Questionable priorities

A motorist blows through a red light on Northern Lights Boulevard in a classic example of bad driving in Alaska’s largest city/Craig Medred photo


The costs of machines dictating policy

Alaska State Troopers are yet again trumpeting their desire to make everyone safe by taking extra efforts to enforce the nation’s mandatory seatbelt law.

“…Troopers across the state will be conducting additional traffic patrols through June 4th as part of the Click It or Ticket campaign,” according to a media statement issued this week. “Nationwide it is estimated that 2,549 lives could have been saved in 2017 if everyone utilized a seatbelt.”

That’s a summary of the trees. A look at the forest reveals about four and half times as many people are killed by speeding every year, and a lot of them are innocent pedestrians or cyclists who just happen to come near a roadway.

“In 2020, speeding killed 11,258 people,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “For more than two decades, speeding has been involved in approximately one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities.”

This is inevitable in a society that has come to be driven by the idea that everyone has a “right” to get from point A to point B as fast and as easily as possible.

In fairness to troopers, ir must, of course, be noted that the majority of these speeding-related deaths happen on urban rather than rural roads, and troopers mainly patrol the latter in the 49th state.

But the emphasis on Click-It-or-Ticket campaigns, driven as they are by federal monetary handouts, plays a big role in shifting focus away from what is really killing people on America’s roads and in the 49th state:

Bad drivers in urban areas.

Death zones

Of the average of 71 people per year killed on Alaska roads from 2015 to 2017, according to the “Alaska Highway Safety Plan Federal Fiscal Year 2022,” about two-thirds died in the state’s three major urban areas – the Municipality of Anchorage, the Matanuska Susitna Borough and the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

The number of dead might seem small, but the fatality rate is more revealing.

The Alaska death rate per million motor vehicle miles traveled (MVMT) was 1.44 for the years in question, about 32 percent higher than the national average of 1.17 per million MVMT for the same time period, a dubious achievement for a state with but 36,000 miles of road.

There are states with fewer miles of road, but they are all tiny states – New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island and Hawaii – with significantly lower motor vehicle fatality rates: 0.87 per million MVMT in 2020 for N.H., 1.03 for Vt., 0.98 for R.I., and 0.97 for Hawaii.

Alaska fatalities did creep downward during the pandemic with the “Alaska FY2021 Highway Safety Plan Annual Report,” which provides the most up-to-date data on deaths, registering 64 fatalities in 2020.

The decrease, however, came at the same time that the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists – so-called vulnerable road users given the lack of a steel cage to protect them –  more than doubled.

“The percentage of all fatalities involving pedestrians and bicyclists accounted for 23 percent of all motor vehicle-related fatalities in 2020,” the report says. It does not say how many of those deaths involved speeding.

But the percentage is likely high given that the vast majority of pedestrian and cyclist deaths take place in urban Alaska where posted speed limits are seldom obeyed

Bad judgment on the part of pedestrians cannot be ignored as a contributing factor. The Anchorage homeless, in particular,  have a history of randomly wandering into traffic, which unfortunately hasn’t altered the driving habits of those who regularly motor through areas frequented by the homeless.

Neither has it swayed the Municipality of Anchorage to slow traffic in those areas by posting slower speed limits given the well-documented fact that slower speeds save lives.

Speed kills

The average risk of death for a pedestrian is 10 percent at an impact speed of 23 mph, 25 percent at 32 mph, 50 percent at 42 mph, 75 percent at 50 mph, and 90 percent at 58 mph,” according to the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The likelihood of survival is also greatly influenced by age.

“For example,” according to the AAA, “the average risk of severe injury or death for a 70‐year old pedestrian struck by a car traveling at 25 mph is similar to the risk for a 30‐year‐old pedestrian struck at 35 mph.”

The latest pedestrian to be seriously struck in Anchorage was hit on West Benson Boulevard just over a week ago, according to the Anchorage Police Department, which described the man as suffering from “life-threatening injuries.”

As of this date, he has not been identified nor has the driver of the pickup truck that hit him. This is the norm. The victims are usually identified eventually, but it is the policy of the APD not to identify drivers.

A police department spokeswoman explained in an email that this is because these incidents are mere “traffic” issues, and people involved in traffic issues are not identified.

Benson Boulevard is a known danger zone for pedestrians. The posted speed on the street is 35 mph, but motorists seldom drive that slow.

