“But it doesn’t meet the standard.”

Heard that line before? Ever since the first video that Strong Towns ever created back in 2010 (the low-low-low-budget fan favorite Conversation With an Engineer) we have worked to expose the myths and excuses that too many in the traffic engineering profession use to justify deadly street designs. We’re talking about designs that prioritize automobile speed and traffic flow over human safety.

So we were delighted when our good friend Don Kostelec—transportation planner, avid blogger and Twitter user, and longtime safe-streets advocate—devoted an epic twelve-day series of essays in December to brilliantly dismantling some of the most common of these excuses for inaction or half-hearted action on safety—especially from state Departments of Transportation (DOTs).

Titled “The Twelve Days of Safety Myths” in honor of the classic Christmas song, Kostelec’s series is way too much for us to re-post here in its entirety, but it is absolutely worth reading in its entirety. Laypeople and transportation professionals alike can learn a lot.

We wanted to make sure our readers didn’t miss this must-read series, so here are links to all twelve installments. –Strong Towns Staff.

The Twelve Days of Safety Myths

by Don Kostelec

In the carol “The 12 days of Christmas,” the gifts are grander and grander with each passing day. I’m not sure I’ve accomplished that for you in this series, but I hope the time you spend reading them is well spent.

The goal was to help you dispel the common myths you hear from transportation agencies with regard to safety. The guidance isn’t as sacred as they want you to believe. The safety tips don’t make much sense when you look at the research. Even the research isn’t as clear cut as we would all like it to be.

I want you to be the drummers drumming to advocate for safer streets. I want you to be the pipers piping to influence changes in policies and practices. I want you to light the coals that keep the engineering lords a-leaping when they try to deny your requests.

On the 1st day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… bright, reflective vests!

A heavy “windshield bias”—a condition brought on by those who travel primarily by automobile but are tasked with developing safety initiatives for those outside a car—is revealed in campaigns and related materials that tell people who walk and bike what they should wear, without any consideration for an individual’s circumstances, the lack of proper roadway lighting to illuminate the marked and unmarked crosswalks, or the likely inadequacy of a motorist’s headlights.

The 160-foot crossing on Oak Street in Forest City, North Carolina. You get nothing but paint, and the least effective crosswalk marking to boot!

On the 2nd Day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… magical force field paint!

The idea that paint is a solution for a safety issue is probably the single worst default position a designer can take. I look back on projects and plans I was involved with during my less-enlightened days and think, “I can’t believe I actually recommended a sharrow.” Or, “Why did I mention nothing more than adding a crosswalk?”

It doesn’t take too deep of a dive into prevailing design guidance and research to find language that discourages the use of paint as a standalone safety countermeasure.

On the 3rd day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… lifesaving tchotchkes!

Have you ever considered how much money traffic safety offices spend on swag to promote their campaigns? Who knew that “Toward Zero Deaths” thumb drives saved lives?

Click image to view larger.

On the 4th day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… “shared responsibility!”

A child, all of 100 pounds, is mowed down by a person driving a 4,500-pound pickup truck. What will you likely hear from police officers, highway safety engineers, Governors Highway Safety Association, and state DOTs? “Now, remember, children, safety is a shared responsibility!”

Bull pucky. Shared responsibility on the road isn’t a valid expectation of people who walk and bike until they are given equal consideration in road design and equal opportunity to move safely throughout the system.

On the 5th day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… 5-stage crossings!

“Alternative intersections” is putting it nicely. All of these designs require navigation by pedestrians (and bicyclists in some situations) in what traffic engineers call “stages”. A two-stage crossing, for example, is something we’re all familiar with. It’s essentially a median or refuge island at a street crossing. Crossing to the next island is a stage….

The problem comes into play at traditional signalized intersections where the introduction of two-stage, three-stage and four-stage crossings have become commonplace. Be aware at a public meeting when a traffic engineer starts spouting the virtues of requiring pedestrians to do multi-stage crossing.

The problem is they fail to consider the value of a pedestrian’s time. Which is funny, because they love to talk about how many seconds they shave off a commute and use that compute a “value of time saved” dollar figure to woo elected officials and the public into spending billions on these crazy designs. In failing to consider a pedestrian’s time, they’ve also failed to consider the Federal Highway Administration’s own published guidance related to pedestrian delay and safety.

The word “shall” appears nowhere in this document: AASHTO’s supposed “standards” are guidelines, not requirements. (Click to view larger.)

