2003, has worked.

“The [graduated-license] law is a necessary foundation,” Fette said. “But that law can be reinforced or made stronger through a peer influence program like Teens in the Driver Seat. If you have a combination of the two, as Texas does, what you have is a really good one-two punch.”

Here’s what the TTI says on its homepage, and here’s their white paper. Good to see Texas leading the way in something that isn’t a negative.

Fort Worth’s red light camera experience

They like them so far.

The city Transportation Department pronounces itself pleased with progress made by red-light cameras.

The number of accidents has decreased at the targeted intersections. The cameras have resulted in about $1.2 million in fines — $765,000 went for expenses (including payments to ATS, the contractor), $221,000 went to the state and $221,000 went to the city.

And, no, Transportation Director Bill Verkest told the City Council, the city hasn’t shortened the yellow light times in order to catch more drivers.

According to this story, the city says that accidents are down 19% at the targeted intersections, with rear-end collisions up slightly. I don’t know what their methodology is for making those assertions. I do know that the city of Houston is due for an updated report on its red light cameras and the collision rates at the monitored approaches this August. One hopes this study will be less confusing and more clear – conducting it in a non-flawed manner would be a start.

Skinning a cat: Alternate methods

As you know, the TxDOT sunset bill HB300 included among its many House amendments a couple that were aimed at killing off red light cameras in Texas’ cities, by putting them under the authority of DPS and by forbidding the renewal of existing contracts with camera vendors. While it is entirely possible that these amendments will be removed by the Senate, it’s safe to say that there exists legislative will to do away with the cameras. As such, the cities that operate them and which by and large have made money off of them are taking action now to protect their investments.

Officials in Arlington and Southlake are moving swiftly to sign 15- and 20-year deals with their respective vendors in hopes of getting around a plan by lawmakers to phase out the controversial devices.

“It’s not the state’s business. It’s our business in terms of how we regulate local traffic,” Arlington Councilman Mel LeBlanc said Wednesday. “We feel the original decision to institute red-light cameras has a lot of validity to it and is a public safety benefit to Arlington.”

[…]

Meanwhile, Southlake signed a 15-year deal with Redflex Traffic Systems on Wednesday, extending the city’s red-light camera program through 2024.

And Tuesday night, the Arlington City Council authorized staff to sign an extension with American Traffic Solutions through 2027. That hasn’t happened yet, but city officials say they’ll continue watching the activity in Austin and, if it looks like a ban is inevitable, sign the long-term deal before June 1.

Pretty clever, if you ask me. You have to figure that the reps who led the charge against the cameras – Gary Elkins, Carl Isett, and Solomon Ortiz, Jr are the big three – are kicking themselves for not covering that particular base. And because I know you’re curious:

Houston is “reviewing what our possible options are should the legislation pass,” spokesman Frank Michel said. Houston’s contract with ATS expires in June 2011.

I presume the cities with cameras would have 90 days after the bill is signed, which is how long it takes for a new law to take effect, to get their affairs in order. Look for this to turn into a stampede if the amendments remain in place.

Finally, on a tangential topic:

[Arlington] has cameras at 17 intersections and could place them at up to 40 under the contract. Wrecks at intersections with cameras have decreased 30 percent on average, said Steve Evans, management services director.

“We are seeing tangible benefits from the cameras,” said Councilman Robert Rivera, who represents southeast Arlington. “We’re seeing a reduction in fatalities, a reduction in accidents and an increased sense of awareness of safety in intersections.”

[…]

Southlake installed its first two cameras last year and recently installed four more. Accidents at the first two intersections decreased by an average of 17 percent, officials said.

In North Richland Hills, nine cameras are in operation, spokesman Frank Fiorello said.

Crashes decreased by 54 percent at those intersections between September 2007 and August 2008.

Sure does stand in contrast to Houston’s experience so far, doesn’t it? Which leads me to wonder again if that red light camera study was so screwed up as to be completely useless, if the study was fine but Houston’s implementation was fatally flawed, or if it was all just a statistical fluke that will vanish over time. I guess we’ll have to wait till the next study to get some idea of that.

Give bikes a little space

MTBLawGirl passes on word of a bill that will be of interest to bicyclists.

Earlier this month, Texas Senator Rodney Ellis and Representative Linda Harper-Brown filed the Safe Passing Bill in the Senate (SB 488) and House (HB 827) respectively. In addition to requiring more than three feet passing distance when a motorist passes a vulnerable road user, it will include penalties for throwing projectiles, “dooring”, the “right hook” (turning dangerously in front of a vulnerable road user), and more. Vulnerable road users include cyclists, pedestrians, runners, farmers on tractors, motorcycles and more. This bill, specifically the definition of “vulnerable road user” is modeled after similar legislation in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. This is a huge step forward for Texas in actualizing “Share the Road” and reducing fatalities. Sadly, approximately 50 cyclists, 400 pedestrians and 500 motorcyclists are killed every year in Texas.

I’m guessing these are the same bills that the Texas Motorcycle Roadriders Association will be lobbying for as well. That suggests to me that there’s a decent chance of passage. If this interests you, click on over to MTBLawGirl and drop her a note.

And the answer is…more cameras (maybe)

Well, there is some logic to it.

The Houston Police Department is considering changes — possibly even expansion — to its red-light camera program after a city-commissioned study showed that crashes went up at intersections where the devices have been installed.

“What we’re concerned about is safety, safety, safety at these intersections,” said Executive Assistant Chief Timothy Oettmeier, whose command includes the camera system. “We want fewer injuries, we certainly don’t want any death, and we want a reduction in accidents.”

