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Suburban Streets in Columbus More Accident-Prone than Urban Streets

Walker Evans Walker Evans Suburban Streets in Columbus More Accident-Prone than Urban StreetsPhoto by Walker Evans.
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Last week, the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) released the latest list of the most dangerous intersections in Central Ohio. There were no major surprises with the 40 intersections that were called out as the most high-crash areas, but a deeper look at the data reveals a bit of an urban/suburban divide.

In fact, no Downtown intersections made the list, while the majority of the most dangerous intersections can be found closer to the city’s outerbelt than to the urban core.

“It’s not an unusual finding,” says Harvey Miller, Professor of Geography and Reusche Chair in Geographic Information Science at The Ohio State University. “If you look around at other cities, the accident-prone intersections are usually located in suburban areas, not urban areas. Suburbs generally see higher traffic volumes, higher speeds and more complex intersections — that’s where the accidents occur.”


Miller — who makes the disclaimer that he is not a safety expert but rather a researcher of human mobility and sustainable transportation — explains that the more complex the intersection, the more complex the geometry becomes for navigating the intersection in a car, and thus is more likely to see collisions occur.

“There’s an amazing number of ways that two cars can hit each other,” he says. “That why roundabouts are becoming more popular — because they reduce the geometric possibilities for two cars to collide.”

Andy Taylor, a Principle Planner at MORPC, says that the infrastructure of the intersection is only one factor that the study takes into consideration.

“It’s not just about the frequency of crashes, but also the severity,” he says. “So we’re factoring the number of fatalities and serious injuries in our report. So of course, we see that reflected with the facility of a higher-speed roadway.”

Chart via PEDS Atlanta.

Chart via PEDS Atlanta.

According to research completed by PEDS Atlanta, the risk of pedestrian deaths rises exponentially when the speed of the vehicle upon pedestrian collision rises from 20 miles per hour to 40 miles per hour. Two (or more) vehicles colliding together at higher speeds can also cause higher rates of serious injuries or fatalities at dangerous intersections.

“Generally, when traffic goes slower, the chance of a crash is lower and consequences of a crash are lower,” says Miller. “What may result in a fender bender Downtown could end up being a fatality in suburbs where traffic goes much faster.”

Miller says that posted speed limits do not always have as big of an impact as the psychological effects of the driving environment along roadways. For example, Broad Street is a wide roadway in its entirety throughout Columbus, but the density of the built environment through Downtown keeps drivers moving slower, more alert, and less likely to crash.

“The biggest influence on your driving speed is the stuff around the road — if there are more buildings, trees, and people, then physiologically, you’ll go slower,” explains Miller. “If those things are moved back away from the road, you feel like you’re moving slower, so you end up driving faster. When it’s very empty and you’re on the open road, it’s easy to hit the gas a little more.”

Taylor agrees with that concept.

“Downtown locations generally have lower posted speed limits, more pedestrians out, fewer driveways, more cross-streets and more signals, so drivers operate in a different context,” he says. “There are still crashes Downtown, but the severity is less by nature.”

While MORPC conducts the research to provide this data, Taylor says that it’s up to the various local and regional municipalities and transportation authorities to work toward solutions for better enforcement, education and infrastructure updates.

“We do like to use these studies as a starting point to look a bit deeper at problems, and our partner communities use it that way as well,” he says. “Some of the high-crash intersections on the same road would be part of a larger study where they can look at a whole corridor instead of just an intersection in isolation. The City of Columbus is already doing that for a stretch of Interstate 161, which has three high-crash intersections in close proximity.”

While the function and usage of different types of streets vary between urban and suburban areas, Miller says that one of the most important takeaways from these types of studies is that the danger of complex intersections is very real as a high-risk factor for suburban residents and commuters.

“There’s a general myth that suburbs are safer than cities because there’s less crime,” he says. “But if you look at the risk of injury or death and you include traffic accidents in addition to crime, the suburbs are actually more dangerous.”

The silver lining in MORPC’s report is that traffic collisions are trending downward, aligning with the overall national decline in vehicle miles driven over the past decade. According to MORPC data, the total number of regional crashes in the Top 40 list was 4,585 from 2009 to 2011, which dropped to a total of 4,375 from 2011 to 2013 — a 4.5% decline.

“There’s a lot of folks locally who tackle these issues through engineering, education and enforcement — trying different things to improve driver behavior,” says Taylor. “There are some positive trends in this new report, and we hope they continue.”

For more information, visit www.morpc.org/transportation/safety/.

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