Politics & Government

Washington’s roads are becoming increasingly deadly for people who walk or bike, data show

If there is no bike lane, where should bicyclists ride?

The answer is a bit nuanced, but basically, bicyclists are really lucky: They get to act like pedestrians and they get to act like cars.
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The answer is a bit nuanced, but basically, bicyclists are really lucky: They get to act like pedestrians and they get to act like cars.

The number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed on Washington state roadways increased by 50 percent from 2014 to last year, from 82 to 123.

There’s a connection between those deaths and motor vehicle speed, according to data released by the state Department of Transportation.

Eighty-seven percent occurred on roads with speed limits of 30 mph or higher. The other 13 percent happened where the speed limit is 25 mph or less.

The WSDOT data — outlined in a quarterly publication which analyzes various programs — found that:

Traffic fatalities that claimed pedestrians increased by 42 percent — from 76 in 2014 to 108 in 2018. Pedestrian data covers individuals walking, in wheelchairs and on skateboards or scooters.

Bicycle fatalities more than doubled in that same five-year period — from six in 2014 to 15 in 2018, which is a 150 percent increase.

The number of serious traffic injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists increased 27 percent, from 421 in 2014 to 535 in 2018.

61 percent of fatal and serious injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists from 2014 to 2018 occurred on city streets, 27 percent on state routes and 11 percent on county roads.

Bicyclists and pedestrians who were killed or suffered serious injuries were “over-represented” in areas with higher poverty. About 44 percent of census block groups have higher poverty levels than the state average, and 59 percent of fatal and serious injury crashes occurred in those areas. The state said lower-income neighborhoods tend to have less infrastructure dedicated to walking and bicycling.

The Washington state data mirrors a nationwide increase in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, said Ken McLeod, policy director for The League of American Bicyclists, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.

“They often fit the same pattern of higher-speed streets. Often those streets lack good facilities for people biking-walking. For pedestrians, that might mean long walks without crossings. People have to walk half a mile out of their way to cross a busy street, and sometimes people will choose to cross a street where there is not a crossing,” McLeod said.

“You also have many high-speed roads throughout the United States that don’t have bike lanes, buffered bike lanes or separated bike lanes. The research is pointing more and more toward when you have higher speeds, you really need some sort of separation rather than just trusting everybody will behave properly.”

WSDOT is trying to reduce fatalities and serious injuries through several programs and projects, said Barb Chamberlain, the department’s director of the Active Transportation Division.

The department has convened a committee to study the link between motor vehicle speed limits and fatalities and serious injuries and expects to release a policy early next year. Proposals include reducing motorist speeds on state routes within town centers.

WSDOT also cited the Legislature’s approval of SB 5723, which was signed into law on May 13 by Gov. Jay Inslee, as part of an ambitious goal to reduce pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030.

The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, imposes a $48 fine if a motorist does not move into the lane to the left when passing a bicyclist who is in the right lane of a roadway, or the right-hand shoulder or in a bicycle lane.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, said the new law has a dual purpose to make roadways safer while fighting climate change.

“It’s great to try to get folks to ride bicycles to commute to and from work in a greener way, but if we’re not creating safe roadways, it’s kind of like speaking out of both sides of our mouths. It’s both about safety and eliminating roadway accidents and fatalities and also creating a greener form of transportation,” Randall said.

Washington is among a small number of states that have enacted “change lanes to pass” laws over the past five years, said McLeod, the policy director for The League of American Bicyclists.

“The reason those laws are so important is the fatality data shows the most common crash type is an overtaking vehicle,” he said.

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