Rules of the Road

Police are ready if drivers, cyclists and pedestrians don’t learn to ‘Travel With Care’

Whether you’re in a car, on a bike or walking in Bellingham, you have to obey the rules of the road

City of Bellingham officials created this pedestrian safety video as part of a "Travel With Care" campaign to to reduce collisions between cars, bikes and pedestrians.
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City of Bellingham officials created this pedestrian safety video as part of a "Travel With Care" campaign to to reduce collisions between cars, bikes and pedestrians.

This week’s column is less of a question and more of a plea: Can’t we all just get along on our roads? I’ve received questions from drivers who are angry about cyclist and pedestrian behavior, pedestrians who are terrified of drivers and nervous about cyclists, and cyclists who fear for their lives because of drivers.

Many of you have sent questions asking about why a driver or cyclist or pedestrian would do ____. (Fill in the blank with the dumb action of your choice). I’ll continue to work through the questions, but for today I’d like to address a common question that often follows the first question: What are we going to do about it?

If you’ve read more than a few of these Road Rules articles, you’ve probably seen the statistic that 94 percent of all traffic crashes are caused by human error. There are two ways that those responsible for road safety can respond to that information; they can try to reduce errors made by road users, or they can try to design a transportation system that doesn’t have such severe consequences for people who make errors on the road. I’ll suggest that both responses are correct – one better suited for the short-term and the other for the long-term.

In the short-term, we try to reduce errors by focusing on what people in the traffic safety world call the “Three Es” – engineering, education and enforcement.

(Once someone comes up with a good idea, it tends to grow. The Three Es have grown to somewhere between four and eight, depending on who you ask. The additional Es are EMS – emergency medical services, evaluation, encouragement, equity and, no joke, everyone else).

At a basic level, the Three Es mean maintaining safe roads, teaching people the rules and penalizing road users who break the law.

In the long-term, it’ll take more than nicer roads, driving lessons and traffic tickets to eliminate or even substantially reduce traffic fatalities. After years of steady declines in traffic deaths, we’ve reached a plateau, suggesting it’s time to expand the Three Es. Unfortunately, I’m not too creative when it comes to alliteration, so instead of another E word, I’ll propose that we’re going to need to experience a cultural shift in our views of driving in order to end traffic fatalities. Cultural shifts take time, and we often don’t notice them until they’re substantially underway, but they have to start somewhere.

As an example of what’s being done, I’d like to point to a project the City of Bellingham has started. One traffic safety project won’t change our driving culture, but maybe we’ll look back and see that this was a starting point. Focusing on interactions between cars, pedestrians and cyclists, the “Travel With Care” traffic safety campaign relies on the short-term tools of education and enforcement, with a vision toward long-term change in how we see ourselves as road users.

Last spring our community experienced an unusually high number of serious crashes involving drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Rather than hope that crash rates just returned to normal, the city’s traffic engineers and police department decided to do something about it and developed Travel With Care.

You may have seen or heard some Travel With Care messages on the back of buses, before a film at the Pickford, on The Bellingham Herald’s website, on KGMI radio or other places in Whatcom County. If you haven’t seen these public service announcements, you can find them on the city’s website. The core message is that each of us, whether a driver, a cyclist or a pedestrian, can make traveling safer if we all make a commitment to watch out for each other. With a mix of voices from our community, along with a short video covering some traffic rules that we may have neglected, Travel With Care has addressed the education part of the three Es.

As a traffic safety guy, I always hope that people will embrace safe driving messages and become better drivers. But I also know that not everyone listens, and that’s where the enforcement part comes in. For those who aren’t inclined to learn the easy way, Bellingham Police officers will be offering the hard way. Beginning soon, the police department will be conducting emphasis patrols, focusing on intersections and other locations where drivers, cyclists and pedestrians cross paths. They’ll be looking for distracted drivers, drivers who fail to yield, cyclists running red lights, pedestrians crossing at unsafe locations and other behaviors that could result in a crash.

This is just one example in our community of people trying to make our roads safer. But it will take more than a local government to make changes – it’ll take all of us committing to safe driving. We’re in this together. Let’s travel with care.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.