Recent GAO Study Examines Bike/Ped Fatalities

January 21, 2016

In November 2015 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report exploring pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, and the current obstacles to implementing measures to help reduce those fatalities. The report was conducted in response to a Congressional request to “review pedestrian and cyclist fatality and injury data and challenges to improving the safety of these vulnerable road users.”

GAO looked at national data, ongoing state and local efforts, and initiatives by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to support pedestrian and bicyclist safety. GAO interviewed government officials, industry representatives, and pedestrian and cycling advocates from California, Florida, New York, and the District of Columbia, as well as officials from Austin, TX; Jacksonville, FL; Minneapolis, MN; New York City, NY; Portland, OR; and San Francisco, CA.

Since 2013, the number of people walking and biking has increased by one million. However, the number of fatalities has increased as well. GAO found that in 2004 pedestrian fatalities were 10.9 percent of all traffic deaths. By 2013, that number reached 14.5 percent. GAO acknowledges that the number of pedestrians and bicyclists on the street increases the chances of a fatality as well.

In response to these fatalities, many city and local governments have implemented a range of policies to enforce safer conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists. The USDOT, primarily through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), also launched a series of programs intended to improve resources for states and localities to gather more data about how these fatalities and injuries happen.

GAO found that a number of factors might be contributing to the increase in fatalities and injuries.

First, although the presence of pedestrians and bicyclists has been increasing, drivers in some parts of the country may still be unaware of them. (If you live in a relatively car-centric area, you may not be on the look out for bicyclists or pedestrians. However, as more people incorporate other modes into their mobility choices, drivers will need to readjust their habits and learn to watch for bikes and pedestrians.)

Second, distracted driving, walking, and biking due to cell phone usage and road design that favors moving vehicles over pedestrians and cyclists have also contributed to the influx in fatalities and injuries. (Eno explored this topic at its Policy Summit last November, “The New Rules of the Road,” based on William P. Eno’s original Rules of the Road in the early 1900s.)

According to the report, many city and local governments are pursuing efforts to make streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. However, they are running into a number of barriers. Inadequate funding for safety infrastructure, insufficient data collection on pedestrian and bicycle crashes, a lack of prioritization among transportation projects from the state level, and engineering challenges when designing new facilities to account for pedestrian and bicyclist needs are just a few of the obstacles cities and governments are encountering.

Given the localized nature of pedestrian and cyclist needs, officials interviewed by GAO suggested that federal funding would be “more efficiently and effectively used if it went directly to city governments.” While there is an alphabet soup of available funding programs (e.g. TIGER, CMAQ, and STP), state and city officials interviewed pointed out “funds may be prioritized toward other projects first, such as improving or maintaining motorist facilities.”

Does the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) play a role?

The GAO report was released at about the same time as the FAST Act was finalized, so it is worth exploring the overlap between the report’s findings and what was included in the legislative language. While federal-level legislation may not impact very localized obstacles outlined in the report, it does influence the programming of grant funding and what types of projects are eligible for these grants.

The FAST Act does have provisions that include pedestrian and cyclist safety, with a few programs overlapping with some of the recommendations in the GAO report. These include a surface transportation block grant program and a new non-motorized safety provision under the national priority safety programs (23 U.S.C. §405) that provides funding for enforcement and public outreach.

The block grant program is intended as flexible funding for state and local transportation agencies, as Congress acknowledges that funding decision-making is best left to States and municipalities who can better respond to unique local circumstances. Project eligibility under this grant program includes pedestrian and bicycle projects (as defined under 23 U.S.C. §217, “Bicycle transportation and pedestrian walkways”). Similar language appeared in the previous surface transportation funding bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), but there has not been meaningful action.

Included under the national safety priority programs is a new provision that requires the Secretary to award grants aimed at decreasing pedestrian and bicycle fatalities and injuries. In order for a state to be eligible for this money, its annual combined pedestrian and bicycle fatalities must exceed 15 percent of total annual crash fatalities in the State (calculated based on the most recently reported Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data). The funding may be used, among other things, towards training of law enforcement officials regarding pedestrian and bicycle safety, enforcement campaigns supporting state traffic laws for pedestrian and bicycle safety, and public education and awareness.

Additional pedestrian and bicycle safety infrastructure language is also included under the highway safety improvement program (23 U.S.C. §148). This requires the Secretary to encourage states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations to adopt safety standards for both motorized and non-motorized users (which will culminate in a series of reports on best practices). It also requires a review of public transportation safety standards that includes reducing blind spots in public transit that contribute to pedestrian fatalities and injuries, and an advanced transportation and congestion management technologies deployment initiative that includes criteria such as reducing the number and severity of traffic crashes, and increasing driver, passenger, and pedestrian safety.

It may be years before the impact of FAST Act on pedestrian and bicyclist safety can be evaluated. Given that many of the safety-oriented programs coming out of the USDOT agencies – such as Safer Streets, Safer People and the Mayors’ Challenge from the Office of the Secretary — have been launched with the last two years, it remains to be seen whether this leads to long-term impacts on decreasing fatalities. The GAO report did not include reactions from state and local officials regarding these specific programs.

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