Op-ed: Near misses can tell us as much, if not more, about road safety than crashes.
In the United States, there were 6,721 people killed while walking in 2020.
Cities use data on pedestrian fatalities and car crashes to help guide policy response, but these numbers are incomplete because they don’t include “near miss” incidents.
Close calls include situations where someone is almost hit, as you’d expect, but they also include physical or verbal altercations – road rage. Also called narrowly missed incidents, these experiences can be a shock to the mundane routine of our daily life and an awareness of the fragility of our physical body.
No matter how central close call experiences are to our daily lives, they are very difficult to measure, even though they are often recurring experiences. This means that a person may experience these events multiple times or these experiences may be concentrated at specific intersections/places. Either way, capturing these incidents can reveal patterns of safety issues and provide opportunities to address them before an accident occurs.
A 2015 study of local incidents finds that the experience of close call contributes to increased fear of injury and is a major barrier to getting more people to cycle.
Attempts to capture close call incidents may include self-reported experiences, a app-based crowdsourcing toolWhere artificial intelligence algorithms and video analysis using high definition traffic cameras. More and more cities are paying attention to the role of close call incident capture in proactively resolving security issues and establishing a mechanism report close calls. Innovative solutions to proactively capture close call incidents such as award-winning initiative in Bellevue, WA, has dramatically increased the time and ability to identify hazardous locations and strategies to improve safety.
However, not all cities have access to a network of street cameras and technology to capture and analyze close-up incidents. In many places, close calls are only recorded if they are in the presence of a policeman, and therefore most of these cities do not use close call data to shape policy. In my research in Houston’s Gulfton neighborhood, one of the densest and most diverse in a sprawling city, we explored multiple facets of security issues, including capturing close call experiences. Stressing the need to go beyond traffic analysis and official accident data, the to study sought to understand residents’ perceptions of safety and near-calls. On paper, Gulfton is walkable: the neighborhood is organized into a dense grid and there are sidewalks. And many first-generation immigrants and refugees arriving in the neighborhood rely on walking, cycling and public transit to get around. But we wanted to know what barriers prevent more people from using active transportation.
We worked with community leaders to develop and refine questions about safety issues, including whether they experienced or witnessed close-quarters incidents and accidents. We translated the questions into three languages (Arabic, Urdu and Spanish) and we did a neighborhood walking assessment with the residents. By capturing residents’ close-call experiences, we’ve identified significant safety issues in places like large apartment complexes and schools – some of the most dangerous places in the neighborhood.
Additionally, the trauma of losing some of its youngest community members to traffic violence become a significant barrier to walking to schools. Many parents may find this resident’s comment surprisingly familiar: “Cars are turning too fast around the corner or overtaking the stop sign and [drivers] don’t stop for buses or kids crossing.” For many others, even close call experiences may deter them from walking and cycling in the future. Understanding these experiences and recognizing that racism and racial bias in addressing security issues and active transportation infrastructure planning are essential as more and more cities invest in walking and cycling infrastructure to achieve the full vision of the new infrastructure bill.
Our communities should not live in fear that a bike ride in the neighborhood can become fatal. Near-miss data can and should be used to identify dangerous intersections, but people’s perceptions of safety are also valuable data that should be included when developing policy. In Gulfton, the assemblage of community leaders, school officials, residents, maps, data and public-private coalitions led to additional support for the establishment of the city’s Vision Zero policy and infrastructure projects to address security issues.
The understanding of safety should not be limited to the movement of vehicles. A multifaceted approach to solving safety issues requires understanding the many facets of safety experiences and recognizing that these experiences are only as valid as reported crash data can lead to. future investments that honor the authentic needs of communities. Therefore, any effort to ensure the safety of all users must also deliberately consider the alienating experiences black, brown, indigenous, people of color, as well as trans people in public spaces. We must aim for our streets to be inclusive by allowing different bodies and capturing their experiences to move through these spaces as an affirmation of their belonging to civil society.
Dian Nostikasari is an assistant professor of environmental science and sustainability at Drake University.