Motorists use a turning lane to pass cyclists on a section of road without a bicycle lane during the South Flores Street lane removal protest, "Every Lane is a Bike Lane." June 4, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A jury ordered the City of Indian Wells, CA to pay $5.8 million to a local family who sued over unsafe bike lanes after a prominent neurosurgeon was killed while cycling the area in 2012. The family’s lawsuit asserted the city was partially liable for Dr. Gerald Brett Weiss’s death because the roads where he was riding were not safe for cyclists. The City removed a bike lane prior to the crash.

The case raises an interesting question for cities of all sizes: can municipalities be liable for building dangerous streets? The case could be particularly relevant to the City of San Antonio, which removed bike lanes from S. Flores in 2014.

Weiss, 52, was killed by an alleged drunk driver on Fred Waring Drive, a six-lane arterial road with a 50 mph posted speed limit. Though the road previously had bike lanes, they had been removed by the city and partially replaced with a 15-foot wide right-lane. The right lane narrows at the site of the fatal crash.

Fred Waring Drive in Indian Wells, Calif. was the site of a fatal crash in 2012.
This section of Fred Waring Drive in Indian Wells, Calif. was the site of a fatal crash in 2012. Image via Google Street View.

The jury found the city partially liable because the street design was inherently dangerous. Joseph Daniel Davis, the attorney who represented Weiss’s family stated “…if the roadway had been built with the 15- or 16-foot lanes that it was supposed to have under the law, then he would have never been in the car’s path.”

The City argued that the road was, in fact, dangerous, and therefore Weiss himself was responsible for his own death. City Attorney Joe McMillin stated Fred Waring Drive lacks bike lanes and street lighting, and because Weiss did not use an alternate route he was responsible for his own death. McMillin suggested state road CA Route 111 was a safe alternative.

The data suggests otherwise. From 1989 to 2013, 17 traffic fatalities were reported in Indian Wells. Fourteen of those fatalities occurred on CA 111 and Fred Waring Drive. Two of the three remaining fatalities occurred on Miller Avenue. CA 111 accounted for 47% of fatalities during this period, while Fred Waring Dr. accounted for 35% of fatalities. Combined, these two roads account for 82% of all fatalities in the city.

The claim Fred Waring Drive is dangerous is well supported by the data, but the claim by the city that CA 111 is a safe alternative is both inaccurate and ridiculous. The city’s argument is flawed, but so is the logic presented by the attorney for Weiss’ family.

Though Davis claimed Fred Waring Dr. would have been safe if the city had provided 15 t0 16-foot wide lanes, research refutes that claim. In “Narrower Lanes, Safer Streets,” author Dewan Karim provided a comparative study between the streets in Tokyo, Japan and Toronto, Canada. The study found urban streets with lane widths of 10 to 10.5 feet reduced both crash frequency and crash severity. Tokyo’s fatality rate of 1.29 per 100,000 population is exceptionally low for a major metropolitan area, and can be partly explained by the more frequent use of safe lane widths.

Another important design aspect within urban areas is the type of street network. The study”Street Network Types and Road Safety: A Study of 24 California Cities” found correlation between two measurements of street network design and safety. The study examined safety in relationship to the number of route choices between destinations (link-to-node ratio) and block length (real intersection density). The safest cities studied had average traffic fatality rates of 3.1 per 100,000 population, while the less safe cities had average fatality rates of 10.1 per 100,000 population. Traffic fatality rates in Indian Wells and San Antonio are similar to the less safe cities.

The study found the safer cities had denser street networks, meaning more route options between destinations and shorter block lengths. Block length had greater significance to safety than the number of route options. Interestingly, crash frequency was similar between streets with either long or short blocks, but streets with short block (480 feet or less) were strongly associated with fewer severe injuries or fatalities. Streets with blocks 600 feet or longer were the most dangerous.

The three most dangerous roads in Indian Wells, based on fatalities from 1989 to 2013, are CA 111, Fred Waring Drive and Miles Avenue, respectively. Average block lengths are greater than 2,500 feet on CA 111; 2,400 feet on Fred Waring; and 1,800 feet on Miles.

Research suggests these three roads would be dangerous, and historical data demonstrates they are in fact dangerous. Contrary to the consistent messaging by transportation agencies and recommendations by the attorney for the Weiss family, wider lanes would not make Fred Waring Dr. safe, just as wider lanes and bike lanes have not made CA 111 safe. The solution is not wider lanes and fewer intersections, but slower speeds enforced naturally by the use of narrower lanes and more intersections.

As noted by the Government Accountability Office in a recent Congressional report, “Pedestrians and Cyclists: Cities, States, and DOT are Implementing Actions to Improve Safety,” traditional road design practices that accommodate high speeds increase risk for people who are walking and riding bikes. Crash data also shows high speed roads increase risk to motor vehicle occupants.

A street in the King William Historic District that doesn’t have fast traffic or bike lanes. Photo by Kevin Barton.
A street in the King William Historic District that doesn’t have fast traffic or bike lanes, but traffic is calmed by narrower street width. Photo by Kevin Barton.

The risks associated with urban roads designed for high speed traffic, including injuries, fatalities, and now civil claims, are relevant to San Antonio. A large body of literature provides evidence that straight roads with wide lanes and long blocks that prioritize traffic flow and mobility over safety kill and injure people;the courts are now acknowledging that relationship.

Not surprisingly, the roads commonly labeled as the most dangerous in San Antonio are not so dissimilar from those dangerous roads in Indian Wells. Lane widths, block lengths and other design elements that make for high design speeds are codified in San Antonio’s Unified Development Code and the TxDOT Design Manual. These documents implement state and local government policy and result in a growing network of roads with high design speeds, the same type of road judged dangerous in Indian Wells.

Year after year, crashes in San Antonio that result in serious injuries and fatalities are concentrated on the roads that were designed for high speeds. The most dangerous roads in San Antonio were, and continue to be, purposely designed for high speed even though the association between speed and crash severity is well accepted.

The site of a fatal bike crash on West Commerce and Murry streets in San Antonio. Photo by Kevin Barton.
The site of a fatal bike crash on West Commerce and Murry streets in San Antonio. Photo by Kevin Barton.

Research and data show high design speeds with wide lanes, long sight distances, and long blocks are linked to more injuries and fatalities. The defense that a high speed road is obviously dangerous to cyclists and therefore should only be used at the individual’s own risk did not hold in Indian Wells. A deeper examination of the history of traffic fatalities in Indian Wells shows that the roadway design that was at least partially to blame for Dr. Weiss’ death is also a factor in 94% of all traffic fatalities in Indian Wells.

The decision in Weiss’ case may have wider implications. It could be argued dangerous street designs also contributed to the injury and death of motor vehicle occupants in Indian Wells. Further, the decision in Indian Wells may be tested in other cities with transportation policies that prioritize mobility over safety, cities such as San Antonio.

Indian Wells suffers on average one traffic fatality per year. A single traffic fatality in 2013 cost the City $5.8 million in civil damages. On average, San Antonio experiences 150 times the number of traffic fatalities in Indian Wells each year. Redesigning dangerous, high-speed roads will be expensive. But if the legal argument that prevailed in Indian Wells can be successfully applied to San Antonio, not redesigning our roads could be far more expensive.

*Top image: Motorists use a turning lane to pass cyclists on a section of road without a bicycle lane during the South Flores Street lane removal protest, “Every Lane is a Bike Lane.” June 4, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick. 

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Kevin Barton

Kevin Barton is an Associate Professor-Professional Track in Computer Information Systems at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. A retired USAF Chief Master Sergeant, his experience living in Asia, Central...