1st Vulnerable Road User Ordinance in State of Georgia

fullsizeoutput_2b86.jpegThis is the Pardo family. I crossed paths with them while Traveling at the Speed of Bike in our metro-Atlanta suburb-city of Dunwoody, Georgia, USA this past Saturday. They were struggling to get places safely for lunch. I thought of them as I watched* City Councilor Tom Lambert’s passionate speech last night at Dunwoody City Hall about the Vulnerable Road User (VRU) Ordinance that he and the chief of the police department, Chief Grogan, are proposing. If passed (and it’s looking good), it would be the first VRU ordinance in the State of Georgia, and, in fact, the first for any city in the southeastern United States.

Tom gave me permission to publish his speech in its entirety here on this blog. It is one for the record books, folks. (See at the very end of this post for the actual verbiage of the VRU first-read draft; I’ll add the video of Tom’s speech, captured from the online streaming record of it, once accessible.)

Please feel free to share this near and wide. FYI, City Council and Mayor Shortal’s response to this was very positive, with mostly practical questions about implementation. The big takeaway was a collective desire to encourage our neighboring cities, and the State of Georgia, to adopt a VRU ordinance as well. (Note: Georgia Bikes, a statewide advocacy nonprofit, has been working on this at the State Capitol** for several years, so maybe the time is now ripe.)

Councilor Tom Lambert is a nationally-recognized Safe Routes to School expert, and an original member of the Sustainability Commission (which was the first commission appointed just two weeks after the City of Dunwoody became what was then the newest city in the USA on December 1, 2008.) He participated in the Ride to Lunch with the Mayor event during this past National Bike Month. (If interested, see my post about that, with video, here.) Here is his speech proposing the Vulnerable Road User Ordinance for the City of Dunwoody, Georgia, USA:

I would like to talk to you tonight about our proposed Vulnerable Road User ordinance. I apologize in advance if I go on a little long, but I think it is important for everyone to know why this ordinance is necessary, what it entails and what it is we intend to achieve.

One of the consistent messages we routinely hear from our residents is that they want Dunwoody to be a bicycle and pedestrian friendly city. But to do so requires more than words and wishes — it takes action. To truly achieve this goal, our city has a responsibility to make the conditions on our roadways as safe as possible. Unfortunately we live in one of the most dangerous states in the nation for pedestrians. Georgia is one of just 5 states (Arizona, Texas, California, Florida being the others) that account for 46% of all pedestrian deaths in US In 2018, there were 130 pedestrian deaths in GA (32% increase vs nationwide increase of just 3%). And before we try to blame this on population growth and more cars being on the road, it is important to note that this is happening at a time when traffic fatalities are actually declining. In response to this disturbing trend, Jonathan Adkins, the Executive Director of the GA Highway Safety Association said, “It’s clear we need to fortify our collective efforts to protect pedestrians and reverse this trend.” So now the question becomes…how do we do this?

Infrastructure is one obvious answer. Our city has committed to improving our bike and pedestrian infrastructure by investing in multi-use trails, sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes and other safety initiatives. And while infrastructure is an important component of creating safer streets, it only goes so far. To begin with, getting all the necessary infrastructure in place requires both time and money. Despite our best efforts as a city, only 10% of Dunwoody’s roadways have bike lanes and just 23% have sidewalks. Let’s look at that from the other side. This means that 77% of our roadways do not have sidewalks, and 90% do not have bike lanes. Let those numbers sink in for a moment. What are we doing as a city to account for the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and others in these circumstances, which account for the overwhelming majority of our city’s streets?

But even where we have all of the appropriate infrastructure in place, it is still not a guarantee of safety. Let me provide you with two recent examples which served as the catalyst for this ordinance. One involved a middle school girl walking home from track practice earlier this year. While crossing the street in a crosswalk, she was nearly struck by a car attempting to pass a stopped vehicle. The other was a jogger, again crossing the street in a crosswalk. Unfortunately in this case, the jogger was struck and seriously injured by a car turning into a side street. In both of these cases, the appropriate infrastructure was in place and being used properly by the pedestrian. In both cases, the pedestrian was following the law and doing what they were supposed to do. So what went wrong?

