When we learned that Office of Traffic Safety ranked Beverly Hills worst among small cities for bike and pedestrian safety, we wanted to deep-dive the data* to understand how our city could do more to make streets safe. After digging into collision and enforcement data we come to the conclusion that city officials aren’t even trying to improve our low standing. The 36 bike-involved collision injuries reported to police last year even exceeds our 5-year annual average. Shouldn’t we be making progress in reducing the harm?
The Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) findings that we’re among the most dangerous small cities in the state for walkers and pedestrians. That should be a wake-up call to civic leaders. But evidently it’s not; our Traffic and Parking Commission seems to look the other way as the crash injuries pile up and enforcement efforts nosedive after summer peaks.
It can’t be simply ignorance. Our transportation officials know that OTS publishes year-end reports and fact sheets every year (including the most recent fact sheet for 2011) and even provides a handy, searchable database to put city’s figures into statewide context.So there is no shortage of data. Yet we make scant headway in reducing injuries and make not even a gesture toward improving our ignominious statewide ranking.
The good news is that fatalities are comparatively rare in Beverly Hills. Congested streets and short blocks mean lower prevailing speeds, and speed is the greatest contributor to traffic fatalities. But even moderate speed can injure, and our relatively high number of collision injuries – especially bike-involved collision injuries – should indicate a public safety problem.
Though Beverly fancies itself as “committed to being the safest city in America City” (according to our mission statement), City Council priorities suggest otherwise. There is make no mention of road safety in our city’s mission, for example, and nowhere is the reduction of road-borne harm mentioned as a priority. In Beverly Hills, ‘safest city’ means only crime prevention & investigation and fire response.
That’s bad news for pedestrians and those who ride a bicycle on city streets. As our BHPD’s 2013 year-end traffic report shows, nearly every week a bicycle rider in Beverly Hills files an injury report with the police. Rider injuries comprise 9% of all traffic injuries yet bicycles make up far less than 1% of all means of conveyance. Indeed one of the challenges to safe riding on Beverly Hills streets is that there are relatively few riders.
The disproportionately large representation of riders among those who are injured suggest we need to take action to make our streets safer. If riders have a tenfold (or more) chance of being injured than do motorists, for example, wouldn’t that suggest deploying lane markings and signage? Or perhaps posting a ride-safe webpage? Or making everybody aware that riders have a right to the road? Beverly Hills fails riders on all of these counts.
Nobody using our roads gets off easy. Year-end 2013 traffic data show that collision injuries serious enough to report to police average more than one every day in Beverly Hills. Three injured cyclists every month have to summon the police. And five or more pedestrians a month dial 911. And we’re just a 5.7 square mile city! We simply must not be not doing enough to ensure that our city’s safety priority extends to the street. At least that’s the story the data tell.
Every month the police department provides a monthly traffic report to our Traffic and Parking Commission. It is advisory to the council “in all matters which relate to parking and traffic,” according to the municipal code. The traffic report would seem to be an important input, and every month the commission receives an in-person brief from the department too. Per the code the commission should:
Advise and counsel with the transportation/engineering official and the police chief as to ways and means to improve general traffic conditions in the city; [and] prepare and coordinate with the planning commission, and recommend to the council for adoption, a comprehensive long range plan relating to transportation, traffic, and off street and on street parking in the city.
But the commission is generally incurious about the collision figures cited in the report. Rarely does it inquire about, say, the elevated and consistent rate of injury; discussion about the report overall is usually cursory, aside from a question about citation numbers; and never do commissioners offer guidance to the department about enforcement. That guidance is needed.
Let’s Take a Closer Look at Beverly Hills Traffic Data
The monthly traffic report provides a wealth of information about injuries including a breakdown by collision type (bike, ped, auto). The report also tallies hits-and-run (one is reported every other day in Beverly Hills) and conveys a wealth of data about offenses cited. This is crucial to oversight. Though the monthly report is year-to-date in format, the focus is often on only that month’s data.
Looking at the year-end data for 2013, we can see that auto collision injuries outnumber injuries from bike-involved collisions:
Now there are far fewer riders on the road than drivers, although we can’t say how many fewer with precision (that data is not collected). What’s clear is that riders are injured disproportionately more frequently relative to our presence on the road than are drivers. We’re much more likely – ten times more likely – to suffer harm relative to our fewer numbers on the street.
Collision injuries across all kinds of accidents are sustained much more often than they should be, of course. But what’s evident even from the tables is how much the figures vary month to month. Especially rider injuries: they varied from 1 to 6 per month (sixfold spread). Even auto collision injuries varied nearly as widely.
When we look at the yearly figures in a graph we see no obvious seasonal pattern nor any evident relationship to length of solar day.
We squint to see a late-summer downturn but neither collision type suggests a holiday dip. What is evident from the trendline is an over-the-year increase in auto collision injuries. Shouldn’t both auto and bike-involved collision injuries be on the decline?
Citations over the year are another matter, however, and enforcement does show some clear trends in 2013 – notably a clear and consistent peak in mid-year across all citation categories.
