And the foolishness of toothless regulation
Fueled by good intentions, a trio of politicians in Alaska’s largest city has drafted a new ordinance to protect “vulnerable road users” that is so bad as to be laughable, but sure to make them heroes to those who think regulations in and of themselves solve problems.
Anchorage lawyer Marc Grober, a long-time advocate for road safety, said he can see nothing in the proposed ordinance that would do anything to reduce the carnage in Anchorage where 75 percent of all Alaska collisions between motor vehicles and bicyclists take place and where the state’s greatest number of pedestrians die.
Luckily for cyclists, only one in 10 of these Anchorage collisions result in serious death or injury, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation, but as DOT has also noted, “pedestrians are over-represented in Alaska pedestrian fatalities…the bottom line is that when we do have a fatal crash they involve more pedestrians than in other states.”
As of 2020, more than 20 percent of Alaska’s traffic deaths involved pedestrians which makes Alaska more like California, the national leader in pedestrian deaths, than Nebraska, where only 7.7 percent of fatal crashes involve pedestrians, according to national numbers.
Alaskans have long joked about the state’s largest city having become “Los Anchorage.” The jokes are less humorous in this regard.
Seventy percent of the 13 pedestrians struck and killed in Alaska in 2020, the last year for which complete data is available, died in Anchorage, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as the number of out-of-vehicle road users killed in Alaska crashes rose to just under 30 percent of all deaths.
But increasing numbers of motorcyclists, pedestrians, and bicyclists have paid for these changes with their lives. Safer cars appear to make motorists believe they can pay ever less attention to their driving.
Grober has suggested the easiest way to reduce the number of deaths in Anchorage is to slow down traffic in areas where pedestrians, cyclists and motorists congregate, but the assembly has made no mention of this idea because Anchorage motorists, like motorists everywhere, believe they are entitled to travel through the city as fast as possible.
And no politician, be it in Los Anchorage or Los Angeles, wants to irritate the universally largest pool of constituents.
So, instead, assembly members Daniel Volland, Anna Brawley and Karen Bronga have drafted an ordinance to “promote safety, equity and access to infrastructure for bicyclists and other vulnerable road users” that some might fairly describe as “an exercise in virtue signaling.”
It comes complete with a list of more than a dozen “whereas”es illustrating how unsafe Anchorage streets for anyone not protected by the metal armor of a motor vehicle before disintegrating into a hodge-podge effort to lump pedestrians and cyclists into a “vulnerable road user” basket without recognizing that while similarly vulnerable, their means of transport are different, and thus sometimes need to be addressed specifically with pedestrian and cycling rules.
Thus, the proposed ordinance strangely proposes that a “bicycle lane…maybe be used by any vulnerable road user” immediately before declaring “it shall be unlawful for any person: 1.) For pedestrians afoot to travel upon a bicycle lane.”
Are there “pedestrians” other than those “afoot?” Are there winged pedestrians who could use the bike lane by hovering along above the cycle path?
Similarly, there is a warning that it “shall be unlawful…to drive a motor vehicle across a bicycle lane except after giving the right-of-way to all persons legally in use of the bicycle lane.”
So if a motorist decides someone is illegally using the bike lane, the motorists can just run over said “persons”?
Other cities, states and nations are dealing with this issue of “vulnerable road users” a whole lot more simply and clearly than proposed in Anchorage. The United Kingdom just finished revising its “Highway Code” to make the realities and consequences of physics clear to everyone.
This is how it wrote the rules into the code:
“The road users most at risk from road traffic are pedestrians, in particular children, older adults and disabled people, cyclists, horse riders and motorcyclists. It is particularly important to be aware of children, older adults and disabled people, and learner and inexperienced drivers and riders. In any interaction between road users, those who can cause the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they pose to others.”
The UK code goes on to stipulate that those with the greatest responsibility should also be subject to the greatest accountability.
The law doesn’t exactly treat motor vehicles like the dangerous weapons they can become, but it does recognize that those in control of thousands of pounds of steel bear a greater responsibility for safety than the unarmored who basically can’t hurt anyone but themselves.
While the UK is trying to hold drivers more accountable, there is basically no accountability for drivers in Anchorage now and none proposed in the new ordinance.
A motorist can drive through a stop sign, run over an Olympic-caliber skier in the crosswalk at the intersection, and have the Anchorage Police Department provide cover for the bad driving.
