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Risk manager: Road design, not speed limit, key to stopping pedestrian deaths

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(The Center Square) – To save the lives of bikers and walkers, the question facing local and state officials isn’t getting speed limits right, but getting road design right.

The difference between posted limits and how drivers actually behave can be the difference between life and death.

PennDOT’s Pedestrian and Pedalcycle Advisory Committee met on Tuesday to discuss the findings of its vulnerable road user report, a federally required study to suss out what areas are “high-risk” to non-drivers and why.

Jason Hershock, manager of PennDOT’s Safety Engineering & Risk Management Unit, explained that though pedestrians and cyclists are involved in less than 4% of traffic crashes in Pennsylvania, they are more than 15% of all fatalities.

Getting crashes and fatalities to fall isn’t done by only lowering speed limits.

“Most of our crashes occur at 25 mph speed limit zones,” he said. “The thought of reducing speed limits just down to 25 mph, that’s not going to do it.”

The problem, as he laid it out, starts with road design.

“We need to make changes to the roadway and force the speeds to slow down, posting speed limits is not enough,” Hershock said.

The second most-common zone for crashes were roads with 35 mph limits.

“Posting the speed limit at 35 does not make the road safer,” Hershock said.

Instead, “the context of the road” matters, he noted. Adding bump outs to narrow lanes, islands for pedestrians to stop at when crossing a street, and other changes that change the shape of the road and walkway play a significant role.

In his presentation, he noted lighting and curb extensions, restrictions on turns, high-visibility crosswalks, and school zone enhancements as potential ways to reduce fatalities.

“Do we have all these things that will actually slow traffic down?” Hershock said.

That sort of design, he noted, could go further in the long run to save local governments time and effort. Though some townships and localities could dedicate more police time to enforce traffic laws to slow down cars, not every municipality has the staffing or the funding to do so.

“A self-enforcing speed limit would be better,” Hershock said. “If you design the road to be driven at 25, you don’t have to worry as much about the enforcement side.”

Of particular note, he said, was that many high-risk areas identified in the report had school zones in them.

“It seems we could probably greatly reduce pedestrian and cyclist issues if we did some major school zone enhancements,” Hershock said.

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