Time to Modify Houston’s Infrastructure and Put Pedestrians at Less Risk

by Terry Bryant

With more people and vehicles in Houston, it’s little surprise that our community is one of the most dangerous places to be a pedestrian. In 2014, the latest year for which numbers were available, almost 4,900 people nationwide were killed by cars while they were walking, an average of 13 each day. That same survey – conducted by Smart Growth America – a coalition of advocacy organizations – placed Houston as the 15th most dangerous city for pedestrians.

Houston remains one of the top cities where a pedestrian is likely to get hit, especially when a vehicle is making a turn. Experts cite antiquated road design, but there’s also driver behavior.

Overall, Smart Growth America places much of the blame nationally on the way streets are designed, often with little thought given to how they mature in the face of population and transportation changes over the years. For instance, American traffic patterns were simpler and there were fewer vehicles on the roads when our city’s streets were first planned and developed.

Today, “many pedestrian deaths occur on streets with fast-moving cars and poor pedestrian infrastructure,” Smart Growth America said in its 2014 report. “People walk along these roads despite the clear safety risks — a sign that streets are not adequately serving everyone in the community,” the organization continued.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council of Local Governments (H-GAC) readily acknowledges this. But it also maintains there are other elements which cause more accidents – both vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-with-pedestrian. Alan Clark, Transportation Planning Director for H-GAC, observes, “Many of our roads were built for a whole lot less traffic than what we have today.”

An interesting point was made by a research engineer who said that many drivers in Houston simply aren’t in the habit of looking for pedestrians in crosswalks and other areas they are bound to be in. The increase in the number of people walking around the city is something that many just haven’t gotten used to, even at well-marked pedestrian crossings. Robert Benz, a Research Engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, says in a car-centric city like Houston, both a disregard for and looking out for pedestrians are acquired habits based on repetition.

“If you come up on an intersection every day and never see anybody, then you’re not going to expect them,” says Benz. “But if you come up to that same intersection every day and you always see a pedestrian, you’re going to be on the lookout.”

New (and Safer) Roads for Old?

When it comes to actual infrastructure and traffic flow changes that can make the streets safer for pedestrians, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has some interesting suggestions. One of the simplest and least costly methods it offers is to change signal light timing to give pedestrians virtually exclusive access to intersections. An IIHS study found that early release signal timing gives pedestrians a head start across an intersection before the light changes for vehicle traffic, and it reduces vehicle/pedestrian mishaps by almost half in areas studied by the Institute.

Another approach places more space between vehicles and pedestrians. An example would be adding “refuge islands” – raised medians between lanes of opposing traffic. They can reduce vehicle-pedestrian accidents at wider “boulevard” intersections, thereby making crossing safer, especially for elderly pedestrians. An IIHS study found that refuge islands reduce pedestrian accident rates by about half, regardless of whether the crossings are marked or unmarked.

Roundabouts (or traffic circles which create circular traffic and replace traffic signals and stop signs) have also reduced vehicle-to-pedestrian accidents. Two separate studies have reported reductions in vehicle/pedestrian accidents by about 75% after their conversions to the roundabout design.

Enhancing roadway lighting is another obvious way to improve pedestrian visibility, especially after dark. More than half of all fatal pedestrian crashes occur after sundown. At crosswalks where the lighting intensity has been improved, two studies revealed that crashes decreased by more than half.

If you or a loved one has been struck by a careless driver, you shouldn’t have to pay the costs associated with your injury. Contact Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law today to schedule a free consultation.