Other Voices

Drivers, non-motorists must work to reduce fatality rate

A bicycle rests in the trunk of a Haltom City police car after a 2012 accident on Denton Highway.
A bicycle rests in the trunk of a Haltom City police car after a 2012 accident on Denton Highway. Special to the Star-Telegram

With the weather turning warmer, more Texans are heading outdoors to walk or bike.

But it seems that many Texas drivers continue to think that these non-motorists, like pedestrians and bicyclists, do not belong on the roads.

At the same time, it seems that many Texan non-motorists think they are exempt from traffic laws.

These perceptions and behaviors need to change if we want to make a dent in the crash rates involving motorized vehicles and non-motorists.

When people think of injuries or fatalities in relation to traffic crashes, the typical picture is of two or more cars slamming into each other or a car crashing into a stationary object.

But a not-insignificant fraction of fatalities involve a crash between a motorized vehicle and a pedestrian or a bicyclist.

In 2012, pedestrian fatalities represented about 23 percent of traffic crash fatalities in Houston, 26 percent in San Antonio and in the range of 29-34 percent in Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In the same year, bicyclists’ deaths represented about 1.6 percent of traffic crash fatalities in Texas.

An understanding of the risk factors associated with pedestrians and bicyclist-related crashes can allow for the identification of high-risk crash factors and inform engineers about how to better design roads.

For instance, studies have shown that pedestrian fatalities can be reduced by raised medians in the middle of a two-way road and hybrid beacons activated by pedestrians to send a flashing alarm to drivers.

But while we may talk about engineering fixes, behavior changes also need to happen if we truly want to cut down on the number of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities.

Many bicyclists in the U.S. have a general mistrust of drivers and complain about the lack of respect afforded to them as legitimate users of a shared roadway.

While a fraction of motorists are definitely to blame for this broad perception, it is also true that bicyclists do not always observe traffic rules and are rarely cited for such infractions.

Think about it: When was the last time you saw a bicyclist get a ticket for running a red light?

Ironically, the mistrust of drivers by non-motorists itself sometimes engenders illegal behaviors among non-motorists, such as some bicyclists traveling against traffic as a coping and control mechanism.

But this only increases crash risk because motorists typically scan for traffic in the direction of their movement when making right turns from driveways.

Further, such illegal behaviors only serve to tarnish the perception of non-motorists by motorists in a reinforcing cycle of mistrust.

To keep everyone safe on Texas roadways, we all need to follow the laws and recognize that non-motorists and motorists are legitimate users of the roadway, each with their rights and responsibilities.

In doing so, entire communities of parents, children, school systems, law enforcement officials, traffic engineers, transportation planners and driver education agencies must come together.

It’s a model that is now gaining attention in the U.S. in the form of, for example, the Walk Friendly Communities program of the Federal Highway Administration.

Many states also now include, as part of the driver education curriculum, information on the responsibilities of a motorist when encountering non-motorists. More of this is needed.

We also need more stringent laws and, more importantly, better enforcement of our current laws.

Emphasis is also needed, as is routinely done in European cities, on education and training from a very young age that both drivers and pedestrians/bicyclists are legitimate users of the roadway.

If we Americans can change our perception and behavior as drivers and non-motorized users of our roadway system, we can make a dent in the fatality rate.

Chandra R. Bhat is the Adnan Abou-Ayyash Centennial Professor in Transportation Engineering and director of the Center of Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin.