In 2015, 102 people died in traffic accidents. As of Aug. 16, 41 people have died in 2016 on Austin’s roads compared with 63 as of the same date in 2015.
The Austin Police Department reported 1,263 traffic collisions in 2016 through July, compared with 1,230 as of the same month last year.
In May, Austin City Council adopted its first-ever Vision Zero plan that aims to achieve zero traffic fatalities through a variety of means, such as education, enforcement and traffic engineering. In September, the city will begin construction on the safety improvements in what Eric Bollich, managing engineer for the Austin Transportation Department, called the “first concerted effort” to address safety from an engineering standpoint.
“As engineers we’re always tasked with public safety,” he said. “Perhaps the life design of some of these streets is coming around where the city has changed, and it’s time to take a fresh look at that.”
In mid-2015, ATD began analyzing intersections citywide by examining crash data from the Austin Police Department. Staffers also looked at causes of the crashes, traffic volume, the severity of the crashes and if someone died.
“We took a look at locations where we thought an engineering solution could improve safety, meaning is there a problem based on the crash patterns, [and] could we modify the actual geometry of the intersection that would make a difference?” Bollich said.
The full list of about 30 intersections was narrowed down to five where re-engineering would enhance safety: Lamar Boulevard and Parmer Lane, Lamar and Rundberg Lane, I-35 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Cameron Road and US 183, and Slaughter Lane and Manchaca Road.
“At Lamar and Parmer we found a lot of rear-end crashes on northbound and southbound [Lamar],” Bollich said. “We think that has a lot to do with the way the intersection is designed where there’s nothing really slowing down a driver.”
The solution is to create smart right turns that modify raised islands to change the path for drivers turning right, Bollich said. Smart right turns will be installed on the northwest and southeast turns.
Farther north on Lamar, the city addressed two other safety issues. Staffers found the shopping center anchored by Wal-Mart was causing safety issues at the entrance and exit to Lamar, so in July the city installed a traffic signal. Near John B. Connally High School, a pedestrian hybrid beacon, or PHB, was added to aid students walking to school. Pedestrians may press a button on the PHB, and the signal will turn red to stop traffic and allow pedestrians to safely cross.
At Lamar and Rundberg, Bollich said the abundance of driveways and their proximity to traffic signals is causing turning conflicts, so the city plans to install raised medians on Lamar between Rutland Drive and south of Rundberg. The city will also install a PHB on Rutland and replace an existing PHB with a traffic signal on Rundberg near Lamar.
“That signal will help drivers better negotiate [turning] because now they [will not be able] to take a left onto Lamar,” Bollich said.
Two other focus areas in the Vision Zero plan are education and enforcement. Officer Jason Borne, a member of APD’s highway enforcement unit, said in his five-plus years with the unit patrolling US 183, he has seen drivers attempt a lot of “goofy stuff” while driving.
“We have this electronic device ordinance where you can’t be driving and have an electronic device in your hand,” he said. “Whether you’re using it to text, email, change a song, use it for GPS—it can’t be in your hand. That’s great, but it’s not illegal for you to be eating your hamburger, putting on your makeup [or] eating a bowl of cereal.”
Neither the city nor the state has any laws banning other activities that lead to distracted driving, Borne said. Officers have few enforcement options to tackle distracted driving that could lead to collisions, he said. In 2015, the Texas Legislature failed to approve a bill that would have implemented a statewide ban on texting while driving.
In a nationwide study of its drivers, State Farm reported 63 percent of drivers say they use their cellphones while stopped at a red light, spokesperson Jim Camoriano said. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 36 percent of crashes in the U.S. occur at intersections, he said.
Borne said many collisions, are caused by impatience and not leaving enough time to get to a destination.
“They’re all trying to save a couple of seconds of their day, and it leads to crashes,” he said.
In July the city of Austin began a push to educate drivers about distracted driving’s effect on congestion and safety at traffic signals, ATD Traffic Signal Engineer Brian Goldberg said.
The city has vehicle-detection sensors at about 85 percent of its traffic signals. These sensors detect when vehicles arrive at an intersection and need a green light, Goldberg said. But the issue he said he sees is when drivers arrive at a traffic signal they immediately begin doing something else.
“We want people to understand the signals are timed to help them get around a lot quicker and safer, but they need to do their part,” he said.