Distracted driving (and biking, and walking, and scooting) kills. So why are cities turning streets themselves into distractions?

Distractions abound in this Santa Monica intersection. Tragically but unsurprisingly, barely two years after the project was installed the first fatal accident in decades occurred. Drone photo by Christopher LeGras

For the last two months the City of Santa Monica has been repaving Ocean Avenue. The relatively short stretch of road (it runs almost exactly three miles from north to south, turning into Neilson Way when it crosses into Los Angeles) is one of Southern California’s most iconic. It’s one of the places that attracts more locals than tourists, and on any given evening virtually any time of year you’ll see people gathered to watch one of the sunsets that Angelenos consider nothing less than a birthright (or at least one of the reasons we put up with the costs and inconveniences of calling L.A. home).

For much of the last month the street, which formerly was cluttered with bike lanes, bollards, curb extensions, and, ironically, some of the most poorly lit crosswalks in the county, has been a blank asphalt tarmac. This week the city repainted the yellow center lane stripes. Turns out that simple stripe, along with traditional crosswalks — two parallel white stripes — and turn lanes at intersections, are the only markings needed for a safe street. The less, the safer.

Consider: On that minimally marked tarmac there’s nothing to divert one’s attention from, well, the tarmac. Freed from green bike lanes separated by white stripes that often confusingly change appearance from one block to the next, massive “zebra” crosswalks that can actually make it harder to see pedestrians, other markings, and bollards, bollards everywhere, it’s easier to see that bicyclist or jogger two, three, or even more blocks ahead. The car backing out of a diagonal parking space, potentially edging into the traffic flow? Got ’em spotted well in advance.

Indeed, in its current form Ocean Avenue is one of the safest streets in Southern California. Driving, bicycling, scooting, or walking along an unmarked or minimally marked road reveals an unexpected truth: Cluttered with numerous, often conflicting “safety features,” our very roadways have become the biggest distractions and dangers to safe movement. It all needs a deep rethink.

Contrast that safe, distraction-free slab from the newly redesigned intersection at the street’s midpoint, the top of the California Incline, which appears to have been designed by M.C. Escher himself.

This confusing intersection is considered a “safety improvement” in Santa Monica. Note the bicyclist splitting the bike and pedestrian crossing lanes, upper center, and another using the dirt trail on the bluff — a much more pleasant place to ride in the first place. Drone photo by Christopher LeGras

Dozens of large bollards create “islands” blocking off much of the once-wide intersection altogether, along with confusing green bicycle lanes (that virtually no actual bicycle riders use; more on that in a moment), wide zebra crosswalks, and other street markings indicating — what, exactly, no one knows. The bicycle lane dangerously requires southbound drivers wishing to turn right onto the Incline to cross it in a tight space, with limited visibility, even as the bike lane itself crosses the turn lane as well. The bollards dramatically reduce maneuvering space for all road users to dangerously narrow acute angles, forcing drivers to make near 90-degree turns that come perilously close to other cars in the process. And notice how two different bike crossings converge on two pedestrian crosswalks at the corner in the upper left, literally a built-in safety hazard. Lastly, as is happening all over Santa Monica the green paint on the bike lanes fades quickly, further confusing everyone involved — some bike lanes are nearly invisible, yet still serve as bike lanes. Look at the lower center in the picture.

In short, it’s a hot, dangerous mess.

The ultimate irony: According to California Highway Patrol’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Reporting System (SWITRS, pronounced “swi-ters”) between 2010 and 2021, when the city began installing the many “safety upgrades,” the intersection saw an average of fewer than one accident per year. Between 2010 and 2020 there was only one accident involving a bicyclist, and in that case the rider was determined to have been at fault. There was also only one severe injury accident, in which a motorcyclist collided with a car and injured the driver.

In contrast, in the first two years of the “safety enhanced” intersection there have been eight accidents, five of which involved bicycle riders. That’s compared to seven total accidents and just one involving a bicycle in the previousl 11 years. Smudge marks and damage on the relatively new bollards suggest there have been even more minor fender-benders and scrapes than appear in the official data. So much for safety improvements; the design has proved to be a menace.

