A near miss: How cities are misinterpreting the safety of streets for bicyclists and pedestrians

By Logan Dredske

Crash data on reported collisions may not be telling the whole story about whether our streets are safe for bicyclists and pedestrians.

A recent study by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston revealed that crash data for road users may be significantly misinterpreting the actual level of safety that streets provide for bicyclists and pedestrians.  Kinder researchers set out to collect “near-miss incidents”— incidents when bicyclists or pedestrians barely avoid a collision with another road user.

The study asked 187 participants to record information about daily trips, such as origin, destination, mode of travel, purpose, and any near-miss incidents that occur.  During the week-long study participants reported 133 near-miss incidents, with 65 percent being bicycle-automobile incidents and 27 percent being pedestrian-automobile incidents.

According to a researcher for the study, “Participants (bicyclists and pedestrians) in the Kinder Institute study reported being targets of yelling, tailgating, and dangerous overtaking by motorists.”  One of the study participants reported, “This section of S. Post Oak is too busy to safely cycle on street (fast traffic and trash on street) and there is no good shoulder.  Had to use sidewalk but those are in very bad condition.”

This conflict can cause bicyclists and pedestrians not to use these streets or to switch to another form of transportation.  As a result, when active-transportation users avoid these streets, there are fewer crashes, making the street appear safer than it actually is.  The low number of crashes on the street leads transportation agencies to believe that the street is safe for bicyclists and pedestrian users.

When compared with crash data, near-miss incidents inform perceptions of the actual level of safety a street provides for users (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  Comparing Crash and Near-Miss Incidents. Source: Kinder Institute, 2017.

Figure 1. Comparing Crash and Near-Miss Incidents. Source: Kinder Institute, 2017.

Although the study shows that near-miss data can provide important information about how safe streets feel to road users, transportation agencies may want to look at a variety of data sources when targeting street safety improvements.  Near-miss data can be used as an additive to more objective analyses, but like any self-reported data, it can over- or under-emphasize a finding.

While data on these types of incidents can be difficult for transportation agencies to gather, websites such as NearlyKilled.Me allows road users to report near-misses.  Transportation agencies can advertise similar tools to improve community awareness of the ability to self-report near-misses and use the reports to detect patterns that may need further study.

Logan Dredske is a Project Assistant at SSTI.