A 2014 “Non-motorized Reconnaissance” study of the area conducted by the Alaska Department of Transportation identified the road as a hotspot for collisions between motor vehicles and vulnerable road users.

The study also concluded that “speed limit restrictions may be needed to increase
perception reaction time and reduce the severity of collisions,” but then largely dismissed the recommendation with the notation that the “strategy may not be appropriate” because it would decrease the volume of traffic the road could handle.

The words “collateral damage” were not used to address pedestrians and cyclists, but could have been given that “motonormativity” dominates both traffic design and policing in Alaska’s largest city.

Take two

A day after the man on Benson suffered life-threatening injuries, 30-year-old cyclist Chelsea Jensen-Roehl was run down at the intersection of Debarr Road and Airport Heights Drive and left trapped beneath a car.

She was identified after her mother talked to an Anchorage television station about the efforts of the employees of a nearby gas station who used a jack to free her from beneath the car.

APD, per its policy, provided almost no information as to what happened. It issued a statement saying:

“Initial indications are that an adult female bicyclist was crossing Airport Heights, westbound at Debarr.  An SUV that was also westbound turned right to go north on Airport Heights and struck the bicyclist in the crosswalk. 

“No citations or charges have been filed.  The investigation is ongoing.”

This is where the reporting on such incidents in Anchorage usually ends. Jensen-Roehl also suffered life-threatening injuries but is expected to survive. How many pedestrians and cyclists are so injured in Alaska each year is not reported in the highway data.

Charges are almost never brought against the drivers involved, and even when they are, the drivers almost always get off.

Anchorage’s “Law and Order” authorities do not take seriously such injuries and deaths.

After Anchorage motorist Melissa Rabe ran a red light on C Street and killed  19-year-old Jonathon Johnson in 2008, a grand jury looking into Johnson’s death was told there was no crime involved.

According to court records, jurors were informed that such a death “is not a criminal case from the state’s perspective. This would be a civil liability case. You have a red light violation.”

Grand jurors were apparently somewhat taken aback by that statement.

“At the conclusion of the state’s presentation,” the documents say, “the foreperson asked the prosecutor: ‘If we determine that she wasn’t impaired by THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) but she ran the red light and hit him, what are our options in that regard?’

“To which the prosecutor responded: ‘Well, you have to find that she was criminally negligent then. And if you don’t find that she’s criminally negligent and its just civil negligence, you’ve heard from (APD) Investigator (Steve) Buchta that mere civil negligence results in nothing more than a red light citation, even though you caused the death of an individual by going through a red light.'”

Court records reflect that Rabe was eventually fined $260 for driving a vehicle that lacked an emissions testing sticker and another $150 for driving a vehicle with an expired registration.

There are reasons it is dangerous to be on or near a roadway in Alaska unless protected by a steel cage, and they are bigger than the simple lack of sidewalks and bike lanes in most of urban Alaska or speed limits set dangerously high to please motorists even in areas where motor vehicles regularly mix with vulnerable road users.

There is a serious problem with officials who accept human deaths as the cost of keeping traffic moving as fast as possible, which is a reality that has gone too long unreported.

Health costs

Were dead pedestrians and cyclists all there was to this, it would be one thing. But the pandemic of the old and unfit has now killed a reported 1.16 million Americans of whom nearly 1,500 were Alaskans.

After comparing the physically fit to the physically unfit due to lack of exercise, researchers concluded the latter group nearly doubled their chances of dying of Covid-19 and increased their chances of hospitalization by almost as much.

This should have come as no surprise given the many studies prior to the pandemic showing the links between deaths from heart disease, the nation’s number one killer, and a lack of exercise along with similar associations between the lack of exercise and diabetes, obesity and other illnesses leading to early death.

One would expect conservatives to be appalled at how much this is costing the American economy, which spends more on health care than any country in the world to produce worse health outcomes.

As a percentage of gross domestic product, the U.S. spends almost twice as much on health care as South Korea where the average citizen lives to the ripe, old age of 83.5.

U.S. life expectancy is now down to 76.1, having peaked 78.9 in 2014. It has fallen despite the fortunes being spent on drugs and medical treatments intended to prolong life.

Meanwhile, the average American’s lack of exercise goes largely undiscussed and the nation’s political leaders continue to encourage the design of cities to make driving easier and walking or cycling discouragingly more dangerous.