When prospective Olympian Hannah Halverson from Alaska Pacific University suffered life-threatening injuries after such an accident in 2019, APD for more than a month refused to provide any details as to how she came to suffer a skull fracture, a traumatic brain injury and a torn-apart knee in what one would expect to be a low-speed crash at a stop-signed intersection.
Then-APD Communications Director MJ Thim’s response to repeated requests for information was answered with the email claim that: “My unit is unable to help on this inquiry.”
The agency would eventually reveal to then-Anchorage Daily News reporter Beth Bragg that Halverson was struck by “an 80-year-old woman driving a Jeep west on West Seventh Avenue (who) stopped at a stop sign before turning south on L Street, where she hit Halvorsen. The driver was cited with failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.”
But the woman was never identified, making it impossible to determine if she even paid a fine for putting Halversen in the hospital for days and in recovery for almost a year.
And the question of whether the woman should have been driving at all was never pursued even though the American Automobile Association (AAA) has warned of the growing number of older drivers who suffer from a “number of age-related functional impairments, medical conditions and medication side effects can compromise driving abilities.”
A scientific examination of the older-driver issue published in the peer-reviewed journal Innovative in Aging last year concluded that “it is well established that older adult drivers, especially those with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia are at higher risk for at-fault roadway collisions.”
The state of Illinois now requires drivers to take another road test at age 75 to quantify their driving skills, and AAA has reported polling indicates that most older drivers want these sorts of more stringent licensing requirements for people their age.
Other states, including Alaska, have, however, ignored the issue, and a study out of Japan indicated that it might not be a good idea to take licenses away from the elderly – not because the bad driving of aging motorists isn’t a problem but because motor vehicles have made the streets of many of the world’s cities so unsafe.
When older drivers lost their license, researchers reported in the peer-reviewed journal Accident Analysis & Prevention in 2020, what followed “was a significant increase in traffic injuries of unprotected road users at the time the test was introduced among females aged 75 to 84 years, and at a later time among males aged 80 years or greater and females aged 85 years or greater.”
The suggestion is that it’s not safe to get around in Japan unless safely strapped in a steel cage although Scandinavian countries have shown success in making the streets safer for everyone – on foot or bicycle or in a motor vehicle – by changing speed limits and road designs.
Sweden has managed to cut its road deaths in half since 1997 with the number of deaths falling from 541 that year to 204 in 2020 with an especially large drop in the deaths of children.
“…By 2012, only one child under seven years old was killed on the road – a significant drop compared to 58 in 1970,” according to Hållbar, a Swedish non-profit that advocates for sustainable transportation.
The organization claims “Sweden made its roads the world’s safest for cyclists” by investing in significant infrastructure to separate motor vehicles from unarmored Swedes, slowing speeds and promoting cycling for its societal benefits:
- Increased lifespans. Based on pre-pandemic data, Sweden claims that on average cyclists live two years longer and experience a 28 percent lower mortality rate than non-cycling Swedes. The pandemic of the old and unfit has only underlined the health-protective value of people getting up off their asses and moving.
- Fewer lost days of work. Sweden claims cyclists take 15 percent fewer sick days.
- Significant reductions in obesity with all its health-related costs.
- And big benefits for mental and emotional health due to improved feelings of well-being, increased stress tolerance, better sleep and less road rage, all of which have been connected to getting up and moving. Some new studies are claiming exercise might sometimes be a better treatment than medications or counseling for a variety of mental health issues.
And one of the best and easiest ways to get people up and moving on a regular basis is to encourage them to walk or cycle to work, an idea unfortunately destined to fail if they’re terrified they’ll be killed by a fellow motorist if they get out of their car or truck.
But that doesn’t have to happen. Finland has made progress similar to Sweden, which led Bloomberg in October to ponder how the “Nordic nation’s rate of vehicle fatalities is a fraction of the toll in the US, despite a harsh climate and ice-covered streets.”
“Only 219 people died on Finnish roads in 2021, or four per 100,000 residents – just one-third the U.S. rate,” Bloomberg’s David Zipper reported. “And Finland’s roadways are growing steadily safer. Fatalities plunged 50 percent between 2001 and 2019, when Helsinki made international news for going an entire year without a single pedestrian or cyclist fatality.”
Helsinki had a population of approximately 657,000 in 2020 – more than twice that of Anchorage where pedestrians and cyclists die at an average rate of closer to one per month.
