The headlines are tragic. Two 15-year-old girls walking to the store on an Anchorage bike path are killed by an out-of-control pick-up truck. A Fairbanks man is convicted for killing a teenaged bicyclist and injuring her friend after he ran a red light. And just last month, a male pedestrian crossing a street in Juneau was hit by a truck and had to be medevacked with life-threatening injuries.
Two U.S. Congressmen — Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (both D-Oregon) — are hoping to make it safer for bikers and walkers with identical bipartisan bills they introduced on Friday, Nov. 15, in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives called the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act.
The bills, HR 3494 and S 1708, if passed, will create performance measures for bicycle and pedestrian safety. Specifically, they direct the U.S. Department of Transportation to create metrics for states to assess and address “serious injuries and fatalities per vehicle mile traveled” and “the number of serious injuries and fatalities” for “non-motorized transportation” — a.k.a. walking and biking. Current law has no such emphasis on active transportation.
According to BikePortland.org, “The bill looks to balance federal traffic safety spending — which currently tilts drastically toward motor vehicle operators at the expense of people who use our roads on bikes or on foot. The bill’s authors claim that while almost 16 percent of traffic deaths in 2012 were people who were walking and bicycling, less than 1 percent of safety funding goes toward infrastructure to protect them. They also say that federal traffic safety improvements that have led to a declining rate of fatalities among motor vehicle operators and occupants, ‘have not helped all road users.’ ‘Even as driver and passenger deaths have decreased, the percentage of bicyclist and pedestrian roadway deaths has increased in recent years.’ The fix, they say, is to decouple federal safety funding guidelines and give states more flexibility in how the money is spent.”
The House bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Howard Coble (R-North Carolina), Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), who all are members of the House Bicycle Caucus founded by Blumenauer. The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) and Sen. Brian Schwartz (D-Hawai’i). Both bills have the official title of “To amend title 23, United States Code, with respect to the establishment of performance measures for the highway safety improvement program, and for other purposes.”
In his statement on the House bill, Blumenauer noted that the number of bike commuters has increased by more than 60 percent over the last decade. “As transportation systems adjust to handle different types of road users, the federal government must encourage appropriate standards to ensure road user safety,” he said.
In a statement about the bills, Andy Clarke, President of the Bicycle League of America, said they are long overdue:
Dramatically reducing the number of people biking and walking who are killed and seriously injured on our roadways is critical for two very compelling reasons.
First, this is about much more than just statistics — every one of these fatal crashes robs a family, a community and our nation of a precious human life. The costs to society are huge, and these are usually very preventable crashes.
Second, bicycling and walking are healthy and enjoyable ways to get around that we should be doing everything possible to promote: we know that lack of safety is a major deterrent to people walking and riding more frequently, and we know exactly what we can do to improve traffic safety — not just for people riding bikes and walking but for everyone on our roads.
Establishing simple safety performance measures — holding ourselves accountable to eliminate these needless crashes — will prioritize roadway designs that are safe for all users, and encourage education and enforcement programs that rid our communities of the scourge of distracted driving, speeding, and drunk/drugged/drowsy driving. That’s good for everybody.
Bicyclists and pedestrians make up an increasingly large percentage of all roadway fatalities and serious injuries — and in a handful of states the issue is particularly acute. States such as Florida, California, New York and Texas need the backing of the Federal government to tackle this problem head-on, and every State in the nation can play a role in making biking safer and encouraging more people to ride.
The bills will have a major impact in Alaska, which has the highest combined percentage of walking and biking commuters in the country, according to the Bicycling and Walking In the United States, 2012 Benchmarking Report compiled by the Alliance for Biking and Walking. Unfortunately, Alaska also has the third-highest rate of bicycling and pedestrian fatalities.
According to Alaska Injury Prevention Center Executive Director Marcia Howell, “A bill is being introduced to require DOT to create separate non-motorized performance measures. Once performance measures are included in DOT plans, funding will follow, to help improve the measures, like decrease bike and pedestrian injuries. This is extremely important. In a recent study AIPC conducted, we found that 78 percent of cyclists who suffered serious injuries on Anchorage streets do not show up in the police crash report data base. It is traditionally the police crash data base that determines Alaska DOT funding priorities. As of September, Alaska added hospital data to its strategic plan, and we are working on non motorized performance measures. But federal legislation would make this much much easier.”
We encourage you to contact your U.S. Senators and Representative and let them know you support these bills. In fact, ask them to sign on as bill co-sponsors (FYI, while Alaska Sen. Mark Begich currently is not signed on as a co-sponsor to S 1708, in the past he has been a co-sponsor to at least two similar bicycle and pedestrian safety bills).