Statistics for 2012 are in, and they point a steady finger at a rising problem for Austin roadways. With 77 traffic fatalities on record, 2012 is reported as the deadliest year in Austin’s history. Even more disturbing is the fact that auto-pedestrian deaths occurred last year at twice the average rate of the past eight years.
The Austin Police Department (APD), City Council and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have joined forces to determine how to curb these rates. The problem is that there are countless factors driving these statistics, and therefore, likely just as many solutions needed to counter them.
Austin has seen a significant spike in population over the past decade, which adds drivers to the roads and highways. Driving styles, often those that are more aggressive, are colliding. Driver inattention due to cell phone or GPS usage is another contributing factor and drivers refusing to yield to bicycles and pedestrians appropriately.
“As a road user, I frequently notice a general disrespect of pedestrian and bicycle right-of-way,” says Valerie Kaiser, a traffic engineer at Bury+Partners.
Not so surprisingly, weak or impaired judgement on behalf of drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians has also ended in many deaths. More than one-third of 2012’s traffic deaths were alcohol-related. “It’s frustrating,” said Lt. Ely Reyes with the APD’s traffic enforcement division. “It just seems that people are making poor decisions, whether they are drivers or pedestrians. We don’t refer to them as accidents anymore. They’re all preventable.”
When asked about the most dangerous areas in Austin, Kaiser offered a couple of different answers. She cited North and South Burnet Road and Lamar Blvd. as hazardous travel for bicyclists, simply because of the lack of a dedicated bicycle lane for the northern roads, the high volumes of traffic traveling on the roads, the intermittent sidewalks, and the large number of driveways accessing these roads. For vehicular safety, she calls out IH-35. “This highway was designed as a regional highway, prior to the development of interstate standards. While it has undergone many improvements to meet standards, the abrupt on and off ramps, particularly on the lower deck are cause for concern – especially when passenger cars and truck traffic are merging or diverging.
So, what can we do to address these issues?
Public education is an obvious step in the right direction. Kaiser suggests that the State (TxDOT in partnership with DPS and local governments) should consider a comprehensive multilingual campaign so the public will clearly understand the safety hazards in attempting to cross highways. Austin has seen an unusually large death toll due to such attempts. “I think most people actually think they can visibly calculate the distance and speed of vehicles on the roadway.” Clearly, miscalculations are common.
Enforcement of existing traffic laws is another obvious answer. Police Chief Art Acevedo announced that his department will devote additional overtime dollars to traffic enforcement this year. This includes a boost in area patrols, an increase in “no-refusal” weekends and tickets rather than warnings. Acevedo says that “the nice guy giving warnings is not working.”
Perhaps less obvious are the adjustments we can make in our infrastructure.
While bicyclists are permitted on all City streets and have the right to take the lane, a separate lane for them increases safety. Currently, there is a trend to increase the number of striping-separated bicycle lanes on Austin’s roads. This often results in lanes that are more narrow. As a result, motor vehicles tend to go slower and speeding is less common. Separate lanes for drivers and bicyclists help both parties know they have a place on the road and exactly where that is.
Deterrents are in development for those who decide that crossing the highway on foot is a good idea. Officer Reyes says that the city is in discussions with the state officials to create “some kind of barrier” for IH-35 that would keep pedestrians from crossing the highway anywhere other than an overpass or underpass.
It is refreshing to know that we have professionals like the APD, City Council, TxDOT and traffic engineers paying strict attention to the trend in traffic fatalities. If anyone can identify the areas where Austin can improve the roads, it’s them. The rest of us can trust that they have our backs, and they are doing what they can to improve the safety of drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians alike.
- KXAN – APD vows to enforce traffic laws better
- KXAN – Fiery truck wreck on IH-35 kills one
- KXAN – The future of I-35 corridor on the move
- Austin American-Statesman – Acevedo: New year a new chance to lower traffic death rate
- Austin American-Statesman – Auto-pedestrian deaths in Austin reach a record high