According to AAA, the average American now spends more than an hour per day behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, a nearly 30 percent increase from the amount of time AAA found them sitting behind the wheel in 2014.

And when they’re not sitting behind the wheel, they’re sitting behind a computer screen or in front of a TV. The average U.S. adult now spends 10.5 hours per day entertaining herself or himself in this way, according to the American Heart Association, which has linked all the time spent sitting to the steady rise in the number of strokes suffered by Americans.

“Nearly 9 in 10 strokes could be attributed to modifiable risk factors such as sedentary behaviors,” the organization reported. It recommends people get “at least 150 minutes, or 2.5 hours, of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.”

Fifty-three point one percent of Americans fail to clear that bar, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

One would expect progressives to want to get these people up and moving on foot or  bicycles not only for their own good but to reduce the volume of climate-change-causing fossil fuels burned by motor vehicles. But progressives seem as addicted to driving as conservatives and would rather push a conversion to electric cars than do anything to encourage Americans to get moving under their own power.

Progressives are strangely all in on ordering people to wear masks, which have demonstrated little effectiveness in reducing Covid-19 infections although some fervently believe they make a difference, and get vaccinated, which has a real-world effectiveness near that of fitness, but when it comes to getting people to exercise they are as addicted to motorized transportation as conservatives.

It’s the American perfect storm: One of the few things left and right can agree on is promoting the means of transportation that does the most to shorten the lives of Americans and renders increasingly dangerous those forms of transporation that improve health.

All this in the name of convenience.






20 replies »

    • The “You don’t live the life I live, b***h” crowd is a whole different story from 98 percent of cyclists. I talk to the homeless on a somewhat regular basis along our city trails. Some of them are just mentally unstable, but there is a segment, who knows how big, who think they have a “right” to take what they need/want from others becuase we were all blessed with “privilege” and they weren’t.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if the bike in that video was stolen as well as everything else.

      • In 1961, my older brother (14) rode out of a rural blind driveway and was hit & killed by a car going the speed limit. Completely my brother’s fault, yet a bitter pill to swallow. Fortunately, the man wasn’t from the area, however my parents never recovered. I was somewhat amazed that this crook apparently wasn’t injured enough to keep him from picking up some of his ill-gotten gains. Also, no matter how tough that woman is, she was extremely lucky he didn’t pull a knife or just generally hurt her.

        Yes, Craig, I see the homeless crowd daily riding new kid’s bikes all the way up to high end fat bikes. One even had a large set of bolt cutters protruding from his backpack. Propane tanks on campers and barbecue grills are prized by these subsistence gatherers.

  1. Craig, I rode a bicycle practically everywhere I went from the age or 8 or so until I got a hand-me-down car at sixteen. I rode on town streets, dirt roads, and state and federal highways with speed limits of 55 – 65 mph. There were few sidewalks and bike trails were unheard of.

    I’m still alive because I had an effin’ brain and knew how to use it, something I can’t say for most bicyclists I encounter. There are more than a few bicyclists who are still alive and uninjured because I am smarter and more aware than the lycra-clad entitled punks are.

    • Art: I’m going to give you credit for the brain, and if it has good recall, it should be able to remember drivres behaved differently 50, 60 or 70 years ago then they do now.

      I was like you, and we regularly rode our bikes in the middle of the road out to the Crow Wing River to go fishing. Cars slowed down and went way around us. We also played “home run derby” in the street (and God knows what other cames) using the retaining wall at a lot on one side of the street as the outfield fence and the yard on the other side of the street as the infield. We never worried about getting run over. Drivers slowed down. Usually even asked if we were having fun. A parent would be nuts to let their kid play in today’s streets the way we played in the streets.

      Face reality. It isn’t the behavior of cyclists that has changed. It’s the behaviour of drivers. Your attitude, I’d expect, reflects that of some asshole who tried to take me out in the middle of an intersection becuase while stopped at the green light I’d pulled as far left in the lane at the red light to make it possible for any motorist wanting to turn right at the intersection to get past me to do so. I was being thoughtful.

      The response to being thoughtful was for some guy to stomp the acclerator when the light went green and then swerve left to try to nail me. If I hadn’t hit the brakes he woudl have hit me. He was apparently of the opinion that the nano second that it would take me to get safely across the intersection and move right was a sign I was a lycra-clad punk, as you put it.