Unlike collisions, enforcement is the product of policy; it will vary with program implementation. And it can be influenced by changing political priorities, incentives, and manpower. For example, there is a pronounced mid-year peak in citations, which is even more evident in a graph of the data. Looked at another way, there is a pronounced taper at the beginning and end of the years. Could it be that motorists are simply violating the law less often?
So what does this suggest? Well, we see that speed violation citations show greater variability; and many more speeding tickets are issued during the summer months. Is that because tourists are easy pickings? Or is our city more concerned about tourist safety during summer months? We can’t know. We do know that we’re going after speeders more than other offenders. And that comports with anecdotal observations (traffic officers hide along our long northside streets waiting to nab a downhill racer). Likely speeding is a revenue-generating offense.
But what’s more disturbing about this data is that signal violators are not more of a priority. Anecdotally again, we see at every light change in Beverly Hills 1-3 drivers running the red light. And that trend seems to be getting worse; indeed there’s a sense of impunity to it… as if they won’t be caught.
The data suggest they should be confident: the police are simply not cracking down on red-light violators! That’s especially worrisome for riders because we suffer much more greatly in the event of a broadside. (We think it’s likely that this plays a part in pedestrian injuries too.)
Another class of citation shows an even more pronounced pattern of decline: hand-held cell phone ban citations. What started as a beginning-year priority dissipated and then sharply fell off after September.
That’s no accident so to speak: it reflects a sharply diminished law enforcement priority over the past few years.
From the chart it appears that the BHPD lost interest in issuing them. That’s unfortunate: we need to enforce the cell phone and texting ban. Especially given the danger to riders posed by distracted drivers. This is where the the longitudinal perspective is so valuable. Trends become apparent and enforcement priorities come into focus like no snapshot can suggest.
(Why the decline in enforcement? Don’t texting drivers present every bit the danger that they did in 2011 – the peak of citations in Beverly Hills? We bet it has to do with state funding for enforcement actions. We’ve got an outstanding request to OTS to find out whether Beverly Hills has applied for the available grant funds.)
The 5-year picture is also key to understanding that enforcement in Beverly Hills of all kinds of offenses has been on the wane. Look at the trends: every citation category except pedestrian violations (jaywalking) is on the decline. And why the sharp drop in 2012?
The decline in citations is evident across signed citations in general. Both patrol and traffic divisions have been laying off the enforcement it seems.
However, the one class of citation that has not decreased in frequency is the kind issued at red-light camera-controlled intersections. Our city licenses enforcement to the private Redflex Traffic Systems (Scottsdale, Arizona) which operates six red light cameras in the city. And they are prolific generators of citations – 16,469 this year alone. That’s just under our 5-year average of 17,318 annual red light citations, so there’s been no diminution there over time.
Indeed these automated ticket-writers are very consistent: there is no holiday or seasonal slack-off in ticket-writing, though an August slump suggests that fewer motorists may be running those red lights. But if drivers can’t stay out of the Reflex crosshairs (even though they know there’s a good chance of getting nabbed), doesn’t that suggest that actual traffic violations hold steady year-round? Just so happens that only the automated cop-on-the-beat keeps the enforcement mojo year-round, and year-over-year.
Now have a look at the 5-year collision injury trends. They have not declined in accord with state and federal figures that reflect collision safety gains. And pedestrians actually seem to have it worse.
One can’t help but think that more effective enforcement would depress the frequency of collision injuries in Beverly Hills. That should be apparent too to our Traffic and Parking Commission, which is charged to advise policymakers on traffic issues. But unfortunately the BHPD doesn’t provide year-over-year analyses nor ever create a graph for the commissioners. (Nor does a transportation staffer take up that slack.) Without illustrating these figures for the commission, how could they grasp the trends?
For its part, the police department doesn’t trumpet traffic safety. News releases (when issued) note the occasional crime and celebrity (“Assault Investigation Involving Celebrity Kanye West”) but reveal nothing about the department’s traffic safety priorities. Like the city’s vision statement, the department’s idea of ‘safe city’ seems to bracket out road safety. It simply doesn’t appear to be a focus:
We work collaboratively to fulfill our paramount duty: the protection of life and property, the prevention and detection of crime, the apprehension and prosecution of criminals and the relentless pursuit of justice.
But not the reduction of avoidable harm on the roads, evidently.
We plugged the department’s monthly data into a spreadsheet to show how trends unfold within the year and across the years. If our commission had this kind of picture, we think, our commissioners could begin to recommend enforcement priorities to suit safety needs.
After all, the funding is there. The California Office of Traffic Safety distributed $86 million in grants to localities with nearly $1.8 million of that (2%) going for ped & bike safety programs. Not peanuts but no comparison to the 50% of funding that went for alcohol-impaired driving enforcement.
Why isn’t there any progress on reducing the incidence of collisions in Beverly Hills? We have the data. The money is available. And our civic leaders say the right things about making our city “the safest city in America.” Why can’t we extend our public safety concerns to embrace road safety so that we may begin to address the nearly 500 collision injuries that occur annually in our 5.7 square mile city?
*Latest data available via state databases including SWITRS and FARS. One of the impediments to reporting timely traffic figures is the state’s very lagging collection and dissemination. Typically the SWITRS database is two years behind in tabulating injuries, for example.