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Deaths up for bicyclists, pedestrians while safety measures take back seat

By Staff | Oct 9, 2016

Five people died and 237 people were injured in accidents involving bicycles and motor vehicles in Iowa in 2015, prompting the Iowa Bicycle Coalition to call that rate – a nearly 20 percent increase from 2014 – a serious problem in the state.

More Americans are bicycling or walking to work these days, getting healthy exercise and doing their bit to reduce traffic and air pollution. But with little government investment in safety measures, such as protected bike lanes and sidewalks, more cyclists and pedestrians also are getting killed.

Fatalities jumped nationally last year among bicyclists, rising 12.2 percent to 818. Pedestrian deaths climbed 9.5 percent to 5,376. Both totals were the highest in two decades.

The latest Census Bureau estimates, which cover 2013, showed that 4 million Americans walked to work and 860,000 biked regularly. Together, that’s about one million more than in 2005. While the changes are promoted to reduce urban congestion and improve public health, they sometimes infuriate motorists spurring antagonism known in cycling circles as “bikelash.

Still, an encouraging sign for safety advocates are statistics suggesting that the more people who commute by walking or biking, the safer those activities become.

According to a report released last November by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, bike and pedestrian safety until recently has taken a back seat in most communities because American streets have generally been designed “to move motor vehicles as expeditiously as possible.”

“Design efforts such as widening lanes or minimizing sharp curves may have contributed to motorist safety, but may also have contributed to declines in pedestrian and cyclist safety,” the report said. “More recently, however, transportation agencies are beginning to focus on ensuring that roads provide safe mobility for all travelers, not just motor vehicles.”

Still, the GAO report pointed out that projects to boost pedestrian and cyclist safety around the country continue to be held back by tight government budgets.

Kate Kraft, executive director of the nonprofit group America Walks, blames the higher percentage increases of fatalities among walkers and cyclists on several factors. Along with the squeeze caused by more of them converging on streets lacking infrastructure improvements, Kraft cites driving distractions stemming from the use of smartphones and other electronic gadgets in cars. “In some ways,” she said, “there’s a perfect storm.”

Kraft says that streets can be made safer for pedestrians by lowering speed limits and forbidding right turns on red. She acknowledges that such changes could antagonize motorists. Still, she contended, “When people speed away from a traffic light just to get to the next one, they’re not getting anyplace faster.”

Pedestrians themselves sometimes are to blame for safety incidents when they walk while drunk or while texting on their phones. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, 34 percent of pedestrian fatalities in 2013 involved walkers who were impaired by alcohol.