      There is some entitlement going on here. Most of it is not on the part of cyclists.

    • Attitude has changed. Imo .
      Possibly on both parties which is a bit odd .

      When i was a kid we were instructed to hit the ditch every time a car came by . We followed our parents rules by and large. Thankfully there were not as many cars then where we were. I see a lot of cyclists and pedestrians pushing their luck now .

      That said – when i was a kid pretty much every driver swung wide and gave cyclists and pedestrians significant room. Drivers waved and gave each other happy greetings in passing or just stopped to talk. Not so much anymore.

      Also i am certain that traffic tends to ignore speed limits to a higher degree now . They certainly tailgate worse and pass more aggressively than I remember.

      With these trends and the challenge of winter travel in Alaska ,obesity, air quality and mental health being endemic- i say we should push every chance we get to have our lawmakers create legislation for non motorized travel a safe distance from every road . Planning such options into every road way plan .
      Start thinking of roads as travel corridors rather than motor vehicle lanes.
      Kudos to the feds for wanting bike paths along highways where their money was involved.
      To bad planners were not wise enough to set the non motorized paths back enough to avoid plowing burms ect .
      Pretty foolish for creatures that have flown to the moon.

  2. Although I “kept right” and paid attention, I used to walk the bike paths. No more; too many close calls. I became concerned that I’d get my back broken by an errant bicyclist.

    Also, after over 50 years of observation, I believe bicyclists want to be treated as motorists and pedestrians, especially concerning red lights within the city limits.

    • The bike paths are mislabled. They are multi-use trails and need to be treated as such. I would, however, expect most of the cyclists who close passed you were capable of riding at 10mph to more. I wish I could say the same for the ebikers now appearing on the trails, and the onewheelers in full-face helmets and full body armor.

      It would be great thing if we could move all cyclists onto the streets where transportation belongs, but then we’d have to both lower speed limits, which would inflame the majority, and trust drivers to drive responsibly. There is a sizeable minority who don’t and I’m pretty sure won’t. I rode the bike up to the Flattop parking lot one day and counted 7 out of 10 drivers coming down the hill with their noses in their phones. It was scary.

      It was a nice day. I’m guessing they had to text everyone selfies of their visit to the mountain.

      As for the red light issue, it should be put to rest with the state and implementing the Idaho stop. I was hit twice at intersections by right turning motorits while sitting on the bike with my foot on the curb waiting for the red light to change. In both cases I had stood there minutes prior waitng for the light to change.

      I now either take the lane, a somewhat FU move but safer, or jump onto the sidewalk to become that pedestrian cyclist when the light changes.

      • Actually, I have no doubt many whizzed by me at least 20 mph and some likely faster with no warning of “on your left’…

      • Color me skeptical. I ride the Chester Creek/Coastal Trail path with some regularity, and I can tesify there are damn few pedalcyclists (ebikes are a different matter) that can do 20 mph. My bike computer has a speedo. Over the course of the past two years, I have fallen in behind exactly one very fit looking dude who could hold 20. I slip streamed him from Lake Otis to Minnesota early one morning with no one on the trail. I doubt that I’d been able to hold 20-21 the whole way if not for being on his wheel.

        I also walk the dogs on the Chester trail often. A bike going by at 15 always looks to be doing at least 20. I’ve chased down a few who looked to be going too fast only to get on their wheel and find out in following them they were doing 12-15 mph. That said, when the trail gets congested as it often does in some places, that’s too fast.

        Meanwhile, that “on your left” is a something of quagmire. You wouldn’t believe how many people go left when you say “on your left.” A few days ago, I actually had a couple of women collide with each other when I said “on your left.” The one went right; the other went left; and they met in the middle of the trail. Made it a little hard to decide where to go. I hit the brakes eased around them on the left at about 5 mph with a “sorry.”

        I accept getting regularly slowed down by pedestrians as part of riding Chester/Coastal. There are bird watchers, parents teaching their kids to right a bike, lost tourists, walkers in deep conservation on their phones, and God knows who and what else on that trail. So one should ride appropriately.

        It would be nice if motorists had the same attitude. But they don’t. There’s an huge sense of entitlement there against anyone or anything that slows them down or that they perceive to slow them down. I have always found the latter baffling in that the more people we get on bikes – pedal or e – the less cars there are on the road. And cars jam up traffic a lot worse than bikes do. A cargo e-bike would actually be a lot faster way to get to the local Fred Meyer from my house than a car if I felt it safe to park an e-bike at Fred Meyer.

