Assessing safety for the most vulnerable road users

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A pedestrian navigates a busy street
Flickr photo by Eric Allix Rogers

Beginning in November of 2023, Vulnerable Road User (VRU) safety assessments will be required as appendices or addendum to Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSPs). While the goal of these assessments is to strengthen the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), recent federal guidance falls short on addressing dangerous road design.

In the United States, pedestrian deaths by vehicles are  at an all-time high, rising more than 50 percent between 2010 and 2020. Change is needed—in road design, in policy, and in policy implementation. Thanks to the highly touted 2021 infrastructure law, there is funding available for improvement, but only if states are willing to budget for safety.

Since 2005, states have been required to set safety measure targets. These targets are intended to help states monitor their progress on road safety, but they face two central issues. First, states can set rising fatality targets—so if fatalities go up, they’ll still be considered “on track.” Second, states don’t face any significant penalty for failing to meet a target. In other words, a state can set a goal to have more traffic fatalities than they had last year, and they face no punishment if traffic fatalities go up even higher than they expected. 

In October 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released guidance on requirements and recommendations for the Vulnerable Road User (VRU) Safety Assessment. The guidelines are meant to assist states in developing design-focused infrastructure improvements. In comparison to the more general requirement of measuring safety targets, the goal of VRU assessments is to specifically address reducing traffic fatalities and serious injuries on roads that are particularly dangerous for vulnerable road users.

While the guidance is a step in the right direction, limits on data requirements and potential funding streams to implement change will likely hinder the impact of the policy.

Connecting VRU safety assessments to traffic fatalities

The guidance requires states to analyze roadway characteristics in order to identify high-risk areas. Two of the roadway characteristics that must be reported are speed and roadway classification. (Roadway classification relates directly to speed—you’ll never see a freeway where the speed limit is 15 mph, and you’ll never see a residential street where the speed limit is 65.) These are important components of crash data, because the higher a vehicle’s speed, the more likely a crash will end in a fatality.

Watch Smart Growth America’s video on why safety and speed are incompatible goals.

The guidance also requires reporting demographic information—race/ethnicity, income, and age—of the population surrounding the crash area. Fatal crashes disproportionately impact communities of color, the elderly, and low-income individuals, but these impacts are often underreported. If collected effectively, states will be able to more fully consider not only where traffic fatalities occur but who the traffic fatalities impact. An additional category, disability, would further the effort.

In addition to the VRU safety assessment requirements, the FHWA recommends including data such as surrounding land-use patterns, the presence of sidewalks, and the presence of transit stops. These three data references speak to the importance of street design as it relates to pedestrian safety. For example, walking a mile to a bus stop along a busy street without sidewalk access is significantly more dangerous than walking a block on a wide sidewalk.

Projects for high-risk areas

The guidance requires states to propose projects to improve conditions faced by road users in high-risk areas. Complete Streets projects, for example, are proven to reduce safety risks for all street users—pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and transit riders. Another example of a project aimed at improving road safety for all users is a Road Safety Audit (RSA). The FHWA works with state and local jurisdictions, as well as tribal governments, to conduct RSAs. With guidance and the resources to back it up, jurisdictions do not have to figure out how to meet this requirement on their own.

What’s missing?

Roadway design has a clear impact on safety.  Factors like width, multiple lanes, traffic control at intersections, and the presence of crosswalks all play a part in whether or not drivers speed—and make fatal mistakes. Yet the current guidance does not require states to consider the layout of the road. 

This guidance also fails to provide direction on where to seek funding for safety projects after an assessment is conducted. For example, local public agencies have access to formula funds through the FHWA. States receive 60 percent of their federal highway dollars from the National Highway Performance Program (NHPP). This massive source of funds can and should be used to address designing roads for safety. The Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) is another readily available resource, comprising one quarter of the federal money sent to states.

However, these funding sources are often used for projects that make streets more dangerous. Stronger guidance would require states to prioritize funding projects to address the results of safety assessments and provide information on obtaining funding.

Vulnerable road users have the right to expect safety, but by ignoring key design elements, the guidelines fail to provide this. States need to critically assess infrastructure design flaws—and the extent to which they disproportionately impact vulnerable road users—so that funding can be directed towards necessary remedies.

The bottom line

The specific requirements set forth under the new guidance are an overdue upgrade in reporting on vehicle and pedestrian crashes. However, the guidance falls short by failing to require data collection on key safety factors. To address the ongoing crisis of roadway fatalities, states would benefit from more direction, including information on how to access and use their available funds to advance their safety goals.

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