In both of these cases – and so many more like them – it boils down to one thing. Driver Behavior. And while identifying the problem was quite simple, the answer to correct it was not readily apparent.So how do we positively change driver behavior to make our roadways safer? The first thought was a Public Education campaign.I brought this up at our council retreat in February, and requested we launch it in August to coincide with “back to school” season, when we see a natural increase in pedestrians and bikes on the streets with kids walking and biking to school. Jennifer and our communications team created and launched the city’s “See and be Seen”campaign, and they did a truly outstanding job. If you haven’t seen it, I highly encourage you to look it up online. But let’s back to February, to have the greatest impact on dangerous driver behavior, I knew we wanted to take things a step further, but to be honest I wasn’t quite sure how.

Around this same time, I was approached by Joe Seconder and Jason Metzger who were working towards achieving Bike Friendly Community designation for the City of Dunwoody. We had a meeting, and while brainstorming ideas the concept of a VRU ordinance was first mentioned. This caught my attention, as it seemed to be the missing piece to our safety puzzle that I had been looking for.

Joe provided me with some useful links and resources, and off I went to research this idea. The more I researched this topic, the more I was convinced this was the solution we had been looking for.

So lets talk about our ordinance. In crafting Dunwoody’s VRU ordinance we had certain goals. We wanted to fill some of the legal gaps and ambiguities that currently exist in Georgia law, We wanted to educate the public and promote public awareness of this issue, We wanted to address and correct dangerous driver behavior using both education and deterrence, And we wanted to provide our police department with an additional tool for enforcement.

So lets start with existing Georgia law. While it is true that Georgia has laws on the books designed to protect certain VRUs, those laws are often vague or ambiguous. For Example, although Georgia code calls for a minimum of 3 feet for passing, it says “when feasible,” leaving that decision largely up to the discretion of the driver. Our ordinance would require 3 feet for safe passage at all times, removing that grey area and greatly improving safety. Other portions of Georgia law can be confusing or even contradictory, For example, as drivers we all know it is illegal to cross the solid center line of a roadway, so what is a driver to do if space does not exist to allow for providing safe distance to pass while not crossing the center line? Our ordinance clarifies this by not only allowing, but requiring, a driver to “vacate the lane”when there is insufficient room in the lane to pass at a safe 3 foot distance – greatly improving safety and hopefully removing any confusion as to what a motorist should do

So lets talk about driver behavior. At the risk of over-simplifying things, I believe driver behavior falls into two basic categories, and our ordinance addresses both. As you might expect, I did receive a couple of emails this week from people who oppose this ordinance.

I sincerely respect everyone’s opinion, and I read the emails and considered their arguments. But to be honest, after reading them I was even more convinced of the need for this ordinance because the reasons they listed for opposition represent the mindsets behind the behavior we are aiming to change. I’d like to read a small portion of two emails to illustrate what I mean:

“Maintaining 3 to 6 feet clearance when passing a bike or runner is often practically impossible. A car could hold up traffic behind it indefinitely on a crowded roadway while waiting for the opportunity to safely pass a bike with such clearance.”

This email I believe represents the majority of the dangerous behavior on our roads — .drivers that I believe want todo the right thing, but do not for any variety of reasons, which may include misinformation or a simple lack of information. You see this all too often on the roads, someone trying to sneak through when a safe passing distance does not exist. These drivers may not act with bad intentions, but their actions have potentially devastating results.

And then we have the next level of driver:

“Instead of making laws against drivers, make them against bicyclists. Don’t like it? Then go ride in a park. Stay off the bigger roads. You’re no match for a vehicle.”

This is the type of driver that believes they own the road, and that is likely to buzz a bike rider or throw a soda out the window at a jogger to try and send a message. I want to believe that this type of driver is in the minority, but sadly they do exist. Clearly this is a far more dangerous attitude, and the reason we feel it is necessary to include section (b), which targets aggressive behavior. This is also why we have included enhanced penalties in our ordinance to hopefully act as a deterrent for this dangerous behavior.