Finland did nothing at all like what the Anchorage assembly is considering. Finland mainly solved the problem by slowing traffic and narrowing roads to the point motorists were uncomfortable with speeding, the exact opposite of what has happened in Anchorage where roads have been steadily widened and reshaped to try to move traffic ever faster.
The Finns simply recognized the physical reality that the faster cars travel the more pedestrians and cyclists die.
“Low speed limits and safer street design can reduce speeding, but they won’t eliminate it. Enforcement plays a role too,” Zipper wrote.
“Helsinki has installed around 35 automatic cameras to catch speeders, with those clocked up to 20 km/h over the limit receiving a 200-euro fine in the mail,” he said, and the ticketing system does have a unique twist:
“If a Finn is caught going more than 20 km/h over the posted limit, the resulting fine scales with the speeder’s income. Such tickets can reach eye-popping levels; in 2002 a Nokia executive was slapped with a 116,000-euro fine, equivalent to two weeks’ income, for driving his motorcycle 75 km/h in a 50 km/h zone.”
Finnish officials also seriously investigate crashes in that country, probing them in much the same way the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does airline crashes in this country. This compares to Anchorage investigations which are superficial and usually seek to find something a vulnerable road user might have done wrong to put himself or herself in a position where he or she got hit.
APD’s reaction to a 13-year-old being seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver on Brayton Drive, a designated city “bike route,” in October was that it was the kid’s fault for being there. It was left to his mother to try and track down the hit-and-run driver.
When 38-year-old Kasey Turner was run down and killed on the same road four years earlier, an APD spokeswoman blamed “visibility and road conditions” rather than bad driving for his death and explained to the ADN that “Turner was partially in the roadway and not on a sidewalk, and he was wearing dark clothing.
“Pedestrians should always utilize sidewalks or keep as far away from the main road as possible.”
Brayton has no sidewalks and along much of the road there isn’t much of any place to walk but on the shoulder. APD has never clarified what constitutes “partially in the roadway” and the driver of the pickup who killed Turner was never identified.
An APD spokeswoman said it is the department’s policy not to identify drivers because deaths such as that of Turner are mere “traffic” incidents.
Nothing in the assembly’s proposed ordinance does anything to alter these dynamics that make Anchorage so dangerous for vulnerable road users and Finland so safe.
And the one cost-free change proposed in the ordinance that might help a little is fumbled.
This is the so-called “Idaho stop” law now in place in some form in 11 states.
This law, simply put, allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and to treat red lights as stop signs. Idaho has had the law in place since 1982, and along with speeding travel on bikes, which has been shown to encourage more people to commute by bicycle which in turn reduces traffic congestion, the law appears to have reduced accidents.
“After Idaho adopted the law, bicyclist injuries from traffic crashes declined by 14.5 percent the following year,” according to the NHTSA. “In 2017, Delaware adopted a similar, limited stop-as-yield law, known as the ‘Delaware Yield.’
“Traffic crashes involving bicyclists at stop sign intersections fell by 23 percent in the 30 months after the law’s passage, compared to the previous 30 months.”
Idaho in 2020 counted 17 pedestrians and cyclists killed in motor-vehicle accidents, only two more deaths than happened in Alaska despite an Idaho population nearly three times larger than that of Alaska.
How could a law that loosens the control on bicycles rather than tightens it make roads safer? There is no definitive answer, but I can offer a couple of theories having ridden a fair bit in Boise, the capital of Idaho.
- The law makes traveling through residential neighborhoods on a bike a whole lot faster, which encourages cyclists to spend more time on relatively quiet streets than on busy thru-streets designed to speed motor vehicle traffic by reducing or eliminating traffic lights and stop signs. Lower exposure to motor vehicles is sure to lower the odds of colliding with one.
- Drivers have become conditioned to look out for cyclists in Boise neighborhoods because of the above situation and thus pay more attention to the road and drive at the slower speeds posted in residential areas, although how much slower is debatable given the city is littered with those signs saying “Speed Limit XX; Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.”
- Facilitating the use of bicycles for transportation encourages more people to take to the streets on bikes or increasingly on e-bikes, and more bikes on the streets help to further condition drivers to watch for bikes.
- Lastly, given that almost everyone in America who cycles drives at least some of the time, the higher number of cyclists – and Boise has a lot of cyclists – the more cyclists there are driving motor vehicles, and cyclists make better drivers, according to researchers.
The results of the research, according to a peer-reviewed study in Accident Analysis & Prevention, “suggest that cycling experience is associated with more efficient attentional processing for road scenes.”
