Barry Watkins, 01 May 2017
I went down to Palm Bay and made some observations the other day at the scene of the fatal collision where 10 yr old Odyssey Charter School student Ander Grooms was killed while bicycling home from school. Here’s a link to a recent update to the story in Florida Today: http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/2017/04/22/few-patterns-brevard-youth-bike-pedestrian-crashes/100560106/ If you look at the streets around this area they are not all that bad in relative terms for bicycle and pedestrian safety. Right at this spot where the collision occurred however there are design issues that can definitely be corrected. Why don’t we take a closer look and learn all that we can from this tragedy?
The above picture shows the place where the collision occurred. The pickup truck was making a right hand turn coming out onto Eldron Blvd from the plaza parking lot. The student was approaching on his bike riding south, and crossed in front of the truck. The driver of the pickup never saw the child, ran over him as he pulled out, and dragged him under his truck 50 ft before realizing he had hit something.
Is there anything about the design of this street and the surroundings that could possibly be improved? If the street were designed differently could that have increased this student’s chances of surviving his bike ride home? I say yes. In another article about this same incident (http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/2017/04/06/childs-death-brings-tears-questions-palm-bay/100120004/) the mother of another Oddysey student is quoted as saying, “My daughter goes to the same school. She asked me what happened and she rides a bicycle to school also,”…”This is such a busy road. I pound it into her head every day to make sure she’s paying attention. But we have to pay attention also. People just fly down the street and there’s no sign. It’s always busy.”
The first thing I noticed when I looked at the place is that the speed limit posted here is indeed a safe 30mph! But does the design of the road here match the speed limit? No. North of the plaza parking lot Eldron Blvd is two lanes and is lined on both sides with street trees and has good sidewalks. All good things for encouraging lower vehicle speeds and good for pedestrian and bicycle safety. But next to the plaza it takes on standard suburban extreme car-dominated character. The design elements encourage higher than safe speeds and cause other problems that make things dangerous for people in cars, walking, and on bikes.
What are the main problems with this design and how could they be fixed?
- First of all, the lanes should be narrowed. Vehicle lanes on a 30 mph street ought to be 10 ft maximum. I didn’t measure them, but they look to be wider, probably 11 or 12 ft.
- The curb radii ought to be 15 ft. The radii at the corners near the scene are larger than that, maybe 25-30 ft.
- We can reduce the number of lanes at this section of street to 2 lanes. There are more lanes than needed on this stretch of Eldron and at the adjacent intersection of Eldron and Bayside Lakes Blvd. This stretch would be much safer with 2 lanes, but instead we have an unnecessary right turn lane turning into the parking lot from the south and on the south bound side we have a left turn lane into the parking lot that also is unnecessary.
- Street trees should be located between the sidewalk and the vehicle lanes. Street trees cause drivers to slow down and act as a barrier between the people using the sidewalk and the cars.
- We should reduce the number of driveways crossing the sidewalk. On this stretch there are 3 driveways into the Publix parking lot that cross the sidewalk in a very short distance. Reducing the number to 1 driveway would work just fine and would make using the sidewalk much safer.
The left turn lane down the middle of Eldron and the right turn lane into the Publix plaza on the north-bound side are completely uncalled for on this little 30 mph street. The effect is of course that people will “fly” through here. The wide lanes, large turn radii, additional lanes, and bad placement of the street trees communicate the wrong signals to drivers. When highway-scaled elements are present people will speed, whether they mean to or not, it’s a natural response to the street design! There are also, like I said above, more driveways crossing the sidewalk here than are needed. Minimizing the number of driveways is a great way to make people using the sidewalk much safer.
Why are the turn lanes present here? They were, when the road was built, I’m sure calculated by traffic engineers as “necessary” to accommodate the expected volume of traffic into and out of the commercial properties here during peak hours. However, if the safety of all users of the street were placed at the appropriate priority then things that might cause a delay or impede vehicle speeds at peak hours would actually be viewed as a good thing! Large curb radii are designed to accommodate delivery vehicles and fire trucks. Delivery vehicles however can be accommodated with small radii in several ways. Stop bars can be held back from the entrances just a little bit to allow the occasional truck to make a wide turn when necessary. Also, a short 2″ high curb can be used in some spots allowing larger trucks to safely hop the curb while still giving the advantages of the smaller radius for the majority of vehicles. A shorter radius slows vehicle speeds around the turn and also shortens the distance to cross the driveway at the sidewalk.
Did any of these design issues specifically contribute to this student’s death? Yes, I think so. Many of these issues likely combined to help make an incident like this more probable than it should have been. From what we are hearing the driver claims he never saw the boy riding his bike on the sidewalk and crossing in front of his vehicle. This means he was probably concentrating on looking for cars to his left and failed to pay attention to the sidewalk to his right. This happens all the time all over Brevard because our streets are too hectic and the vehicle traffic moves too fast. It’s much harder to look at the sidewalk when cars are speeding from too many directions in the vehicle-way. Another reason people don’t look at the sidewalks is because there just aren’t that many bicycles and pedestrians to usually give them any reason to pause. Our car-dominated environment is by nature a very unsafe place to ride or walk.
So what’s the bottom line? Do we care that this boy died here? If so, we need to stop and make changes that will save lives in the future. The changes I’ve mentioned above are low cost solutions. In the long run they would save money because of lower maintenance costs. This is often the case with safe designs vs over-engineered, unsafe designs. These recommended changes would not cause huge traffic tie-ups, but might cost vehicles a few second’s delay during peak traffic times. A really, really good reason to make these improvements is that they will help more 10 year olds to make the bike ride home from school alive!