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Bad data hampers pedestrian safety efforts

According to state records, Atlanta City Hall is one of the most dangerous places to drive in Georgia, maybe in the world: 7,066 car accidents were reported at City Hall over a recent three-year period.

The records overstate the number of accidents at City Hall by, well, about 7,066. And that’s the problem with the state’s records.

They’re too often wrong.

The faults in the data are especially troubling when it comes to accidents involving pedestrians — the focus of an inquiry by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the past several months. The AJC found that police reporting from accident scenes is uneven, which can make it hard to identify and address hot spots. This is at a time when the pedestrian death toll — 180 people died statewide last year — is the highest in more than 15 years.

In addition, Georgia does not have comprehensive measurable goals on pedestrian safety, nor is it clear how much the state spends to promote safer interactions between people and cars.

When her 6-year-old son Christopher Cook was killed in December crossing Old National Highway in South Fulton, Tamica Bryant grew frustrated after trying to draw attention to unsafe conditions along the road.

One woman had been killed and another injured there earlier in the year. A month after her son’s death, a man died after being struck on the road. Still, nothing seems to have been done to improve the road, she said.

“I think (the state) needs to pay closer attention to what’s going on,” Bryant said. “If we don’t say nothing, it’s going to keep happening.”

Why City Hall had 7,066 car wrecks

In an age when data-based mapping is standard on anything from restaurant locations to government offices to traffic patterns, the Georgia Department of Transportation doesn’t have the ability to accurately map pedestrian crash locations statewide. That’s because police agencies, the front-line data gatherers, report this information inconsistently to the state.

Some police reports map coordinates of crashes, while others don’t, making it challenging to identify specific locations of all the 1,719 pedestrian crashes the state reported last year. In some instances, the state database simply reported that a crash occurred on a particular interstate or roadway, such as Covington Highway in DeKalb County, without specific cross streets or map coordinates.

Accident data is uploaded from the officer’s patrol car or precinct office to a central computer and is then transferred to GDOT. If there is a hitch in any of those steps, the system may assign a default location. This is why Atlanta City Hall (55 Trinity Ave. SE) recorded 7,066 automobile crashes over a three-year period.

That’s just one of dozens examples of data collection problems in the GDOT system, according to Patrick Hall, a senior planner at the Atlanta Regional Council. This hurts state and local governments’ ability to find and fix locations with repeated pedestrian accidents.

“The more information we have, the more we know what solutions and treatments are appropriate,” Hall said. “There are many engineering treatments that are not appropriate for the situation. If you don’t know that, you go in with a solution where the treatment doesn’t work.”

GDOT Commissioner Keith Golden said the agency is aware of the data inaccuracies and has launched a program with the University of Georgia to fix the problems.

Still, Golden thinks the agency is doing a good job overall in promoting pedestrian safety and investing in projects that help make roads safer for those on foot. He said there’s a lot of emotion around certain pedestrian crashes, but the agency doesn’t set policy based on single incidents.

“Usually there’s a lot more contributing factors that you couldn’t have engineered in the first place,” he said. “Most of the things we have to do are systemic. We are looking at how can we approach it from a holistic approach as opposed to go chase that one, chase that one.”

After a sharp decline, fatalities on the rise

Georgia — and metro Atlanta, where many of the crashes occur — consistently rank low in national measures of pedestrian safety. The state had the sixth-highest pedestrian fatality rate in the country, with 23.1 deaths per 10,000 walking commuters, according to a 2014 bench-marking report produced by the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

The fatality rate for walkers in the U.S. has fallen by more than half since 1980. But there has been an uptick in recent years, and Georgia is among the states with rising fatalities.

Sometimes, pedestrians are to blame for the accidents that take their lives. The AJC examined police reports for DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton and Clayton counties and the city of Atlanta, and in several cases pedestrians were drunk, distracted or had disregarded traffic signals before a crash.

About 12 percent of pedestrian fatalities last year were on interstates, where people were never meant to walk. Usually the victims had exited their vehicles after a breakdown or a crash.

But there were far more cases in which the fault didn’t rest clearly upon the driver, pedestrian or the road design, but on some combination of factors.

In many instances, additional crosswalks, sidewalks, medians or pedestrian beacons might have saved lives, said Sally Flocks, president of a pedestrian advocacy organization called PEDS.

How much money, then, does Georgia devote to making those kinds of improvements?

GDOT’s Traffic Operations Administrator Kathy Zahul said that’s an impossible question to answer, because most pedestrian improvements are funded through larger road projects. For example, crosswalks or sidewalks are required whenever a new traffic signal is installed.

Five to seven years to make improvements?

Another unknown is how much local governments spend. Four out of 10 locations where pedestrians died last year occurred along roads that were not in the state’s jurisdiction.

It may sometimes appear that nothing is being done to fix a dangerous road, but the reality is that getting pedestrian safety projects off the ground can be a five- to seven-year process because of federal and state approval processes, said Byron Rushing, bicycle and pedestrian planner for the ARC.

Rushing would like to see state and local governments conduct road safety audits each time a pedestrian fatality occurs. These audits are only conducted now if a local government requests them; Rushing said local leaders may find that they can pay for a simple fix, like a lane restriping or a $10,000 LED-enhanced crossing sign, that addresses a problem far more quickly than the state can.

A national report this year gave Georgia a C-minus in data transparency after attempting to evaluate its spending on pedestrian projects in the 2013-2016 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.

States rarely do a good job of breaking out the cost of pedestrian or bicycle facilities within larger road projects, said Ken McLeod, who authored the 2014 report “Lifting the Veil on Bicycle & Pedestrian Spending” for the Alliance for Biking & Walking and the League of American Bicyclists.

“That definitely makes it difficult to see what the real investment is and what the real commitment to bicycle and pedestrian safety is,” McLeod said.

Safety upgrades are hard to track

Georgia’s records are available online only in PDF format instead of Excel format, making it hard for taxpayers to sort or add up pedestrian projects, said McLeod.

A dozen states made Excel spreadsheets available online for citizens, and an additional 20 provided them upon request. Georgia wasn’t one of them.

“Regular citizens should be able to know what their governments are doing and hold them accountable for what they say they are going to do,” McLeod said.

The position of statewide bicycle and pedestrian safety coordinator at GDOT has had high turnover and a year-long vacancy, part of the reason the state’s safety plan hasn’t been updated since 2008.

The department says, nonetheless, that pedestrian safety is a priority and it is collaborating with a pedestrian task force comprised of advocates, government officials and traffic engineers to find solutions.

“GDOT is extremely concerned that pedestrian fatalities have been on the rise when almost all other types of traffic fatalities have been going down,” Zahul said in an email.

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