Rise in 2012 pedestrian-bicycle traffic deaths prompts call for safety metrics

By Robbie Webber

Traffic fatalities in the U.S. are up for the first time since 2005, according to 2012 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But the increases are not rising evenly across modes. Even as fatalities of drivers and passengers in private autos continue to decrease, there has been a steep rise in deaths of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. Non-motorized users saw a 6.4 percent increase in fatalities, and motorcyclist fatalities rose 7 percent. Only drivers and occupants of large trucks surpassed the percentage increase, coming in almost 9 percent higher than the previous year.

NHTSA was quick to point out that the 2011 data was a historic low, so even the increased total was still well below the 2005 numbers. But the composition of crashes has changed significantly in the past ten years. While in 2003 passenger vehicle occupants made up 75 percent of fatalities, that share has dropped to 65 percent. At the same time, pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities have risen from 13 percent to 17 percent, and motorcyclist fatalities have gone from 9 percent to 15 percent.

The rise in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities led Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, a consistent advocate for bicycling and walking, to introduce H.R. 3494, a bill to require states to set separate safety standards for motorized and non-motorized transportation. Also sponsoring the bill were Howard Coble of North Carolina, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, and Mike McCaul of Texas, making the bill a rare bipartisan effort. A companion bill also has been introduced in the Senate.

“Everyone is a pedestrian at some point in their trip,” said Blumenauer, “and the number of individuals commuting by bike has increased by more than 60% 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.”

The 23-word summary of the bill: “amend title 23, United States Code, with respect to the establishment of performance measures for the highway safety improvement program” is actually longer than the seven words inserted, ““for both motorized and non-motorized transportation.“

While fatalities for pedestrians and bicyclists now make up a higher percentage of roadway fatalities, only 1 percent of federal safety funding is devoted to pedestrians and bicyclists, despite the continued rise in bicycling for transportation. Although the mismatch in funding was not mentioned at the time, 68 members of Congress signed a letter in March urging USDOT to set separate safety performance measures for non-motorized transportation, citing the same rise in deaths.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.