By Heath Urie, Camera Staff Writer
Posted: 02/04/2012 06:46:04 PM MST
Boulder study sheds light on bicycle, pedestrian accidents – Boulder Daily Camera
Boulder’s flashing crosswalks are not the most dangerous walkways in the city, according to a three-year study that challenges some popular beliefs.
City officials recently completed the Safe Streets Boulder Report, an analysis of data from accidents involving vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians and skateboarders that paints one of the most comprehensive pictures to date of transportation safety in the city.
The report identifies the most dangerous intersections and crosswalks in the city, the most common types of accidents and the behaviors that caused them. The report was formed using information gleaned from accidents within city limits between January 2008 and April 2011.
Data from more than 8,500 collisions during that time sheds new light on Boulder’s transportation system that city planners, traffic engineers and police hope to use to reduce the number of roadway conflicts in one of the most bike- and pedestrian-friendly cities in the country.
One of the key findings of the report is that while crosswalks are the most common place for collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists, Boulder’s infamous flashing crosswalks are among the safest in the city.
Crosswalks of all types accounted for 44 percent of accidents involving pedestrians and 56 percent of accidents involving bikes. But of those, only 6 percent took place in a flashing crosswalk.
“We found that people are just as likely to be hit at crosswalks at intersections” as they are at flashing crosswalks, said Bill Cowern, a Boulder traffic engineer.
A 2010 Boulder study found that more than one-third of the crosswalks with flashing lights have led to higher rates of accidents. Cowern said that’s likely because there’s a learning curve for drivers and pedestrians and because more people started using the crosswalks.
He said the city removed the most dangerous flashing crosswalk — on Baseline Road just east of Broadway, now scheduled to receive an underpass — which has helped improve the overall safety record of the flashing walkways.
“Flashing crosswalks are now statistically more safe,” Cowern said.
Of the 15 intersections with the most accidents during the study period, only two contain flashing signs: at Baseline Road east of Broadway; and along 28th Street south of Iris Avenue.
Marni Ratzel, the bicycle and pedestrian transportation planner for Go Boulder, said there’s a general perception in the Boulder community that flashing crosswalks aren’t safe. She said the Safe Streets data should “dispel” those myths.
The most dangerous crossings
A majority of the most dangerous crossings in Boulder are centered around the University of Colorado. Four of the crossings on the list of the most conflict-ridden locations are along Broadway, adjacent to the CU campus. But the crossing with the most recorded accidents is at Colorado Avenue and Regent Drive on the north end of the campus.
A total of 11 collisions involving cyclists or pedestrians were tallied at the Regent crossing, according to the report. Ryan Huff, a spokesman for CU police, said he isn’t surprised by the findings given the volume of traffic in that area.
“It’s a main intersection, a main entry and exit point for us,” he said. “You have literally thousands of people coming through there every day.”
A recent CU study found that the crosswalk just south of the Regent intersection has some of the highest traffic on the campus, with up to 527 pedestrians, 57 cyclists and 950 vehicles passing through from 4:30 to 5:50 p.m. on a normal weekday.
In response, the university and the city last year installed an experimental HAWK (high-intensity activated crosswalk) light at the crossing, which turns flashing yellow, solid yellow and then red when activated by a pedestrian. Huff said he expects the light to reduce the number of accidents in the area.
But the safest crosswalks in the city, the report concludes, are those where the city has added special signs, raised right-turn bypasses or other treatments to increase driver awareness.
Bicycles vs. vehicles make up 6 percent of all traffic accidents in Boulder, according to the Safe Streets report.
At that rate, cyclists are about three times more likely to be involved in an accident with a vehicle than a pedestrian is.
“You’ve really got to pay attention,” said Jason Estes, a bike courier with Denver/Boulder Couriers who was making deliveries through the snow Friday morning.
By far, the most common danger to cyclists in Boulder is drivers making turns within intersections. Turning vehicles were the cause of 40 percent of all bike-vehicle crashes during the study period. In about 10 percent of the cases, a driver was making a right turn on a red light.
“That is a big deal,” Estes said. “There’s definitely times when people are looking to the left and start pulling out and I have the right-of-way.”
Still, Estes said, Boulder drivers are generally more aware of cyclists than in other cities where he’s worked.
“I think there’s always improvements to be made,” he said. “But Boulder, I feel, is a great place to ride.”
Lenore Sparks disagrees.
Sparks, a former Boulder resident, was seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver while she rode her bike in late 2008. Her nose and jaw were broken, and her face was permanently scarred.
“Boulder is by far the most dangerous city for cyclists, even more so than Guadalajara and Mexico City, within which I have comprehensive experience cycling,” she said.
The Safe Streets report shows that drivers were far more likely to be found at fault in accidents involving pedestrians or cyclists.
Among accidents involving bikes, the driver of the vehicle was cited 41 percent of the time, while the cyclist was only cited about 24 percent of the time. Neither party was ticketed in 31 percent of the cases, and both the driver and the rider were at fault only 4 percent of the time.
