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Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home        Washington Bicycling Hub - Summer '07      Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home 
State Legislatures Improving Safety for Cyclists?
Report Indicates Lots of Debate, Little Legislation
Helmet Use Hottest Issue | Sidepaths Examined

By Charles Pekow

Mr. Pekow, a seasoned Washington, DC journalist, provides Bikexchange.com with continuing coverage of national legislative news on bicycling issues. 

"State legislatures play a key role in ensuring bicycle and pedestrian safety. Actions by state, local and federal governments have made streets safer for people to bike and walk." 

Or so says the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in an advisory to its members. Its recently-released Transportation Review: Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety indicates that NCSL thinks its members play an important role in ensuring the safety of bicyclists. But the data the report provides indicate that state legislatures are doing a lot more debating and introducing of safety legislation than actually implementing it.

NCSL reported that last year, 27 state legislatures considered nearly 80 bicycle and pedestrian bills, though they passed far fewer. Many of the bills dealt with motorist responsibilities; another common topic involved increasing penalties for violating rules.

But the most common bicycle safety issue that spurred (unsuccessful) legislation concerned helmet use, NCSL reported. And legislators had good reason for the concern. Of the 782 bicyclists killed in the United States in 2005, 673 were not wearing helmets, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Twenty states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia had previously enacted laws requiring some users (most commonly juveniles) to wear helmets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Ironically, though helmet use proved a popular topic for legislative debate, no state enacted a helmet law last year, according to NCSL. (Data do not include local ordinances.)

But a recent issue that some state legislatures did succeed in passing legislation around last year involved the nuisance of motorized scooters on bikepaths. Seven states last year enacted legislation restricting use of “toy bikes” or “pocket bikes.” As their popularity increases, NCSL’s review suggests, state and municipal authorities “will want to address” how they affect bicyclists and pedestrians.

Another common topic involved Safe Routes to Schools, efforts to encourage children to bike and walk to school safely. Several states had approved similar legislation before passage of the 2005 federal SAFETEA-LU Act that offered each state at least $1 million a year for SRS projects. (In 2004, for instance, Colorado earmarked some of its federal traffic safety funds for projects around schools.) But the federal law, obviously, provided a spur to states, which not only get the money but get considerable leeway in designing their own programs.

But most states hadn’t figured out yet exactly what to do with their Safe Routes money. Options range from educating children about bicycle safety to designing safe bike routes and promoting biking and walking instead of getting a ride in an auto to school. As of this January, 29 states were still figuring out what to do and only South Dakota had made no effort. It’s still too early to judge the effectiveness of these programs but the issue will remain popular as states continue to figure out what to do and then do it, NCSL’s paper predicts. 

And while state legislators are taking a slow look at the issue, one state transportation department came up with some guidance to judge the safety of sidepaths. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) hired a consultant who examined existing research and looked at 46 sidepaths in 21 areas around the state to see what factors affected the rate of crashes between bicycles and cars. Safety depends on everything from speed limits and number of lanes on the roadway to the width of the sidepath, distance between sidepath and street and speed of the bicyclists.

FDOT’s contractor, Sprinkle Consulting, a firm in the state that has done considerable bicycle transportation research, wrote a report which appeared in a special edition of the Journal of the Transportation Research Board.

The study, Sidepath Safety Model: Bicycle Design Factors Affecting Crash Safety Rates, was also sponsored by the Bicycle Transportation Committee of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Science.

The authors acknowledge the controversy over sidepaths. While many bicycle advocates and transportation planners say on-road bike lanes are safer and more efficient, the observers noted that many riders opted for the sidewalk when given a choice between off-road and on-road.

 The current Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) lists nine criteria planners and engineers should consider when developing sidepaths. But the guide does not spell out a formula for determining whether to build.

Sprinkle found not much research has been published on the sidepath safety question, so it looked at crash data and existing guidance for developing bike facilities. Studies going back as far as the 1970s in both the United States and Europe  indicate that sidepath users had almost twice the crash rates as roadway users, no matter how heavily used the roadways were.

Various factors contributed to the high sidepath crash rates. For one, in many instances, sidepath riders were going against traffic. When the sidepath ends, many will continue riding on the wrong side of the street and many will also ride on the wrong side of the street to get to the sidepath. For another, many riders head for a destination on the other side of the street from the sidepath.

One finding: the narrower the sidepath, the slower the bike traffic and the safer the bicyclists. So a seven-foot wide path is safer than the eight-to ten-foot ones recommended by AASHTO. Wider paths make it safer to pass other trail users (in-line skaters need up to five feet sweep width, for instance). A possible solution: shifting the alignment of trails or narrowing them as they approach intersections, encouraging riders to slow down.

Sprinkle also concluded that the higher the speed limit of the roadway, the further the sidepath should be placed from the road. On a 55 mph four-lane roadway, the sidepath was better off 23 feet away. But on a 35 mph road, it was easier to avoid crashes if the sidepath lay closer to the road.  Bicyclists sometimes want to ride further away from the road, so the study suggests if the sidepath is further from a low mph road, it be brought closer approaching intersections.

The other factor affecting crash rates consisted of the number of lanes on the street. Crash rates were higher if the road included four or more lanes, evidently because drivers had to pay more attention to other lanes of traffic and less attention to the sidepath.  But Sprinkle didn’t suggest a design solution for this problem. 

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