Meantime, observations confirm that many, if not most bicyclists don’t even use the dedicated bike lanes, preferring the pedestrian crosswalk, traffic lanes, or the existing dedicated bike trail along the Santa Monica bluffs literally twenty feet from the street bike lanes. During one 20-minute period two weeks ago we counted approximately 287 cars, 35 pedestrians – and seven bicycles, of whom four avoided the bike lanes. Yet the intersection has been designed specifically to accommodate the mode used by virtually no one (and most of the bicycle riders are clearly out for exercise or recreation, not commuting). And still bicycle-involved accidents are up significantly. No one is benefiting from the redesign, absolutely no one.

The Incline is not the only example. In late 2019 Santa Monica installed a road diet on a seven-block section of Broadway. Tragically, in July 2022 there was the first fatal accident on that stretch in at least 20 years. Ironically, the victim was a pedestrian. Like bicycle accidents on the new, supposedly bike-friendly Incline, accidents involving pedestrians on 17th hit a 12-year high with four, while the overall number of accidents matched the previous record of nine. Finally, there were multiple bicycle involved accidents for just the third year out of the last 12. And, again like the Incline, virtually all the new features, including bollards and permanent concrete islands, are scuffed and damaged, in some cases within days of installation.

At this point, the only surprise is that there have not been even more accidents and injuries. The ultimate irony is that the stated justifications for the road changes is that there are no such thing as traffic “accidents.” Instead, there are “crashes” and “collisions” that are the result of road designs that cater to cars; therefore, we must redesign the roads to engineer out the dangers. Except precisely the opposite is happening, across Santa Monica and nationwide.

In 2015, former L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti launched “Vision Zero,” which promised to eliminate all traffic fatalities (a practical and mathematical impossibility, but that’s another discussion). That year there were 74 pedestrian fatalities on L.A.’s streets. Even though that was the second lowest number in a decade it was enough for the mayor to declare a public health crisis. In 2016, Vision Zero’s first full year, pedestrian fatalities spiked by more than 40%, to 115. The following year they increased even further, with 135 pedestrian deaths. In 2022, seven years into Vision Zero and with traffic volumes still reduced by COVID, pedestrian deaths had more than doubled to 153, a 25-year high. With traffic returning to normal it’s likely 2023 will set another heartbreaking record.

It cannot be stated often or loudly enough: Vision Zero is killing people.

Activists and bureaucrats offer a litany of alternative explanations for the sudden, sharp rise in pedestrian fatalities, none of which is convincing. Anyone who thinks distracted driving is a recent development never saw 16-year-old Christopher sailing down Highway 101 in northern California in his VW Golf in 1991, munching on a Big Mac as he flipped through his CD case while changing the disc in the Sony Discman on the passenger seat, skipping to the desired song, and adjusting the radio volume, all while driving a stick shift and steering with his knee. They never saw the legions of dot-commers in the late 1990s and early 2000s texting on their old fashioned flip phones at 70 mph, completely zoned in on the tiny screens and buttons. Likewise, anyone who thinks that legalized marijuana and relaxed enforcement of drug laws are main culprits should read up on the long history of inebriated driving (and riding, and charioting, and etc.). If distracted and drunk driving were the culprits we would expect to see a long, continuous, relatively consistent increase in accidents and death over years and decades. Instead, from New York to Fairbanks, it’s the proverbial hockey stick, correlating directly with Vision Zero programs.

Washington, DC’s Vision Zero has been as deadly as L.A.’s

Finally, the last explanation is that cars have gotten bigger. I’m sorry, but anyone who thinks a modern SUV with computerized anti-lock brakes, traction control, and collision avoidance, along with a front end specifically designed to minimize injuries to pedestrians, is more dangerous than the massive 1980’s station wagons/land yachts every parent in my elementary school drove, is delusional.

