streets

A group advocating for safer streets in Northern Virginia has created a map documenting the number of near misses experienced by pedestrians and bicyclists in the area.

“Each year, more than 40,000 people, the population of a small city, are needlessly killed on American streets and thousands more are injured,” is the opening statement that one will read when they go into the “Why it matters” section of the NOVA Families for Safe Streets website. This small, but growing, organization seeks to educate and advocate for policies which will create safer streets not just for drivers but for pedestrians and cyclists in Northern Virginia.

Started in 2017, the organization began in Alexandria after founder Mike Doyle got hit by a car in 2016. Doyle, an investment banker in healthcare technology by occupation, went through three years of neurological therapy to recover from a car hitting him at what he was told was 10 miles per hour but may have been significantly faster if it was able to put him in need of recovery for so long.

During that time, Doyle founded NOVA Families for Safer Streets which has grown from covering the streets of Alexandria to those in Arlington and Fairfax County. Since then, the organization made progress in getting the message out by meeting with local officials, meeting with the public at farmer’s markets to hand out educational pamphlets, and taking their message down to Richmond to make themselves heard.

“I just want to help people to stay safe, I don’t want to see somebody go through the experience that I went through. If we could change things for the better it would justify what I went through,” said Doyle.

NOVA Families now has a resource for the public to report and record instances of near misses and fatalities due to vehicles going too fast on the roads. Together with the Virginia Tech Graduate School of Urban Planning, the organization has created an online map driven by reports crowdsourced through testimonies from the public as well as corroborating reports from local authorities. All this information put together give NOVA Families the data that they need to prove their point, that street safety should be a greater priority than it is currently.

“The map was done as a capstone program for graduate students at Virginia Tech,” said NOVA Families volunteer Philip Kemelor. “We got together with Dr. Tom Sanchez, he and his class of 10 students helped us put together this map where people can report these instances and give us what we need to be data driven.”

Another key element to their goal is NOVA Families’ advocacy of Vision Zero, a multi-national road safety project that seeks to create changes in policy that could create safer streets and prevent serious injuries and fatalities due to road traffic. Started in Sweden in 1995, Vision Zero has gained ground in several countries including many cities and localities in the U.S. 

According to Doyle and Kemelor, Alexandria discussed adopting a multipronged program similar to Vision Zero that would make engineering changes to city streets and bike lanes to make them safer.  While Doyle and Kemelor praise Alexandria for taking such steps they also realize that similar efforts may be harder in Fairfax County and through no fault of the county itself.

Unlike cities such as Arlington and Alexandria, which have the power to shift budgets and change speed limits on their own, Fairfax must consult with the Virginia Department of Transportation since they maintain the roads going through the county and must be involved in such decisions. 

But VDOT tends to have a different take on how to create safer traffic conditions than what NOVA Families would prefer, instead of slowing commuters down they tend to get them to speed up. As an example, Doyle and Kemelor point out the use of VDOT’s “85 Percent Rule” when judging speed limits. 

According to the pair, the rules require VDOT to post a speed at or below which 85 percent of drivers observe in order to minimize accidents and promote a uniform flow of traffic. The end result is that speed limits tend to go higher which doesn’t gel with NOVA Families’ idea of street safety. VDOT’s metrics for such a change rely on the level of service, volume of traffic, and how many cars can get through, which the organization points out are not enough to ensure safe streets.

Doyle and Kemelor emphasize that these do not take into account pedestrian crossings, especially those uses who may have light physical impairments. The pair point out Route 1 as an example to this idea referring to its local nickname as “The Killing Road” where the crosswalks don’t give enough time for pedestrians to cross before the lights turn green and lead to potential near misses and fatalities.

The pair also mentioned a planned expansion of the route that could potentially exacerbate the problem of mistimed crossing lights for all pedestrians.

NOVA Families are continuing to gather data for their map and encourage residents to take a two-minute survey which can be found on their website novasafestreets.org

“The more data we have the louder our collective voices can be to make a change for safer streets,” said Doyle and Kemelor.

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