      • Craig, there was no “Reply” button on Your 20 mph comment so I had to reply here. Specifically, I was referring to the Westchester Lagoon area where my Daughter and I often walked. Bikers zoomed by in both directions, however more often from the West High Hill where Mother Nature gave them a boost. Regardless, I wouldn’t want to get hit in the back by a bike going 5, 10, or 15 mph. I already have two broken vertebras from an incident in 1973.

  3. So if a motorist runs over a bicycing police officer-
    Will the motorist only be cited for his 5 mph over speed limit?

    • I hate to say this, but I’ve long wished a motorist would nail a bicycling police officer just to give the issue the attention it deserves. But I doubt that’s going to happen. Most police officers in Anchorage far prefer to ride around in cars than ride a bike.

  4. “You might consider researching the deadly policy of DOT failing to grade bike paths level or slightly downhill in all directions.”

    How, exactly, can they grade any path slightly downhill in all directions? If the folks at DOT can figure that one out then I have many more questions about physics that I’d like to ask them.

  5. “……..There are reasons it is dangerous to be on or near a roadway in Alaska unless protected by a steel cage, and they are bigger than the simple lack of sidewalks and bike lanes in most of urban Alaska or speed limits set dangerously high to please motorists even in areas where motor vehicles regularly mix with vulnerable road users.
    There is a serious problem with officials who accept human deaths as the cost of keeping traffic moving as fast as possible, which is a reality that has gone too long unreported……….
    All true. But I have something to report:
    The other day, while traveling north at 67 mph in the right lane of the Glenn Hwy between the Eagle River exit and the North Eagle River exit, I had to jockey into position in short order to get into the left lane. Before me were two cyclists, bikes heavily laden with gear, riding side by side on the shoulder of the roadway, just 30′ away from a dedicated bike path designed specifically to provide a safe path for cyclists away from the steel cage folks.
    Fascinated with social psychology and the why behind people doing incredibly stupid things, I pondered the event. I determined that the cyclists preferred the level highway grade for their cargo bicycles over the rolling up and down topography that DOT put the bike path on.
    You might consider researching the deadly policy of DOT failing to grade bike paths level or slightly downhill in all directions. I’m sure that evil money had something to do with it.

    • Or they might have been lost tourists trying to figure out how to get onto that bike trail, Reggie.

      But the point you raise is a good one. A whole lot of Anchorage’s bike/multi-use trails are/have been built with an eye toward recreation not transportation. They wind when they could go straight. They go uphill and downhill when they don’t need to.

      The bad design sometimes makes me want to put a DOT traffic engineer on a bike, hook the big to a tow line and drag him/her around Anchorage trails at 20 mph. It might give he/she an idea of how bad so much of the design. It just makes the riding more difficlt for traditional cyclists.

      With the Alaska legislature having now opened all these trails to 20mph ebikes, I fear it could also become dangerous. My experience with e-bikers on the Anchorage Coastal Trail is that many of them lack the bike handling skills to ride at 20, but more than a few seem to think they can ride at that speed.

      And they can, until the over cook a corner and hit a tree between Woronzof and Kincaid or, worse, collide with a walker between Westchester and Woronzof, and that just seems inevitable given that 20 percent of the population doesn’t seem to understand the “keep right” standard for trails as well as roads and another 20 percent is going to go wherever their dog goes while paying little if any attention to anything approaching from front or rear.

      • Yup, in their zeal to belove all things electric, they expectedly welcome ebikes onto the bike trails, but if it will go over 20 mph, the disobedient class will tickle every mph they can out of it. Injuries are guaranteed.

      • Reggie, some of Anchorage’s trails are already unsafe at 20 mph. Too much traffic. Too many curves. I got hit last summer by some youngish visitor for Florida descending from Kincaid on the Coastal Trail. He was coming down at about 20 and couldn’t make the curve. I was going up at 8 or 10, luckily saw him coming and managed to get as far of the trail as possible into the brush.

        It was enough for me. It wasn’t enough for him. He clipped one of my pedals as he went by and suffered on hell of a crash on the pavement. It was ugly, but he was able to walk, and I walked him and the bike back to the Kincaid Chalet and told them to call the paramedics. I now ride the Coastal Trail as if if everyone on it is trying to hit me.

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