Championing Vulnerable Road User Safety in Boise, Idaho

On Sunday, November 10th, the Idaho Statesmen published, “Cars overtaking bikes big cause of cyclist deaths,” a story detailing the growing safety concerns for vehicles overtaking cyclists. According to the author, David Lightman, in 2017, 806 cyclists died in incidents with vehicles nationwide, and in 2018 the death toll jumped to 857. “Three cyclists died in crashes with motor vehicles in Idaho in 2017, according to the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD). Also that year, a cyclist was injured in a crash every 40 hours ITD said,” Lightman wrote in his article.

According to a recent study published by the National Transportation Safety Board, drivers overtaking cyclists is the leading cause of death amongst cyclists. Boise, Idaho, known as the city of trees, has been rapidly growing with no shortage of locals and newcomers opting for transportation methods outside of motor vehicles. However, there is an increasing number of cars on Ada County roads, endangering the Vulnerable Road Users (VRU) walking, biking, and scootering along the city’s streets.

Championing VRU Safety in Boise, Idaho

As a life-long bicyclist, everything about the activity was important to me. I was aware of the local bicyclist safety groups and wanted to get involved. I saw my current position open up, hesitated for a moment, and then went straight to working part-time out of my spare bedroom. I worked two other jobs until I was qualified to apply for grant funding to become full-time. I’ve spent a lot of long hours out on Idaho’s roads as a non-drive since then, and because of what I have witnessed firsthand, I have become a fierce advocate for road safety.

I am dually passionate about the safety of pedestrians as I am for bicyclists because, contrary to belief, far more pedestrians die each year than bicyclists. According to the CDC’s Pedestrian report, “In 2016, 5,987 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the United States. This averages to one crash-related pedestrian death every 1.5 hours. Additionally, almost 129,000 pedestrians were treated in emergency departments for non-fatal crash-related injuries in 2015. Pedestrians are 1.5 times more likely than passenger vehicle occupants to be killed in a car crash on each trip.”

Identifying Top 3 Safety Issues & Their Hurdles

Throughout the time I have spent on the roads of Ada County, collaborating and learning from others heavily invested nationally, and internationally with Vision Zero, I’ve identified the top three VRU safety issues we face locally and debatable national wide:

  1. Our roads are owned and managed by a highway District whose mission is to move motor vehicles. They aren’t involved in land use or livability, so we have tension between the district and the city’s view on roads.
  2. We live in a culture of high car usage. People don’t even think about how they could travel without their cars. We have to change this, and get people to realize that walking and bicycling are about freedom, saving time, improving your life, being healthier, and ultimately happier as well.
  3. We have wide-open spaces in the west, so land is abundant. Our City/County planning reflects this, which forces people to drive. We need to plan more “communities” where we can walk to the store, walk our kids to school, and walk or bike to work. We must think differently, more now than ever.

These, among others, prompted me to start the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance, a statewide 501(c)3 nonprofit, to promote active transportation to be healthy, safe, and reliable for all Idahoans. As bike safety continues to be a growing problem, that appears to be getting progressively worrisome, local advocates are continuing the crusade for safer conditions for cyclists and those traveling Boise’s streets.

How Idaho’s Impacted by Poor Road Safety

Every year, over 6,000 people in the U.S. go for a walk and never return due to fatal injuries sustained from being hit by a vehicle. Sadly, this number is on the rise, and Idaho’s statistics are no different:

In 2017, 19 people were killed by a motorist while walking. Three bicyclists were also killed. That is 21 families destroyed by an entirely preventable death. And 118 people were seriously injured in motorist vs. VRU collisions.

The type of injuries sustained from those accidents will prevent those people from ever living healthy, normal lives again. Many of them will statistically need medical assistance for the rest of their lives.

Many of us are unaware of the damage these accidents inflict because we never hear enough information surrounding these crashes. So, we all move on with our lives as if their injuries and lives are just the collateral damage of the convenience our transportation systems offer. I find this heartbreaking and perplexing at the same time.

What is the most concerning VRU vs. motor vehicle trend you’ve seen?

The number one trend I have seen lately is motorists drive too fast and don’t pay attention. And unfortunately, every single one of us is guilty of this behavior. When it comes to judging bicyclists’ actions, it’s much easier to do because bicyclists are not hidden inside steel cages like motorists are. Just because we don’t see motorists’ bad behavior doesn’t mean they are right to quickly judge bicyclists when they do something considered in the sphere of “bad behavior” on the road.

I encourage us all to take a step back from the situation, see both sides, and be less hasty in our judgments of one another. Because what we are doing now, hating bicyclists’ bad behaviors without looking at both sides of the coin, isn’t helping us improve the safety of our roads. If individuals/organizations feel there are issues not being addressed, take action, and get involved. Call an advocacy group, and offer to help, promote, or sponsor if you wish for change to ultimately happen. Advocate for the separation of our roads facilities, so bicyclists and motorists no longer have to share the streets. Vision Zero cities and advocates need our help with this arduous task, here in Idaho and everywhere else across the country.

Decreasing Vehicle Dominance on Our Roads 1:1

According to Idaho’s Driver Age and Crash Involvement report, “Drivers, ages 19 and under, were involved in 2.1 times as many fatal or injury traffic crashes as expected. This age group comprised 5.9% of all licensed drivers and accounted for 12.5% of drivers in fatal & injury crashes. Drivers, ages 20 to 24, were involved in 1.6 times as many fatal or injury crashes as expected. Young drivers continue to be over-involved in crashes.”

In a perfect world, I would take everyone, especially our younger drivers, bicycling so that they can experience how dangerous our streets are outside of cars, and how convenient it is not to use a motor vehicle to get to every destination around town.

It is liberating to ride up to a restaurant, lock your bike directly out front and simply walking inside, instead of having to drive around looking for parking. People don’t realize how easy and quick traveling without a car can be until they experience it firsthand. People forget how great walking and bicycling instead of driving would be for staying healthy, warding off diabetes, weight control, and other chronic diseases. People don’t know how much of a stress relief walking, and bicycling can be for your body at the end of the day, not to mention how much it drastically improves mood before even stepping in the door.

If we could help more people to understand this and encouraged others to take ownership of the part we all play in the problem, we’d advocate together for better planning, improved infrastructure and changes in policy, and be successful.

On March 3rd, 2020, the Boise city council passed a hands-free ordinance, which will be in effect this June 2020. Before June, the Boise Police Department will begin education efforts with traffic notices, billboards, and issuing warnings to distracted drivers to spread the word about the ordinance (Nina Schaeffer, Boise Bicycle Project).

In other news, on Thursday, May 21st, 2020, the Idaho Walk Bike Summit is being held at the Idaho State Capital. The Summit is a one-day event featuring Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas as a keynote speaker, with panel discussions, workshops, mobile (walk and bike) tours, meet and greets, among others. 

Register today to join fellow advocates, transportation professionals, city staff, health experts, and many others for a day of learning, networking, and connecting. We hope you can join us!

Special thanks to Cynthia Gibson, Executive Director at Idaho Walk Bike Alliance, for your contribution to the PRECO blog and for your continued efforts in road safety. 

About Idaho Walk Bike Alliance:

Our mission is to promote walking, bicycling, and other forms of human-powered transportation as healthy, sustainable, reliable and viable options for all Idahoans. My job is to fundraise, build membership, network, write grants, thank our donors, follow important transportation legislation, and be a voice for bikers and walkers throughout Idaho to feel safe while commuting.