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Archive for August, 2010

Image from ghostbike.org

Image from ghostbikes.org/

There’s good news out of New York and Delaware this month, as the governors of those states signed legislation creating “Vulnerable User” laws to protect pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchairs and other users of our road system that don’t have a metal cage surrounding them as they travel at high speeds.

New York Gov. David Paterson on Aug. 13 signed what locally is called “Hayley and Diego’s Law,” which honors Hayley Ng and Diego Martinez, two young children who were killed when an idling and unattended van slipped into gear and rolled backward into a group of pre-school children in New York City’s Chinatown. The law sets up an intermediate charge — a traffic violation called careless driving — which prosecutors can use in cases where a conviction on a charge of criminal negligence or recklessness seems unlikely.

Paterson signed a second law on Aug. 13 that should also keep dangerous drivers off the road. Under Elle’s Law (named after Elle Vanderberghe, 3 years old at the time, who suffered serious brain injuries when a motorist backed up through a crosswalk on 82nd Street to grab an open parking space), any driver who causes serious physical injury to another person while committing a traffic violation will automatically have his or her license suspended for a period of six months by the DMV. Drivers who have been involved in any similar incidents within the previous five years will have their licenses suspended for a full year.

Image from sharethedamnroad.com/

Image from sharethedamnroad.com/

A day earlier, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed SB269, the state’s first vulnerable users law. The bill, modeled after an Oregon law, enhances the penalty for drivers convicted of careless or inattentive drivers who cause serious physical injury to cyclists, pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. The new law includes sentencing guidelines, such as completion of a traffic safety course, perform up to 100 hours of community service related to driver improvement and providing public education on traffic safety, fines up to $550 and suspension of driving privileges.

These two new vulnerable user laws make Delaware and New York the third and fourth states to pass these laws that protect the most vulnerable users of our roads. Oregon was the first state to pass such a law, which is modeled after similar laws in the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries. Texas passed a similar law last year only to have it vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. Several other states, including Washington, Virginia and California, are debating similar bills.

The Seattle-based site Publicola on Aug. 20 made a good case about why all states need vulnerable user laws, and an excerpt is quoted below. Additional information about vulnerable user laws was in this previous post on this site.

It’s shameful that our state legislators could not pass the vulnerable users bill last session. The bill, introduced by Seattle Sen. Joe McDermott (D-34), would have imposed stricter penalties on negligent drivers who kill or seriously injure vulnerable roadway users such as bicyclists and pedestrians. Unfortunately, the bill never even made it to a vote.

Of course, there are times when drivers are not to blame. People are people and prone to doing stupid things regardless of whether they’re traveling by bike, foot, or car. The goal of the law is not to place an unfair burden on drivers. It won’t punish a driver who accidentally hits a biker who runs a red light or a pedestrian who absentmindedly steps out into the street. It will, however, create an appropriately stringent punishment that matches the level of responsibility required to drive a fast, high-powered, 2,000-pound metal vehicle around vulnerable roadway users (pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users) who have just as much legal right to use the road as drivers do. If a driver makes the choice to take his or her eyes off the road to answer the phone, fiddle with the radio, or reach for cigarettes maims or kills someone, “I didn’t see them” should not absolve them of responsibility.

Opponents of the vulnerable users law argue that there are already negligent driving laws in place to punish drivers who maim and kill bicyclists and pedestrians. But drivers go unpunished often enough to justify more specific laws that carry the sort of weighty penalties that might make people reconsider their driving habits.

How vulnerable are pedestrians and cyclists? The Greater Greater Washington site recently began plotting on a map the locations of pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by cars, and the site posts a weekly update so residents can get a better handle on the carnage. During the week ending Aug. 29, there were 13 pedestrians and four cyclists hit by cars in the downtown Washington, D.C., area.

In many cases when a pedestrian or cyclist is struck by a car, the blame tends to be directed at the vulnerable user or you get excuses from the driver like “he came out of nowhere, I didn’t see him.” While that is true in some cases, a Toronto physician, Dr. Chris Cavacuiti, recently published a study that showed that in the vast majority of cases the car is at fault in a car-bike collision and not the cyclist. Dr. Cavacuiti’s findings showed the cyclist was at fault in less than 10 percent of these wrecks.

Even though cars are at fault in the vast majority of car-bike or car-pedestrian crashes, many prosecutors fail to charge the driver, and in some cases the driver doesn’t even receive a simple traffic ticket. That can leave the victims and/or their family’s feeling violated. A good example of this frustration can be found in this post on Florida’s SWFBUD blog by cyclist Ed Collins, whose father LeRoy Collins was struck and killed by a lady driving an SUV on July 29 while riding his bike in Tampa. According to Ed Collins, the lady who killed his father will have no points on her driving license and no jump in insurance because she was not charged.

It’s so rare to see a driver charged when they hit a pedestrian or cyclist (unless the driver was drunk or driving very recklessly) that is was kind of a surprise to see a grand jury in Fairbanks last week bring charges of manslaughter against a 55-year-old driver who allegedly ran a red light and killed a 14-year-old cyclist. If a vulnerable user law can make drivers have to think about the consequences of their careless driving, maybe they will become safer drivers.

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Phillips Field Road in Fairbanks during the winter

Phillips Field Road in Fairbanks during the winter

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner columnist Dermot Cole wrote an interesting story for the Thursday, Aug. 26, edition of the newspaper, telling the story of a road construction project gone wrong for Fairbanks cyclists and pedestrians.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities recently rebuilt the east end of Phillips Field Road, which runs through an industrial section of Fairbanks between the Chena River and the Johansen Expressway, with part of the road next to some Alaska Railroad land (click here for map). But the upgrade did not widen the road or add shoulders to make things safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. Even though this is an industrial area of Fairbanks, there also are some popular stores, such as Spenard Builders Supply, on Phillips Field Road.