This is a fancy way of saying that it is likely that when a cyclist gets behind the wheel of a car or truck, he or she remains conditioned to drive defensively as if survival depended upon doing so.
The Idaho Stop appears a sensible, simple and easily explained law, but the proposed Anchorage ordinance decided to mess with it, apparently to appease motorists.
Surprise, surprise. They are the majority of constituents, and many of them love to whine about bicyclists running red lights as if there was some comparison to motorists running red lights.
There isn’t. Motor vehicles running red lights kill other people, including people in other motor vehicles. Cyclists running red lights only risk killing themselves.
That said, here is the wordy, Anchorage version of Idaho’s pretty simple law:
“A person riding a bicycle on the roadway facing any steady red signal, which fails to change to a green light within 120 seconds because of a signal malfunction or because the signal has failed to detect the arrival of the bicycle, shall have the right to proceed subject to the rules stated herein. After stopping, the bicyclist shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in or near the intersection or approaching on a roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time such bicyclist is moving across or within the intersection or junction of roadways. Such bicyclist shall yield the right-of-way to vulnerable road users lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk and to other traffic lawfully using the intersection.”
Now I’ve been riding a bicycle in Anchorage for a long time.
Back when I was living on the Hillside, I used to somewhat regularly make a 15-mile commute to the Anchorage Daily News building near Merrill Field either on a bike or by running.
I was at the time the outdoor of the state’s largest newspaper, and given that job it was a sensible idea to stay in good physical condition because much of the serious outdoor recreation in Alaska – hunting, climbing, mountain biking, hiking and more – is strenuous.
Those years of riding taught me a lot about Anchorage drivers. I was hit twice by drivers turning right on red – one got me with a wing mirror, another with a trailer – before I learned that while waiting for a red light to change, it is best not to stay seated on your bike with one foot on the curb.
It’s much better to hop the curb onto the sidewalk where you are less likely to get hurt, though I did have a trailer once come close there, too.
I learned that you should never enter an Anchorage intersection on a green light if there is a car waiting at the red light because the odds are good it is preparing to make a right turn on red, and nine out 10 drivers are concentrating on the traffic to the left and never glance to their right to see if the road is clear.
I learned this very same problem exists on the many bike trails limited to one side of the road in Anchorage. If you’re pedaling in the direction the traffic flows, those trails are generally safe. If you’re going against the direction of traffic, beware any driver preparing to pull onto the street.
I learned that tinted windows are a cyclist’s nightmare because you can’t see where drivers are looking, and if the car blocking the trail in front of you is turning right while you’re going against traffic, you better knock on the fender to get the driver’s attention to avoid being run over.
I learned that you can stand for a long time on a bike at some Anchorage stop lights because they don’t detect bikes, and they are programmed to keep the main street a green light until some other “traffic” comes along. Thus, you have to get off the road and push that walk button which will, eventually, change the color of the light.
I learned that there is a reason many cyclists call those white lines defining bike lanes “murder strips,” and I learned some motorists take great offense when you pass a long line of traffic in a bike lane on the right. These motorists sometimes try to show their indignation by later passing you as close as possible on down the road to “teach you a lesson” of some sort although I’ve never figured out what that lesson is supposed to be.
I learned that when it comes to bicycles and traffic, APD is not your friend. When I was hit at a red light 20 years ago, or maybe more, and reported it to police, a nice patrolman stopped by the ADN to take my statement.
I was banged up, and the bike was a mess. But I wasn’t seriously hurt. I explained what had happened: I rode into a crosswalk on a green light and ended up on the hood of a car running a red, then rolled off and watched the car speed away. I gave the patrolman a description of the vehicle.
He then explained to me that he’d be happy to take a written statement, but if I supplied one the first thing he would have to do – “have to” mind you – would be to cite me for riding a bike in a crosswalk, something that was then illegal in Anchorage. I was then unaware, and the law was later changed.
Why it ever existed, who knows? How many people were aware of it? Probably not many. “Had to” cite me for violating it?
Well, of course. This had to is why it takes an APD officer an entire day to drive across town because he or she “has to” stop just about every block or two to cite a speeder. I am, of course, joking. But if APD “had to” cite every speeder going 10 mph or more over the limit on Northern Lights Boulevard on any given day, it would take all day to drive from East High School to Minnesota Drive.
