By Pippa Brashear, Project Manager
Sometimes, it takes a horrific event to help people focus on what is right in front of them.

The case of Raquel Nelson and her son was such an event.

Earlier this year, Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide in the death of her four-year-old son, A.J., in Cobb County, Ga. She wasn’t behind the wheel when her son died — she was crossing a busy street on foot with A.J. and her two other children, going from the bus stop where they had just been dropped off to their home across the road. The nearest crosswalk was a third of a mile away. Little A.J. was killed by a hit-and-run (and admittedly drunk) driver, but his grieving mother got the harsher sentence.

Raquel Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide for crossing an unsafe street with her son, who was hit by an admittedly drunk driver and killed. The case galvanized pedestrian advocates around the country, and Nelson’s story was told in national news outlets including the Today show.

The case hit the mainstream media, getting coverage in national outlets such as the Washington Post, NPR, and the Today show. A petition in support of Nelson on Change.org garnered nearly 160,000 signatures, and a Georgia judge unexpectedly granted Nelson another trial, which will likely start next month.

Nelson’s tragic story brought the nation’s attention to critical failings in the design of our nation’s roads — and the unsavory bias in our political and planning priorities against those who choose not to or cannot drive. Pedestrian and smart growth advocates around the country, including Transportation for America (T4A), PEDS, Streetsblog, and others argued that A.J.’s death and his mother’s conviction were symptomatic of a larger problem with how we plan and design our roads.

We agree. We also believe that there’s a better way — and we know there is evidence out there that can guide us to better alternatives.

We know there is a problem

These are “accidents” waiting to happen, thanks to poor planning and dangerous designs.David Goldberg, Transportation for America

Deaths like A.J.’s happen every day, and rarely get more than brief attention in the local press — if that. A total of 4,092 pedestrians died on our roadways in 2009.  Look at T4A’s map of pedestrian fatalities. Read their report “Dangerous by Design 2011.” These fatalities are not random and unpreventable. The death of A.J. Nelson is part of a sad and pervasive pattern.

There is a serious problem with the planning and design of many of our roadways that has severe implications not just for safety, but also for social justice and the quality of the communities in which we live. Roadways across our country have been designed with a single-minded focus on moving cars quickly and safely. In the process, designers and engineers have overlooked the efficiency and safety of those roadways for other users — and even the safety of drivers in many situations.

We have allowed land uses incompatible with wide, high-speed roadways — such as retail and residential — to be placed along these roadways. Worse yet, we have widened and straightened existing roads and raised speed limits next to the places that we live and work.

We know where the problem is

“If you look at our pedestrian fatalities map for metro Atlanta (or any other metro, for that matter) and zoom in, you see that the dead bodies line up like soldiers along certain corridors – your first clue that the design is not matching up with the use of the street.”David Goldberg, Transportation for America

Take a look at the road where A.J. Nelson was hit and killed.

A bus stop is located directly across from the housing complex where Raquel and A.J. lived, but there was no crosswalk provided for the pedestrians who would inevitably be crossing there. Photo illustration: Transportation for America.

Or look at Buford Highway, a road not 20 miles away that is considered one of the most dangerous roads in Georgia. Dangerous enough to be profiled a year ago by PBS’s Blueprint America.

Watch Blueprint America Special Report: Crossing the Line on PBS. See more from Need To Know.

Chances are these roads look familiar — a lot like the ones where you live, work, play, or travel every day. And therein lies the problem: our most dangerous roads aren’t roads we can avoid, they are largely roads that lots of us use every day. We find these high-volume roadways flanked by residential, retail, and office development in cities, suburbs and small towns across the country.

We even know why there is a problem

Such roads are classified by transportation professionals as arterials and collectors. And when they’re in places where people live, work, and shop, conflicts quickly emerge between cars and humans. The reality is that in addition to being major arteries for automobile through traffic, these same roads must serve cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders. Even the motorists aren’t all alike: Some are seeking to pass through the immediate area, while others are pulling on and off those roads to get to the businesses, stores, and homes that are increasingly located along these roadways.

