Las Vegas Sun

May 24, 2024

Traffic safety solutions in the works


June 5 - 6, 2004

Traffic safety experts refer often to "the three E's," the three essential components of making the streets safer: engineering, education and enforcement.

Some add encouragement, emergency medicine or efficiency to the list, but the main E's are universally agreed upon. The challenge is to make them come together and reinforce each other.

Well-engineered streets won't matter if people don't know how to use them. Informed citizens will break the rules if no one is watching. All the speeding tickets in the world can't compensate for poor design and a populace that doesn't understand the rules.

But the most important E, experts say, is probably engineering. The streets could be made many times safer by building and marking streets and setting traffic rules in different ways, they say.

However, experts admit that these measures could bring more traffic jams, an unpopular prospect in a area already overwhelmed by traffic.

The Las Vegas Valley's most dangerous street for pedestrians, Maryland Parkway, is a classic example of the deadly combination of factors that spell danger for those on foot.

From 1996 to 2002, six of the top 15 sites where pedestrians were hit by vehicles were along Maryland Parkway.

"It's a wide street where people travel well over the speed limit," said Erin Breen of the Safe Community Partnership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Traffic routinely travels at 45 mph despite the 30 mph limit.

That's one ingredient. Plus, Maryland Parkway is not well lighted or well marked by signs. Plus, it is a major commercial artery lined on either side with business driveways, so vehicles are pulling out or turning in every few yards. It also runs through several of the most densely populated parts of the valley, many lower-income areas whose residents may not own cars.

Add it all up, and you have a recipe for a walking disaster, Breen said.

Other streets where pedestrians might be wise not to tread include Las Vegas Boulevard -- except for the Strip, Flamingo Road, Charleston Boulevard and Boulder Highway.

It is too late to change the fundamental layout of these streets. "But can we make it better, can we improve it? You bet," said Sue Newberry, a nationally recognized expert on traffic safety based in Carson City. "It can be changed, but it has to become a priority. It isn't right now."

Better designed roads -- with more crosswalks, attention-getting signage and lighting, and some more exotic features -- are the bottom line for making the streets safer, advocates say.

"There's a myth that as soon as you paint a crosswalk, pedestrians take more chances. There's no data demonstrating that," Newberry said.

"But there is data that says that just painting a crosswalk on a multilane road isn't enough," she continued. "You also have to slow traffic, add islands and so on. If you make it more convenient to go to the corner, people will go to the corner."

Rather than blaming pedestrians who race across the street to catch a bus -- a bus their livelihoods may depend on -- cities should build facilities that allow pedestrians to get where they need to go with relative ease, Newberry and others say.

For example, in some places, roundabouts can replace conventional intersections, allowing narrower streets to move greater volumes of traffic at slower speeds, Newberry said. Islands in wide roads give pedestrians a "refuge" where they can wait when crossing intersections. Lines can be painted to force cars to make tighter turns so they can't whip around at high speed. One-way streets benefit pedestrians, as do restrictions on U-turns, left turns and right turns on red lights. Streets lined with on-street parking can have "bulb-out" curbs that jut into the intersection, shortening the distance across, a design used in many parts of Europe where walking is a way of life.

Some of these solutions are being used around the valley, especially within Las Vegas' city limits. Pedestrian advocates praise city engineer O.C. White for working to improve the situation.

Countdown timers -- displays on "Walk" signals at traffic lights that count down the seconds remaining -- have been installed at about 50 locations, for example, and White says their success is apparent.

"I listen to people look at the timer and say, 'I can't make it across,' so they wait," he said.

The timers also reassure waiting pedestrians that the light will eventually change in their favor.

Las Vegas' goal is to put the timers at all of the more than 400 intersections it controls.

White has pushed for more prominent signage for pedestrians. The bright yellowish-green signs with the stick figure on them, which point to crosswalks with an arrow, were his idea.

In Clark County, the low volume of pedestrians outside the Strip means their needs must be balanced against those of motorists -- and taxpayers, county engineer Herb Arnold said.

"Are we going to stop thousands of cars for just a few people who don't want to walk a few hundred feet to the signal? A traffic signal costs $200,000. It's not cheap," Arnold said. "When the person could just walk a few hundred feet, it's not cost-effective."