To meet those aims, the department will evaluate over the next few months whether existing cameras might be redeployed to intersections that continue to see a high volume of crashes and red-light running. They also could add to the 70 cameras now placed at 50 intersections around the city. The evaluation of the program and any options for updating it would be presented to City Council by June 30, Oettmeier said.

Critics said such options are not the best response to the controversial study, which the city released last month.

“If you’re putting more cameras at some intersections, what you’re going to do is make the intersections more dangerous,” said Paul Kubosh, an attorney who represents ticketed drivers in court and unsuccessfully sued to end the program. “That’s what’s going to be proven out by this.”

The report, authored by researchers at Rice University and Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute, showed crashes increased slightly at intersection approaches where cameras had been installed. The number of crashes, however, rose dramatically at unmonitored lanes of those same intersections, leading the study authors to conclude that the cameras had kept collisions lower than they would have been without the devices.

The results led police to look at the data and to determine whether monitoring more than one approach to an intersection was more effective.

One way or the other, we do need to understand what happened at those unmonitored approaches. Maybe the rise in accidents was a fluke, maybe we’re just counting them more accurately now, maybe there was some kind of effect from the monitored approaches, however odd that seems to me. We can’t make a good decision regarding what (if anything) to do about it unless we have a handle on what happened. I hope that’s the top priority, because otherwise we’re just guessing.

Not mentioned in this story is the next phase of the camera study, which I hope is being done with accepted methodology. Given the flaws in the initial study, I don’t think we know anything more about the effects of the cameras in Houston than we did when we started out. Surely the cameras’ critics would be hammering on this if the study had found a decrease in the number of accidents.

Critics claim camera study shenanigans

So what else is new?

The Houston Police Department tried to influence the outcome of a controversial city-commissioned study by changing how crashes at intersections with red-light cameras were counted, according to documents included in a lawsuit.

HPD’s request was refused by the study’s authors, however, who concluded the number of accidents at 50 intersections with the cameras had increased, not decreased as city officials expected, documents say.

Attorneys fighting to end Houston’s 2-year-old red-light camera program seized on the documents — released after an open records lawsuit they filed against the city — as evidence the study was tainted by a purposefully skewed methodology.

“As in other cities, the red-light camera system in Houston is increasing accidents,” said Randall Kallinen, a lawyer who represents ticketed drivers in court. “This is very dangerous for the public, and we must end the red-light camera experiment.”

I just want to point out here that by Kallinen’s logic, if the next batch of data shows a decrease in accidents at these intersections, it must also be the cameras that caused that decrease. You can’t have it both ways.

City officials and Rice University political science Professor Robert Stein, one of the study’s main authors, contend the Houston Police Department’s requests were part of an ordinary back-and-forth about how best to examine the efficacy of red-light cameras and were not a conspiracy to deliver false data.

[…]

Researchers have studied the impact of such cameras for decades, but the results are mixed and inconclusive, according to an analysis of numerous studies conducted by The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical and public health research.

The Cochrane analysis found only five studies that used statistically sound methodology to examine data from the U.S., Singapore and Australia.

The result was that red-light cameras usually reduce the number of fatal crashes but don’t necessarily reduce total collisions.

The Houston study’s authors and city officials expected that to be the result here. Instead, the review showed crashes doubled at intersections where at least one camera was installed, although the uptick in collisions happened in the approaching lanes without cameras. At the lanes with cameras, the increase was too slight to be statistically significant, the study’s authors found.

According to an e-mail included in the lawsuit, an HPD official asked Stein in April to rule out accidents if they occurred more than 100 feet from the intersection. Kallinen also said that documents he obtained indicated the department attempted to rule out crashes that did not involve a red-light violation. Either of those steps would be more likely to lead to results showing the cameras reduced crashes, Kallinen said.

Stein, whose involvement has been criticized because his wife works for White, said the study’s other authors rejected HPD’s suggested change because they were using what they believed was the best methodology.

Mayoral spokesman Patrick Trahan said the police had legitimate reasons to consider limiting the crashes that way, as they did not want the study to include collisions that had nothing to do with running red lights or the cameras.

Doesn’t seem like too unreasonable a request to me, but then I haven’t been peddling conspiracy theories about the cameras. Your mileage may vary.

Can I make a simple request here? I know there’s another study going on to gather more data about the cameras and the accident rate in Harris County as a whole. How about we make sure this study uses the statistically sound methodology that the Cochrane folks refer to? Maybe we could all even agree beforehand that if such a methodology were to be used, we’d all accept the results, whatever they are. And finally, maybe we could try to get other locations that have the cameras do the exact same kind of study, so we can see if Harris County is getting similar results as they are or not. I mean, it could be the case that we’ve just done a lousy job of implementation, and if we’d followed the example set by others we’d get better results. Or perhaps we’ll learn that there are no better results, or that what we got in the first year was a fluke. All I’m saying is, it can’t hurt to have more and better data.

Stein acknowledged that the cameras are not working in Houston as well as he believes they have been shown to work in other cities. The city and critics should be more concerned about why, he said.

“Why are these crashes going up at these intersections?” Stein asked. “Nobody really cares to get at the truth here. Cars are being damaged, people are being injured and a handful of people are dying. … What I want to know is, why they aren’t working in Houston, and what we can do to improve them?”

You know what my suggestion is. And while we’re at it, let’s please release the draft version of this first study. There’s no reason not to, and holding onto it just fans the flames.