This mix of road users traveling at different speeds and entering and exiting the roadway creates instances of potential conflict that can lead to crashes.

This road is in Seattle. But it could be in Anywhere, U.S.A. Photo: Tony Case via Flickr

It isn’t just intuitive. There’s evidence

While it is intuitively clear that high-speed roads do not foster safe places for walking, biking, and using transit, much of today’s best research shows that they may not even be safer for the motorists for whom they were designed. Work conducted over the last decade by Eric Dumbaugh of Texas A&M has shown that roadways with less auto-oriented design have lower overall crash rates, and that crash rates can be correlated to specific factors of the road design and built environment.

So why do we design our roads the way we do?

What we must do is to operate the 90% or more of our surface streets just as we do our freeways… [converting] the surface highway and street network to freeway road and roadside conditions. — Kenneth Stonex, General Motors Traffic Safety Engineer (1966)

A book of standards to an engineer is better than a bible to a priest. … Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people. Taking highway standards and applying them to urban and suburban streets, and even county roads, costs us thousands of lives every year. There is no earthly reason why an engineer would ever design a fourteen foot lane for a city block, yet we do it continuously. Why? The answer is utterly shameful: Because that is the standard. — Charles Marohn, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, 2010

To understand where we might have gone wrong, you have to unpack the reasoning behind traditional standards and rationales for road safety in the United States.

Pedestrians are all too often left quite literally in the ditch. Photo: Transportation for America via Flickr

In the 1950s and ’60s, a movement emerged in which planners approached transportation safety issues the way epidemiologists seek to prevent the spread of disease: by eliminating the source.4 Roadway design proceeded from the assumption that it was difficult, if not impossible, to keep people from behaving in ways that would result in crashes. More people were driving; therefore more crashes would result. This line of thinking resulted in an approach that has become known as “passive safety” or “forgiving design,” in which roadways are designed to enable a “crash without injury.”  We in effect attempted to design our roadways to protect drivers from themselves. Eric Dumbaugh provides an excellent description of the evolution of this thinking and its problems in his paper “Safe Streets, Livable Streets” [PDF].

What are the design features that have resulted from this approach? Wider lanes and shoulders; the removal of fixed objects such as tree and lights from within 20-30 feet of the roadway; roadway barriers designed to redirect cars that veer off the road; and straight roadways that allow for longer sight distances, among others. All of these features are geared to give drivers a better chance to correct from the behavior that will lead to a crash. It was a strategy that seemed to work on the interstate highways; why not apply it to other roadways as well?

The quote above from Kenneth Stonex, career safety engineer from General Motors and influential in the creation of interstate highway safety standards, comes from the 1966 National Highway Safety hearings, where the idea that wider, straighter, faster roads were safer really took root. Justifiably marveling in the remarkable safety record of the interstates, Stonex and others sought to apply the interstate principles to the rest of our roads. It sounded logical at the time.. And the strategy placed the responsibility for fixing the problem on the government, with its “expert” engineers. The message for the individual road user, particularly the driver, was that he would be safe if he just followed the rules.

These principles were incorporated into the 1967 publication “Highway Design and Operational Practices Related to Highway Safety,” and subsequent roadway design guides. These principles still influence many of the design recommendations found in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO’s) Roadside Design Guide and A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (known as “The Green Book”).

The reality is that the field research done for freeways at the General Motors Proving Grounds in the 1950s was simply transferred to urban arterials during the “forgiving highway” movement of the late 1960s. The principles were never tested before being applied to roads that weren’t freeways; in fact, it’s a recent development that the results of the “field testing” on real life roadways are being analyzed.

The FDA never allows new drugs to be field tested on human subjects without prior exhaustive research; why did we allow this to occur with our roads?

Getting to the heart of the problem

Underlying the ideas of “passive safety” and forgiving roadway design are some very problematic assumptions:

  • Crashes are inevitable; drivers will eventually crash, and there is nothing that we can do about that.
  • Drivers behave the same way regardless of their surroundings, and do not respond to the roadway context.
  • When we talk about road safety, we mean injuries and fatalities to motor vehicle drivers.