But pedestrian advocates say a few hundred feet is too far to ask people to go out of their way on foot. Three-hundred feet, after all, is the length of a football field.

Shashi Nambisan, a civil engineering professor and the director of UNLV's Transportation Research Center, said engineering measures can make streets more friendly without necessarily inconveniencing drivers.

"Engineering isn't everything, but you can certainly engineer improvements," Nambisan said.

Nambisan's center has a Federal Highway Administration grant to study novel countermeasures for pedestrian safety. Some of its ideas have never been tried before.

The grant is one of three that were awarded in a national competition.

One idea the center hopes to test is a crosswalk that includes lights embedded in the street. If a pedestrian presses the button to cross, the crosswalk lights up, making it hard for drivers to miss. Alternately, the crosswalk could sense the pedestrian's presence.

Another idea is an electronic display of a pair of animated eyes that would light up above a crosswalk when the button is pressed.

In a new variation on radar trailers that tell drivers they're speeding, researchers want to try a speed detector that displays "speed limit," "your speed" -- and "your fine," the amount you would be charged if cited for speeding.

"I think engineering is the most important factor" in pedestrian safety, said Sally Flocks, president and chief executive of Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety, an advocacy group in Atlanta.

Flocks' grass-roots group has grown to include a mayoral task force. The group succeeded in getting standards established for pedestrian-friendly crosswalks and for installation of red-light cameras. The cameras have been outlawed in Nevada, but studies show they are effective for traffic safety.

As a growing area that suffers from sprawl, Atlanta pedestrians have benefited by creating new zoning categories to encourage walkable neighborhoods and discourage big-block retail development, Flocks said.

Deborah Murphy of L.A. Walks in Los Angeles, said her group leads a committee that advises that city's Transportation Department on pedestrian issues. Having an official voice as part of the system helps pedestrians and gets streets designed in a more walkable way, she said.

Newberry said Las Vegas already possesses one excellent example of pedestrian-friendly engineering.

"The Las Vegas Strip is a great model," she said. "Why do people come from all over the world to walk distances they would never think of walking at home? They walk for miles -- much to the surprise of the traffic engineers, who built it as a car strip."

The reason is that "the casinos created attractions, and they created one of the most interesting pedestrian environments in the world," Newberry said. The mass of pedestrians who walk the Strip created enough demand for special signal timing and elevated walkways.

Such overpasses often are not practical and are usually too inconvenient for pedestrians, she said. But the Strip proves that a balance can be struck in most places between the needs of hot, thirsty pedestrians and those of crawling, frustrated drivers as long as both sides are willing to compromise.

Newberry admits that making streets more pedestrian-friendly might impede traffic flow somewhat, a development bound to anger already-frustrated Las Vegas drivers. But, she says, she's not suggesting that pedestrians be allowed to walk all over drivers, so to speak.

"Let's say right now 99 percent of our emphasis (in road design) goes on the automobile," she said. "Let's say we adjust it so it's only 90 percent."

Her figures are no exaggeration. From 1998 to 2001, less than 1 percent of federal ground-transportation funding was spent on pedestrian or bicycle projects, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project. In Nevada, 64 cents per person per year were spent on pedestrian and bicycle safety and facilities.

"There are trade-offs," Newberry said. "If you make the situation better for pedestrians, it's not likely that it's going to be better for cars."

But engineering is not the only component to safer streets, especially when people aren't following the rules. Recent incidents have revealed that many Las Vegans do not fully understand traffic laws.

When 13-year-old Manuel Cazares was injured while riding his bicycle, many were surprised to learn that children are not allowed to ride bicycles through crosswalks and that drivers are required to stop when other cars stop at a crosswalk.

Driver-education schools are required to teach pedestrian and bicycle safety to would-be motorists, said Kevin Malone, Department of Motor Vehicles public information officer. A full page of the 60-page Nevada Driver's Handbook is devoted to bicycles, and about half a page to pedestrians.

The written driving test consists of 50 questions taken at random from a pool of 147 questions. Seven questions on any test must come from a 21-question section called "Sharing the Road," and six of those are about bicycles or pedestrians, Malone said.