Long before construction began on this project, local officials were pushing for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and the Alaska Railroad to figure out a way to make the road safer and wider.

But the road is not wider and the shoulders that are about eight feet wide near the Ice Park, dwindle down to nothing by the time you approach the main part of the railroad yard. The only concession for pedestrian and bicyclists appears to be the signs that say “Shoulder Narrows” and “Share the Road.”

From what I’ve found, it appears that the budget, the design schedule and a lack of cooperation between the state transportation department and the railroad combined to produce a result that is not what it should be.

Both agencies will dispute this. But they should look back at the decision-making process to see whether things could have been done differently to end up with a better situation.

Cole goes on to write about how it appears that the voices of several key stakeholders were not heard or considered when the road was planned. It also appears there were bureaucratic hurdles that weren’t cleared, especially regarding an expired easement the state had on some railroad land. Even though there were calls for a wider road with shoulders, the plan without these improvements went ahead for expediency’s sake.

The railroad and the transportation department should be called upon to not act like sovereign nations, but to make an overall judgment about what is best for public safety in the broadest sense.

What’s not clear to me is if there was any attempt by the two agencies to strike a balance in which rail safety and the safety of motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists are considered. If not, the process is flawed.

What’s sad about this fiasco is that in March, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced a major change in national road project priorities.

“We are integrating the needs of bicyclists in federally-funded road projects,” he said. “We are discouraging transportation investments that negatively affect cyclists and pedestrians. And we are encouraging investments that go beyond the minimum requirements and provide facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.” LaHood also announced seven recommendations for state and local departments of transportation, including treating bicycling and walking as equal forms of transportation modes.

These recommendations obviously weren’t followed in Fairbanks and now there is about a half-mile of Phillips Field Road with “no shoulders to speak of,” even after this $2 million “upgrade.”

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Preston Tyree with his travel bike during a 2007 Road I bike safety course in Sitka

Preston Tyree with his travel bike during a 2007 Road I bike safety course in Sitka

Come hear DC-based transportation expert Preston Tyree speak on ‘Complete Streets’ and how they increase transportation choices at The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center (625 C St.) at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 31, in the museum auditorium. This event is co-sponsored by Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage, Anchorage Citizens Coalition, Alaska Center for the Environment and the Spenard Complete Streets Coalition (Facebook page).

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, “Complete streets are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities must be able to safely move along and across a complete street.”

Preston has more than 20 years of experience working on transportation issues. Currently he is the Director of Education for the League of American Bicyclists, the organization that designated Sitka a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community in 2008 and Anchorage a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community in 2009.

Come join us to hear Preston’s ideas on how to apply Complete Streets in Anchorage!

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Photo courtesy of Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage

Photo courtesy of Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage

Living in Sitka, I’ve sort of been out of the loop on what’s happening with the Title 9 rewrite of the Anchorage traffic code (see previous post). There have been a few minor updates, but a meeting hosted on Aug. 5 by the Municipal Traffic Department was postponed when major stakeholders had conflicts. I have not heard if the meeting has been rescheduled and there has been no new meeting time listed on the Municipality of Anchorage’s Title 9 Rewrite page.

The “Flashlight” column by Scott Christianson of the Anchorage Press did have this information in its Aug. 5 issue.  The Cyclelicio.us blog from California also had a write-up on the controversy. A cyclist using the handle “Pokey” did post on the Alaska Spokes forum (scroll down) a response he received from Anchorage Assembly member Paul Honeman (a retired Anchorage Police Lieutenant who serves on the Public Safety Committee) about a week ago, and in his response Honeman said it is unlikely that a highly restrictive measure against bicyclists will move forward.

The two main pieces of the Title 9 rewrite that bicyclists and pedestrians should look at are Sections 9.20 and 9.38. The Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage said it objects to the language in two key clauses, which were outlined on the BCA website:

A reminder of the wording BCA is objecting to in Title 9.38.060

“Persons operating a bicycle upon a sidewalk, recreational trail or bike trail must yield the right-of-way to traffic before crossing a roadway, street, or driveway.”

and section 9.38.020

“A person propelling a vehicle by human power upon and along a sidewalk, trail or pathway, (or across) except when crossing a roadway or driveway intersecting a sidewalk, trail or pathway, shall have all the rights and duties applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstances.”

This is placing the burden of responsibility on the must vulnerable users, children riding their bicycles on the sidewalk.

Personally, I think the Municipality of Anchorage is going the wrong way on this issue. Instead of shifting the responsibility for safety to cyclists and pedestrians, the Municipality needs to pass a Vulnerable User Law, something similar to what the State of Oregon passed in 2007 (HB 3314, scroll down) and currently is under discussion in several other states, including Washington, California and Virginia. These laws already exist in bicycle friendly countries such as Denmark and The Netherlands.

Basically, a Vulnerable User Law strengthens the traffic code to protect bicyclists, pedestrians, wheelchair users, roadway construction crews and other people who might be legally in a public roadway from careless drivers. The laws create enhanced penalties for careless drivers who cause serious injury or death when they hit somebody who falls within the vulnerable user classification. Since the driver has the most protection, he/she has the greatest responsibility for safety. Portland lawyer Ray Thomas wrote this explanation of Oregon’s Vulnerable User Law and provides some backstory about why they felt the law was needed. He also explains the law in this YouTube video.

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