Anyway, with all this history behind me, I’ve spent some time testing Anchorage’s proposed 120-second stop at various intersections around town. On Saturday, I arrived at a red light at C Street and Dowling Road headed southbound with no east-west traffic in sight.
I stopped and punched my watch. About 60 seconds later, the traffic that had been held up at the Old Seward and Dowling intersection to the east started showing up. There was no break in that traffic until the light turned green and the “Walk” sign came on.
Fortunately, I’d kept an eye on C Street where a driver had pulled into the lefthand turn lane and immediately put her head down to consult her phone. When the light went green, she looked up and started her left turn.
I don’t know if she had a flashing yellow or a flashing red for a turn signal, but I do know that neither are supposed to trump the “Walk” sign. I put up my hand and started waving at her, at which point she finally noticed me and flipped her hand up palm facing forward to indicate I don’t know what.
“I’m sorry,” maybe? Or, “it’s OK; I’m going to slow down and let you cross even though you’re slowing me down while I’m going about my very important business.” Or possibly “Never mind my driving, I really need to check my email while I’m on road.”
I suspect that if I hadn’t waved and instead just proceeded into the intersection, there was a good chance I would have ended up on her hood.
On down C Street, I hit green lights at the next two intersections – Raspberry and 76th Ave. – and arrived at a red on Dimond Boulevard in time to watch some kid who couldn’t have been more than eight years old, alone on a bike, try to navigate that intersection recently “improved” with the addition of right-turn “Y”s that increase the amount of roadway in which cyclists and pedestrians are exposed to being hit by motorists.
The odds at the time looked pretty good that the kid, who was hard to see given his size, might get hit at the right turn lane on the east side of C Street, but he was smart enough to stop for the cars at the Y that didn’t yield as supposedly required by law.
I learned I’m glad I’m not a kid in Anchorage. I learned I’m glad I grew up in a different time when kids could ride their bikes anywhere and didn’t have to wait for their parents to take them to a safe-riding space because the roads were so damn dangerous.
On Sunday, my experiment was with the light at the nearly always busy intersection of Abbott and Elmore roads. I punched my watch. There were two perfectly safe openings to cross within the 120 seconds, but by the end of that wait, the openings were gone, and I stayed until the light changed before riding down Elmore and noting how studded tires and snow plows have wiped out most of the bike lane symbols and the white lines along that roadway.
The new proposed ordinance is big on white lines – and green ones, too! – apparently unaware of how they are in the winter covered with snow along roads like this and by spring have been wiped out by graders and studded tires.
If assembly members wanted to do something useful, they could get out on the streets now and paint some new lines instead of drafting an ordinance big on ensuring safety with paint and regulating things like “cycleways” that don’t exist in Anchorage at this time and likely never will.
Given the fumble of the Idaho stop, in fact, about the only “improvement” over the present in the proposed new ordinance is the suggestion that the municipal traffic engineer “may (“may,” mind you) erect and maintain signage along public ways to notify operators of motor vehicles of the requirements (of not less than three feet) for passing a vulnerable road user from a safe distance as required by this section.”
Given all the times I am passed by motor vehicles less than three feet away, it would appear few in Anchorage are aware of this law. But then that might have something with how little it has been enforced since it was written a decade ago.
I asked APD several times last year how many citations had been issued to motorists for close-passing cyclists and never could get an answer. The Alaska Court System was more helpful.
The clerks there were able to find seven citations written for illegal passes on the left in Anchorage since 2011. None of them, however, cited the section of the municipal code that covers bicycles.
The vulnerable-road user safety problem that exists in Anchorage is clearly not going to be fixed by writing even more laws that won’t be enforced. And given the history of APD, the only time the 120-second rule would be likely to come into play is after a cyclist or pedestrian was killed at an intersection.
Then, the agency could use intersection video cameras to show the vulnerable road user waited only 118 seconds before entering the intersection and getting hit. Thus it is the vulnerable road user’s fault and never mind that the car that hit him or her was accelerating to 70 mph on a 35 mph road because the driver thought the light was about to change from yellow to red.
That said, in fairness to the assembly, Anchorage’s politicians aren’t behaving much differently than the pols in many other cities. Plenty of them want to talk about safe streets but few actually want to do what is necessary to create safe streets.
Because the real problems making American streets unsafe for vulnerable road users – especially for kids – are systemic and attitudinal, and those kinds of problems aren’t easily fixed.
They require slowing down people so always in a hurry that “road rage” attacks have become an American norm. And one cannot expect many American politicians to have the courage to take on road ragers.