While these assumptions might make sense on our interstate highways, they have no place on the roadways we have been discussing here. We must instead look at the evidence and use our common sense. Based on this, we need some new assumptions when thinking about the safe design of our arterial and collector roadways:

  • Crashes are not random. They are the result of conflicts, mistakes, or errors, and these are often related to the design of the road and the built environment surrounding it.
  • Drivers respond to the design of the road and the built environment, and will adjust their behavior in response to changes in the road and its surroundings.
  • Different types of users will be present on a road depending on the destinations and activities that surround it.
  • Road safety is about the safety of all road users and potential road users.
  • Roads are not simply a means of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

We can change!

Changing the ingrained habits of 50 or 60 years may seem like a daunting task. But wait, there’s hope!

We have solid evidence of what works and what doesn’t. And we have a precedent. This kind of positive change has been done before.

Government officials in the Netherlands were alarmed by the high rate of fatalities on their roadways in the 1970s, but they took a different approach from Americans. Instead of thinking “wider, straighter, faster,” they decided to design streets in “built-up areas” to operate more slowly. The result is a roadway that naturally accommodates a mix of modes and the varied speeds cars travel when entering and exiting the roadway. The success of this strategy has been nothing less than remarkable: the fatality rate has been cut to a quarter of what it was.

The Dutch fatality rate is now only 40 percent of the American rate. In 1975 it was 20 percent higher.

What would a similar reduction in American fatality rates look like? Well, take 2008 as an example. If we had achieved the same results as the Dutch over the period since 1975, we would have suffered 24,000 fewer deaths than actually occurred that year. That’s 24,000 people who would have gotten home alive.

There is help out there!

We have to remember that we have a lot of flexibility when it comes to designing roads. Many of the guidelines used to create the destructive roadways of the American landscape, such as the AASHTO Green Book and Roadside Design Guide, are not law — they are guidelines. While there are some hard and fast standards that may need to change, there is amazing flexibility out there that allows us to design safer roadways that make sense in the context of their environment.

Some of the best include:

In addition to these guides, a number of states and municipalities have developed street design guidelines, which provide for complete-street, context-sensitive, and locally specific design solutions that improve the community function and safety of their streets and roadways. Some notable examples include:

Where do we go from here?

Changing the design of our roadways is a big task. It will require a change in culture within our national, state, and local transportation agencies. It will take education and political will.

We believe that a key first step in making those changes is bringing to light the understanding and evidence that already exists to support these observations:

  • The approach of building our roadways wider, straighter and faster is not actually safer in most scenarios.
  • There are clear safety and other community benefits of livable street/roadway design.

In the coming months, we at PPS will delve into some of the specific misconceptions in “forgiving” highway design and will highlight further evidence to support alternative design approaches. Because we shouldn’t live in a country where deaths like A.J. Nelson’s are accepted as a fact of life.

Image of Raquel Nelson: via the Today show. Photo of Seattle road: Tony Case via Flickr. Photo of woman walking in ditch: Transportation for America via Flickr.

1Dumbaugh, Eric (2005) ‘Safe Streets Livable Streets,’Journal of the American Planning Association, 71:3, 283-300. http://www.naturewithin.info/Roadside/TransSafety_JAPA.pdf

2Dumbaugh, Eric and Li, Wenhao (2011) ‘Designing for the Safety of Pedestrians, Cyclists, and Motorists in Urban Environments’, Journal of the American Planning Association, 77: 1, 69 — 88. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01944363.2011.536101)

3Ewing, Reid and Dumbaugh, Eric (2009) ‘The Built Environment and Traffic Safety: A Review of Empirical Evidence’ Journal of Planning Literature 2009; 23; 347 (http://jpl.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/23/4/347)

4Dumbaugh, Eric (2005) ‘Safe Streets Livable Streets,’Journal of the American Planning Association, 71:3, 283-300. http://www.naturewithin.info/Roadside/TransSafety_JAPA.pdf

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