Skateboarders are among the least likely to be hit by a car, with just 11 accidents involving skateboarders during the study period.
The study also found that pedestrians darted out into traffic far more often than cyclists. People who dashed out in front of vehicles accounted for about 14 percent of collisions involving a pedestrian, but cyclists who illegally rode through a traffic signal accounted for only 2.3 percent of bike-related accidents.
The number of vehicle-on-vehicle accidents far exceeds any other type of traffic accident in Boulder.
The Safe Streets report tallied 7,866 crashes over 40 months. That’s about six traffic accidents a day and represents 92 percent of all traffic accidents in Boulder.
Boulder police traffic Cmdr. Carey Weinheimer said the number of vehicle accidents has remained “pretty flat” since about 2007.
He said the most frequent cause of traffic accidents in Boulder “by a long shot” is drivers who follow too close and rear-end other vehicles.
But when it comes to bike and pedestrian accidents, Weinheimer said the number of accidents overall is actually low. The Safe Streets report reaches the same conclusion.
“By several measures, pedestrians and bicyclists are not involved in collisions with motor vehicles as often as might be expected based on how often people walk and bike,” the report reads.
Weinheimer said the city has spent decades investing in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, which probably helps keep the number of accidents down. But, he said, all users still have a responsibility to keep their eyes on the road.
“No matter if you’re a bicyclist, pedestrian or a vehicle, just because you have the right-of-way, don’t assume it’s safe,” he said.
Age doesn’t matter
A potentially surprising finding in the report is that when it comes to who is involved in an accident, age doesn’t really matter.
In general, the Safe Streets study concludes that the ages of people who are involved in crashes are consistent with Boulder’s demographics.
The study did find that young bicyclists, ages 20 to 29, are involved in crashes slightly more often. Young drivers, ages 16 to 24, are involved in slightly fewer accidents than the city’s demographics would predict.
“The slight underrepresentation of 20-year-olds is due to the fact that, in general, those are a lot of CU students and they drive less,” said Chris Hagelin, acting manager of Go Boulder.
A slight spike in the number of accidents among 40-year-olds, on the other hand, is attributed to a higher rate of driving among that population.
Males make up a majority of all people involved in accidents in Boulder, according to the report. Two-thirds of the cyclists involved were male, and 58 percent of drivers in accidents also were male.
Most of the bicyclists involved in accidents — 84 percent — were Boulder residents, but only 53 percent of drivers were from the city.
Spenser Havlick, a member of Boulder’s Transportation Advisory Board, said he thinks the city does a good job of educating residents about traffic rules and safety issues.
“The education level, I think, is increasing,” he said.
He said challenges remain in reaching out to the revolving door of college students, and getting cyclists to wear helmets and use lights at night.
“We see far too many young people biking at night without reflectors,” he said.
City baffled by summer drop
The study also poses something of a mystery for city officials.
The report revealed — not surprisingly — that as the weather warms up, more people in Boulder take to riding their bike. But the study also found that the number of accidents involving bikes goes down in May, June and July.
Cowern, the traffic engineer, wasn’t certain why that is, but the smaller population of students over the summer could be part of the reason.
He also speculated that as the number of people on bikes reaches a certain point, drivers become so aware of them that behaviors change and accidents decrease. That’s a tantalizing theory for a city that prides itself on getting people out of their cars.
“If it is in fact true that our system would become statistically safer and safer the more people ride their bike, of course that’s extremely interesting to us,” he said.
The most accidents involving cyclists were reported in August and September. Pedestrians also were struck by vehicles more often in the fall and winter.
The report speculates the fall spike may coincide with the start of the school year.
The most dangerous time of day for both pedestrians and cyclists is generally between 2 and 6 p.m., according to the study.
Reaching out, writing tickets
In a little less than two weeks, the rules for how cyclists, pedestrians and drivers interact at certain locations will officially change.
The City Council approved new rules that will set a speed limit of 8 mph for cyclists as they approach, enter and traverse a crosswalk. Pedestrians and cyclists alike will be required to activate the flashing lights at crosswalks, where available, before entering the road.
The changes are part of the city’s “counter-measures” that are designed to combat some of the most common problems pointed out in the Safe Streets report.
And beginning this spring, the city will launch a campaign to “raise public awareness of the most common types of motor vehicle collisions that involve a bicyclist or pedestrian and the rights and responsibilities of drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians in crosswalks,” city documents show.
At the same time, Boulder police are planning to launch a “targeted enforcement campaign” at key intersections and crossings. The campaign will focus on intersections where collisions occur most often and on the behaviors that lead to collisions.
But Weinheimer, the police commander, said it’s a challenge to set up enforcement at crosswalks where only a handful of accidents happen every year.
“That’s what we’re going to have to look at going forward — what’s the best bang for the buck?”
Contact Camera Staff Writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328 or firstname.lastname@example.org.