And when deterrence doesn’t work, we will move on to enforcement.

As I just mentioned, this ordinance has enhanced penalties attached to offenses. But the intent of this ordinance is not to be punitive — it is to educate and change behavior. Toward that end, at the discretion of a judge, those penalties may be reduced or dropped if the offender successfully completes a court-mandated driver safety or pedestrian awareness class.

That last email I read tried to categorize this as an “anti-driver” law, and nothing could be further from the truth.VRUs also have a responsibility to obey applicable traffic laws and look out for their own safety. The affirmative defense section of our ordinance spells that out, so that both motorists and VRUs understand the appropriate and expected behavior of VRUs under different roadway conditions.

I am proud that our city’s leadership has never flinched when confronted with an issue regarding public safety. Chief Grogan and his team have built a world-class police department that truly protects and serves this community. We recognize that little else matters if those that live, work and play in our city do not feel safe. And our city council has consistently reinforce that commitment by supporting and investing in our police department. When our EMS service and response times fell below an acceptable level, we declared an EMS emergency and took decisive action to remedy the situation. Because we recognize in a life or death situation, every second matters. We have recently updated our building codes to enhance fire safety measures with the clear intent to save lives. And now we have our VRU Ordinance, which addresses a very real public safety issue that touches all of us. Perhaps more exciting, this will be the first such ordinance not only in the state of Georgia, but in the southeast region. Dunwoody has the opportunity to send a very clear message that we do not compromise when it comes to issues of public safety. We have an opportunity to demonstrate our leadership, to blaze a new trail, and set an example that I hope will be followed by other municipalities throughout both the state and region.

I have already mentioned that I have done a lot of research on this subject. And that research has taught me a great deal. The most important lesson I learned is that there is a common thread that connects every existing VRU ordinance in the country. Each and every VRU ordinance was enacted as a response — a response to a fatality or series of fatalities in that area. Mr. Mayor and Council — We need to learn from this. We cannot afford to wait until there is blood on our streets. Look around the room. We cannot wait until someone – someone possibly here tonight – loses a friend or a neighbor. We cannot wait until someone’s spouse or someone’s child winds up in the hospital or the morgue. It’s our responsibility to take decisive action to ensure Dunwoody’s streets are safe for all users regardless of their chosen mode of mobility. We have before us tonight an ordinance that I am confident not only makes our roads safer, but that can also save lives. And I implore each and every one of you to have that front of mind as we deliberate this topic.

I am reminded of the following Public Service Announcement from several years ago, and I am proud of my city for taking a regional leadership position to improve safe-access-for-all before our first ghost bike is necessary.

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Thank you to everyone who has been involved in trying to help Dunwoody City Hall see the roads from our life-and-death point-of-view, with a special shoutout to all who participated in this campaign (which included citizens, a city founder who is still serving as a city councilor, and a local business owner) six years ago:

This has been a long road. But perhaps we are finally turning the corner.

* I attended “virtually” via online streaming because of the dangers inherent in getting to Dunwoody City Hall on bike, even with BikeNoodle. See videos of bike riding in Dunwoody, Georgia, here. See Chapter 3 (Pedaling as Fast as I Can), Chapter 6 (Noodle Lady), and the Epilogue in my book, Traveling at the Speed of Bike for more rubber-hits-the-road insight into this city-at-a-crossroads. 

** I sent this post as an email to my state senator prior to my participation in Bike Advocacy Day at the Capitol to advocate for a statewide VRU in 2017. (I did not hear back.)

Below is an embedded PDF of the First-Read draft of the ordinance. (That doesn’t always work on a phone, so either try it on another device or try this link.) It looks pretty certain like the 6-feet-passing for trucks will be reduced to 3 feet for any passing motor vehicle. There are a couple of other tweaks happening prior to Second Read on October 7 (during Biketober).

 

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