On the 6th Day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… AASHTO standards!

Standard, /ˈstandərd/, noun:  a required or agreed level of quality or attainment.

Required level? Or agreed level? Nearly everyone, especially the engineers, use the definition of standard that aligns more with it being a “requirement” rather than an agreed to level of treatment. Pitching elements of the AASHTO—the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials— "Green Book" as a requirement allows engineers to deflect questions about their decisions. On the contrary, if they used the term “standard” to mean something mutually agreed upon, that would open up the design to a true community-based approach.

But the interesting part is this: Not even AASHTO refers to its Green Book as a standard. It’s guidance.

On the 7th day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… “the nearest crosswalk!”

“Just go to the nearest crosswalk.”

Seems simple enough, eh? Pedestrians, just go to the nearest crosswalk and cross there. How many times have you heard that from a traffic safety campaign or a law enforcement agency?

These agencies never bother to examine how traffic engineers have designed roads to promote greater dominance of motorists on the streets. On a section of Glenwood Avenue in Boise, ID, there is a 3,700-foot gap between signalized intersections. That’s 500 seconds of walking time (!!!!!!) for a pedestrian who comes out mid-block in this stretch hoping to cross the street. The equivalent is like forcing a motorist to drive five miles up the road to make a U-turn just to cross the street.

A supposed Complete Streets success story in Boone, NC: a bike lane and sidewalk slapped alongside a deadly road.

On the 8th day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… Complete Streets policy!

The Safety House has so many lights strung upon it that it puts Clark Griswold’s abode to shame. 

Context Sensitive Solutions. Complete Streets Policy. Active Transportation Plans. Corridor Studies. Environmental Justice. Heads Up. Vision Zero. 

I’m tired of the false promises. I’m tired of being strung along by the engineering profession, telling us that whatever their latest wave of buzzword practices will be finally be the solution that leads to safer streets for all road users.  The buzzwords seem to evolve but the actual engineering of streets doesn’t.

On the 9th day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… “94 percent!”

“About 94 percent of serious crashes are due in part to 
frequent and predictable driver errors.” 
–The Road to Zero, National Safety Council, 2018

How many times have you heard that go-to excuse from transportation agencies? “If everyone would just…”  

If everyone would just obey the speed limit. If everyone would just use a crosswalk. If everyone would just stop texting and driving. If everyone would just stop drinking and driving. After all, since 94% of crashes are caused by human error, we’d be a lot safer if everyone would just….

On the 10th day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… “FHWA says so!”

The 10th day is a potpourri of items illustrating how the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is a misunderstood organization. Just as AASHTO publishes “guidance” rather than “standards,” so does FHWA. It’s nearly impossible to find the words “shall” or “must” in FHWA’s published reports. The word “should” is prevalent across the wide spectrum of their transportation literature.

As we already know, transportation departments use FHWA’s publications and supported efforts to justify wider roads for cars at the expense of safety for people who walk and bike. However, if you look closely, you’ll find ample support from FHWA for equitable treatment of people who walk and bike. In all, FHWA isn’t the bad guy, here. We just have to learn how to use them to our advantage.

On the 11th day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… “Make eye contact!”

I walk or bike with my daughter every day to school. We have since she was in preschool. Our journey in Boise includes crossing a signalized, t-intersection of a five-lane road and a three-lane road. We cross the three-lane leg of that intersection.

Our walk today was indicative of how ill-informed the tip is for pedestrians to make eye contact. It doesn’t align with how roads are actually engineered and how motorists are encouraged via that engineering to operate on them.

On the 12th day of Safety Myths, my DOT gave to me… 12-foot travel lanes!

Sadly, it’s at the local and state level where the prevailing “standard” becomes a barrier to safety, all in the name of shaving a few seconds off a driver’s experience. The tendency is to give drivers the most forgiving road they can possibly design.

What engineers term the “forgiving road” is one that forgives the mistakes motorists make. Wanna speed because you’re late? Our roads accommodate that to a certain degree. Not so much when the pedestrian is running late and needs to get to a bus stop on that same road.

When you delve into the issues, you realize that the authors of the “standards” aren’t the bad guys. Their works promote a very flexible mindset, and have for many years. Lane widths are one such example. The recently-released 7th edition of the AASHTO Green Book is a testament to that, and it provides all the support you need for narrower travel lanes in your community.