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Pedestrian-friendly road design law in Florida tied to fewer traffic deaths

(Reuters Health) — Pedestrian deaths have decreased significantly in Florida since the state implemented a law mandating roadway design that accommodates walkers and cyclists from the beginning, according to a new study.

Plenty of add-ons or fixes to existing roadways have been tried to reduce the dangers to pedestrians and cyclists, but so-called Complete Streets policies — laws requiring that the needs of non-vehicle users be incorporated when designing roadways — are less common, the study team writes in American Journal of Public Health.

Pedestrian fatalities have increased from 11 percent to 15 percent of all traffic deaths in the U.S. in the past decade, according to the Department of Transportation. In particular, the Sun Belt — the span of states across the South and West regions — has some of the most dangerous streets for people on foot or bike, the study authors note.

“While our conversations often focus on the problem, far more infrequent are discussions that focus on solutions and ways to prevent these deaths,” said lead author Jamila Porter of the University of Georgia and Safe States Alliance in Atlanta. “Complete Streets policies are one such solution,” she said in an email.

To assess the effect of a Complete Streets law implemented in Florida in 1984, Porter and colleagues analyzed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data on Florida’s pedestrian fatality rates from 1975 to 2013. They also compared Florida’s rates to the U.S. as a whole during the same period and to rates in 13 Sun Belt states that did not have a Complete Streets law as of December 2013.

They found that Florida’s statute 335.065 led to a significant reduction in pedestrian fatalities compared to other states. In the years after the law went into effect, Florida’s fatalities dropped by about half a percent more each quarter than in the whole U.S., and by 0.6 percent more each quarter than in the comparison group states of Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

That difference works out to an estimated 3,500-3,900 additional lives saved over three decades, the researchers write. In particular, deaths in Florida decreased the most among men and pedestrians between ages 20 and 49.

To see what helped or hindered the law’s success, the research team also interviewed 10 current or former Florida employees with experience working as urban planners, roadway design engineers, traffic managers or policy analysts and some role in implementing the law.

On the positive side, the sources noted, state policies that promoted speed limits, sidewalks and crosswalks helped the Complete Streets change to be accepted. In addition, adequate funding, leadership in transportation agencies and trained state and local transportation staff helped to make the policy change happen, they said.

At the same time, inconsistent state oversight and local accountability were barriers to implementing the policy once it passed. Some districts, cities and counties were able to design roads over the years that didn’t accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists well, for example. Similarly, rigid land use and zoning policies at the local level, as well as uninformed decision-making by elected officials and transportation staff, hindered the policy.

“State and local transportation agencies must address key barriers that can hinder the impact of Complete Street policies,” Porter said.

“Years ago, traffic engineers and planners were designing roads for cars with the objective of high-speed traffic, but now we’re going back and trying to understand how road design has affected fatalities,” said Robert Noland, director of the Vorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who wasn’t involved in the study.

In New Brunswick, Noland noted, officials have studied how to transform a main four-lane road into a two-lane road with a middle turning lane, which could slow traffic and reduce deaths by inserting more crosswalks and changing out old street lights.

“So much money has been spent studying this project,” he said in a telephone interview. “In the meantime, more crashes have occurred, and we could have made changes.” — Reuters