The pandemic turned out to be an ideal test of Vision Zero. The whole goal is to get as many cars off the roads as possible. While road diets and traffic calming alone failed, the pandemic showed us what a largely car-free world looks like. The results? Economic devastation and new records in pedestrian and bicyclist deaths. In short, even under “ideal” (from advocates’ perspectives) conditions, with traffic volumes at record lows, road diets and traffic calming failed completely in their singular purpose. What more evidence do we need? Accidents result from driver (and pedestrian, and bicyclist) behavior, not road design. The pandemic proved it.

In fact, the actual number of cars on any given section of road turns out to be largely irrelevant, because modern road diets and other traffic calming measures throw the rules of the road into uncertainty for everyone, under all conditions, regardless of traffic.

The photo sequence below was taken via drone over the intersection of Broadway and 17th (aka the Bermuda Triangle of Santa Monica road diets) on a weekday afternoon with light traffic. A pickup truck makes a legal right turn on a green light. A cyclist approaches from behind and to the right, in the driver’s blind spot. It’s clear the driver never even sees the bicyclist, who fortunately brakes and swerves before tragedy can strike. All the new “safety features” did precisely nothing to avert the potential accident, and in fact likely contributed to the drives’ inability to see the fast-approaching bicycle.

The question is: Who has the right of way? Traditionally, passing on the right is illegal, for the very reasons in this situation. The passing vehicle, or in this case bicycle, by definition is in the driver’s blind spot. Passing on the right risks exactly the situation below. Yet the green paint and protected lane give the bicycle rider a false sense of safety, and unconsciously suggests that the right of way is his or hers. Is it any surprise that accidents involving bikes and pedestrians have gone up virtually everywhere these changes have been made?

And, of course, safety features are only as safe as users make them. In particular, bicyclists are notorious for their lax attitude toward the rules of the road in general, even without dedicated features serving them. In the pictures below, taken along another section of road diet on 17th Street, a bicyclist runs a red light, swerves out of the protected bike lane, and nearly clips a pedestrian before returning to the protected lane. All the green paint and curb extensions in the world don’t protect people from that kind of irresponsibility and arrogance — yet bike lanes encourage such behavior.

As a Los Angeles County firefighter once told me, “I’m an avid cyclist, and the one place you’ll never catch me is in one of those green lanes. Green paint doesn’t stop a Metro bus. Trust me, I’ve seen the consequences.”

Despite mounting, at this point irrefutable evidence of failure, damage, and even death, Santa Monica is doubling down on “Vision Zero.” As we speak, the city is installing some 47 new bulb-out’s, curb extensions, and other “safety features” on Wilshire Boulevard. In other communities, most notably Paradise, these kinds of seemingly minor, even innocuous changes have had disastrous results on emergency response and access and evacuations. As presently designed, Wilshire has wide right shoulders that give drivers plenty of room to pull aside for emergency vehicles. Curb extensions occupy those spaces. And by removing right turn lanes ensures more traffic will sit idling, stopping and starting, and generally operating at minimum efficiencies. This increases fuel consumption and emissions.

Meanwhile, the mass transit that is supposed to be supplanting and ultimately replacing cars altogether is spiraling into crime, violence, and chaos. This week the Bay Area Council released results of a survey of riders and potential riders on the region’s flagship Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. A staggering 87% of riders said the system is unsafe, with 78% of potential riders saying they would use the system if it were safe. An equally eye-watering 46% said they personally had witnessed or been victimized by crimes on the system. Reports from L.A.’s Metro system are similar, with regional transit usage in free fall even before COVID provided the kill shot. One rider described using the system during the pandemic as “post-apocalyptic.” Forty-eight percent of college-age female riders report having been sexually harassed on the system in the past three years.

It’s difficult to conjure a more complete failure than Santa Monica’s “Vision Zero” and and transit push. Increased accidents, injuries, and even fatalities, major traffic congestion along previously free-flowing streets, and increased emissions and fuel consumption. Buses that feel like rolling street fights, and often are. Identical scenarios are playing out around L.A. County and indeed California and the country in general. At a certain point, we have to wonder the true goals really are. Is Vision Zero really a push for safety, convenience, equity, and sustainability, as boosters promise? Or does it all boil down to an assault on cars and individual mobility?