"We can't guarantee that there's going to be even one question about bicycles and pedestrians on each test, but a good majority of them" should address the topic, he said.

Clark County School District curriculum stipulates traffic safety concepts that students must be taught in each grade starting with kindergarten, spokeswoman Pat Nelson said. Schools may also, on a voluntary basis, have assemblies or invite guest speakers such as police officers or safety officials.

However, Nelson said teachers do not have to be specially trained in traffic safety -- they usually teach from textbooks and teachers' guides -- and the district does not devote a whole department to the topic, as it does to substance-abuse prevention.

"On bicycles, parents and guardians are responsible for making kids follow traffic laws," said Bruce Mackey, Nevada's Office of Traffic Safety's pedestrian and bicycle safety officer. If parents don't know the laws or don't make sure their children follow them, the results can be tragic.

Mackey's office distributes federal grant money and smaller state grants funded by a 50-cent surcharge on driver's licenses. The last broad-based education campaign on pedestrian safety was in 2002 and featured Mackey, Metro Detective Bill Redfairn and John Brekke, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed on her way to school in 1991, in television and radio spots.

Plans are in the works for a new campaign on the advertising panels inside Citizens Area Transit buses, since many pedestrians are hit when they run across the street to catch a bus, Breen said.

Breen is involved in planning the campaign with the Regional Transportation Commission, and she wants to make it "hard-hitting." Never one to mince words, she recalls an ad she proposed that was turned down a few years ago for being too harsh. It featured a picture of a chalk outline of a body on the street.

The caption: "Don't make the six-lane dash to death."

But to Breen the best education campaign is enforcement of traffic regulations.

"The most effective way to change people's behavior is to issue a citation," she said. "I can guarantee if you get a ticket for something like not yielding to a pedestrian, and it costs you money and time, you're going to look for pedestrians from then on."

On Memorial Day weekend, Metro Police and the Nevada Highway Patrol kicked off a valleywide traffic crackdown that Metro Capt. Vincent Cannito, who leads the department's Transportation Safety Bureau, said will continue until there is a significant reduction in traffic accidents.

"The accident is a symptom; the cause is aggressive driving," he said. "We're trying to modify people's driving behavior to prevent accidents from happening in the first place."

To that end, police and NHP troopers will be writing more tickets and giving fewer warnings, authorities said.

Breen and other advocates applaud the crackdown. They point out that speeding -- something most of us do without a second thought -- is lethal.

"Speed makes a huge difference," Mackey said. "If you're going 40 mph and you try to stop, after 100 feet you will still be going 38 mph. If you're going 25 mph, you will have stopped."

For a few years, Breen's partnership has been sponsoring its own crackdown: With money from a state grant the organization pays valley police officers overtime to walk into a crosswalk, testing drivers who have plenty of time to stop. Henderson, Boulder City and Metro police officers are not in uniform, but they are wearing brightly colored clothes.

"If the motorist is more than twice the stopping distance and doesn't stop, they're pulled over and ticketed and educated about their role in pedestrian safety," Breen said. The initiative has had a dramatic and lasting effect at a crosswalk in front of UNLV and at other high-crash locations., she added.

Metro Traffic Sgt. Tracy McDonald said officers try to conduct such operations in the course of their normal shifts but rarely have time because they are constantly called to crash scenes.

"The grant money helps us do more of it," he said.

McDonald said drivers cited for failing to yield would be fined at least $150. When they are pulled over, "90 percent of the time they know they did something wrong," he said.

But the bigger issue, Breen says, is that pedestrians should not be blamed for their environment, the circumstances they are powerless to change.

It is not their fault that they cannot afford cars or are too young, too old or too disabled to drive. It is not their fault that they must use public transportation. It is not their fault that they choose not to walk miles out of their way to use ostensibly safe crosswalks -- crosswalks that may not, in the end, protect them at all.

"When I talk to groups, people invariably say, 'Those damned pedestrians,' " Breen said. "Then I ask them, 'When you go to the market, how many of you purposely park as far away as you can?' "

Her point is that nobody wants to go out of his way or walk more than is absolutely necessary to get where he's going. "And yet we instantly scream at pedestrians -- we want them to walk a mile out of their way to cross at the signalized intersection."