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The rules of the road are changing, but not fast enough for everyone

Laura Keenan and her son, Evan, hold a photo of her late husband Matt Keenan, who was killed while riding his bike in San Diego in 2021.
Courtesy of Laura Keenan
Laura Keenan and her son, Evan, hold a photo of her late husband Matt Keenan, who was killed while riding his bike in San Diego in 2021.

Matt Keenan was an experienced cyclist. He knew the best bike routes around San Diego, and bought the brightest lights for his bike.

None of that was enough to keep him alive.

Keenan was killed by a driver who crossed over the road's double yellow line and hit him head on in the opposite bike lane. His wife, Laura Keenan, found out the next morning.

"I then had to get my 15 month-old son out of bed and tell him that his dad was never coming home again," she said.

That was over two years ago. Since then, Laura Keenan has become an advocate for safer streets. She's convinced that a better road design would have made a difference for her husband.

"Oh, 100%," she said in an interview. "I'm confident that he'd be alive if there was a protected bikeway, or if the street was designed to prevent cars from going deadly speeds."

Traffic fatalities in the U.S. are up sharply since the beginning of the pandemic — especially for pedestrians and cyclists. That's bringing attention to a previously obscure federal manual that's sometimes called the Bible of road design.

Since 1935, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices has set national standards for street signs and road design, with major revisions every decade or so. The latest version runs to more than 1,000 pages. And while the MUTCD doesn't get much attention outside of transportation circles, it has a major impact.

"It is the most important pedestrian safety document that you have never heard of," said Mike McGinn, the executive director of America Walks and a former mayor of Seattle.

First changes in over a decade

Safety advocates have been urging federal officials to make the manual friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists in the first major revisions to the document since 2009.

"The old version of the manual really reflected a prioritization of moving vehicles through the community fast, rather than the safety of people," McGinn said.

The public weighed in with more than 100,000 comments during the latest round of revisions, and federal officials say they're listening.

"We're trying to find the best path forward that prioritizes safety," said Shailen Bhatt, the Federal Highway Administrator.

"When we built the interstate system back in the 50s and 60s, the predominant thinking was how do we move cars and trucks," Bhatt said. Today the thinking has broadened, he said, to "a focus on moving people. And reflecting how these roads, streets and highways are also parts of the very communities that we live in."

Bhatt says the latest version of the manual includes some major changes that advocates wanted. For example, the bicycle section is twice as large as it was in the previous edition.

"I do a lot of cycling with my family, my two young daughters," Bhatt said. "We want to make bicycling safer."

Heavy traffic moves along a freeway in Chicago, Illinois, on November 21, 2023.
Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Heavy traffic moves along a freeway in Chicago, Illinois, on November 21, 2023.

A fight over the 85th percentile rule

Advocates were also pushing for major changes to how speed limits are set. They urged federal officials to get rid of the so-called 85th percentile rule, the standard that's often used to set speed limits at or below the rate that 85% of people will drive with open roads and favorable conditions.

Critics of the rule say it encourages traffic engineers to hike speed limits to levels that are unsafe, especially when pedestrians and cyclists are added to the mix.

The latest version of the MUTCD puts less emphasis on the 85th percentile rule — but doesn't get rid of it altogether.

"What we're saying is, yes, you need to look at the speeds that are on the roadway," Bhatt said. "But that is not the only factor. We want you to consider other factors as well: The context of the road, the other users of the road. Is there any crash history on the roadway?"

But that approach disappointed some safety advocates.

"It's a small step in the right direction, but there's a lot more that could be done," said Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "We know that speeding is a big factor in crashes, and we were really hoping to see them devalue that rule or get rid of it completely."

Bhatt defends the choice to keep the 85th percentile rule as a factor. He says the manual has to serve the entire country, not just urban and suburban areas where safety advocates are most focused.

"We got 100,000 comments. Some people said take [the 85th percentile rule] out entirely. Other people said, give us even more ability to solely use it," Bhatt said. "What we're trying to do with this document is to tell people that we're giving you some flexibility."

Safety advocates wanted more

Safety advocates worry that this approach makes it too easy for traffic engineers to stay with the status quo.

"It really has a powerful effect on traffic engineers who feel they have to do what the manual says, or they're putting their city at risk of losing money" through lawsuits if there's a crash on the road, said Mike McGinn.

Before he was mayor of Seattle, McGinn worked as a neighborhood activist, and says traffic engineers often used the MUTCD to block changes that safety advocates were seeking.

"My experiences as a local street advocate was being told by traffic engineers, 'sorry, you can't have that, the manual doesn't allow it,'" he said.

McGinn had also hoped the new manual would make it easier for local safety activists to request changes in their neighborhoods. "We wanted to make it a lot easier to get signals and crosswalks and the types of street design elements that would slow down vehicles," he said.

The latest revisions to the manual are a move in the right direction, McGinn said. But they stop short of what he and other advocates were hoping to see.

"We're looking at the greatest rate of pedestrian deaths that we've seen in decades right now," he said. "So it feels like that wasn't transformational enough."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.