Are those accidents, injuries, and deaths just the eggs that need to be broken on the way to a post-automobile 15-minute city Utopia? It sure feels that way. The irony is that Santa Monica overall is an extremely safe place to be on the road. Between 2011 and 2022 there were a total of 47 fatal accidents within city limits, fewer than four per year, of which nearly 40% occurred either on Pacific Coast Highway or the 10 freeway, neither of which is under city control. Of the fatal accidents on city streets, more than half involved alcohol, extreme dark or weather conditions, a pedestrian or bicyclist at fault, or some combination thereof. The actual number of fatal accidents that involved a sober driver speeding or driving recklessly is in the high single or low double digits. Given the hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors the city hosts every year, it’s actually a pretty remarkable safety record.

And the city is in the process of tearing it all up.

To close, take aother look at Ocean Avenue right now, that clean, smooth, distraction-free slab of tarmac. A bicycle, a cargo bike, a pedestrian, and a car all are easy to see, and it’s easy for them to see one another. Alas, the city already is at work replacing the wide striped green bike lanes and other distractions.

Ironically, the only somewhat dangerous moment was when the cargo bike rider had to swerve toward the car at the beginning of the grassy area on the right — to avoid a bulb-out “safety feature.”


9 thoughts on “Distracted driving (and biking, and walking, and scooting) kills. So why are cities turning streets themselves into distractions?

  1. The foundation of road safety is predictability based on shared agreements on rules of the road. But is it also true that these new, unnecessary enhancements are visually and cognitively confusing. In areas that are truly dangerous, this could be the answer: https://www.20splenty.org/. But Complete Streets is all about the money and the Feds are doling out funds based on a one-size-fits-all analysis. So localities will continue to try to get the money, no matter how foolish the plan is.


  2. Your article is excellent. I tried to post a nice comment but word press has become impossible to handle. I used to have a site on word press but I had to gvie ti up as they changed its metrics so often that it became too much of a night.Like bike lanes where there should be only roadway


  3. This article is phenomenal!
    The one thing that you missed is the terrible impact the 17th street design has had on disabled/handicapped people.


    1. Very important point. And true of almost all of these projects. It will be covered in a dedicated post. Thank you for the comment!


  4. This article is superb!

    The residents and those that work on 17th street have been trying to explain this to city officials to no avail. It seems like “My mind is made up, don’t mix me up with the facts” attitude.

    One more important aspect is one that you allude to briefly, the ability for emt’s to attend quickly and efficiently to those that need
    In a two block radius on 17th street, there are FIVE convalescent homes!

    Just yesterday, traffic was snarled in front of Holiday Villa, and an ambulance was forced to go around the block (adding response time) to attend to a resident that was having chest pains

    What will it take to give us back our city streets and safety?


  5. I couldn’t get past the first few paragraphs where you describe the roads as distracting. How is a green bike lane a distraction? I’ve never driven on a street and thought “wow, that green painted lane and those striped crosswalks are so distracting.” I think it makes clear distinctions about who goes where. Re: California incline. How is it relevant what it looks like from above? I use that intersection on my bike all the time and it works great. The first time I encountered it (by surprise) I couldn’t believe how great it was and how easy it was to use and understand. Re: the two charts on Broadway and California Incline increase in bike accidents. I tried to read your data but could not find anything that took into account increased bike use. I don’t have any data but my observation is that both of those spots get a lot more use by bikes than they did a decade ago and it stands to reason that building more bike lanes and infrastructure would increase bike traffic. Re: Ocean avenue. I like it so much better now, and I drive, cycle and walk. The separated lanes are so nice. Everyone can have an opinion, but I was honestly surprised that someone could think this. (Not saying you or anyone else is wrong for your preferences but it’s just really hard to see how old Ocean avenue could be considered better)


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