With fatal crashes up, interim roads committee ends without traffic safety recommendations

Lawmakers heard testimony on traffic enforcement, design and technology

By: - October 19, 2023 7:00 am

Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, at a September 28, 2023, interim committee meeting. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Nearly 17,000 Hoosiers were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the last two decades — and fatalities continue to trend upward, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT).

A transportation-centric interim committee on Wednesday considered input on traffic enforcement, road design and technology, but ended with no related recommendations.

Not enough officers on the road?

Crashes involving speeding, impaired driving, distracted driving or no seatbelts are more likely to result in death, said Devon McDonald, executive director of the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute (ICJI) agency.

Annual recorded violations are generally down since 2019 — but that doesn’t mean Hoosiers are driving more safely, according to McDonald.

“I would probably attribute that more to not (having) enough law enforcement officers enforcing traffic laws in the state of Indiana,” he said. Law enforcement agencies here and across the country have struggled to recruit and retain officers in recent years.

Committee Chair Rep. Jim Pressel said he’d noticed socially accepted speeding jump from 10 miles an hour over the speed limit to 15 or even 20.

“As I came down 31 this morning, traffic was moving 80 miles an hour. It wasn’t just one or two people. It’s everyone,” he told McDonald. “So how do we get the message out to slow people down when we don’t have as much law enforcement as I’d like to see?”

Speeding data is down — but are Hoosier speedometers? (Source: Indiana Criminal Justice Institute)

McDonald recalled an era in which “having a beer in the car was acceptable” and children laid down in the backseat or rode in the cargo bed of a pickup truck without seatbelts — but that changed through concerted public information efforts.

“Many of these issues, we have to tackle it from a cultural perspective,” he said.

Cell phone usage violations were a slight exception, according to ICJI.

Indiana recorded just 1,700 violations in 2019, and that number jumped to 7,500 in 2020 and then 16,000 in 2021 after lawmakers made usage laws easier to enforce. But recorded violations have steadily dropped since then.

McDonald suggested that lawmakers adopt a comprehensive “safe system” approach to traffic safety. He also said they should give the state’s toxicology department a boost — its workload has increased “infinitely” — and take another look at driver’s education training.

Sen. Andrea Hunley, a Democrat from Indianapolis, raised the prospect of automatic speed enforcement, but McDonald noted that’s prohibited under current Indiana Code.

Designing safer roads

Nearly 1,000 Hoosiers died in crashes last year, according to INDOT. It’s part of an upward trend extending back to 2009.

That agency has turned to alternative intersections when possible, said Legislative Director Andrea Zimmerman.

These include roundabouts. They also can be median u-turn intersections, which splits a left turn into two steps: vehicles on one side of the road take a u-shaped left exit, then look right on the other side of the road for a traffic gap and finish the turn.

“We’re typically asked, ‘Why not just put in a traffic signal? People are used to traffic signals,'” Zimmerman said.

Traffic deaths are trending up. (Source: Indiana Department of Transportation)

But with people on four sides of a four-way intersection able to turn all four ways, such set-ups introduced more “conflict points.” And, Zimmerman said, the signals create time pressures, so that drivers speed up to avoid getting stopped at red lights.

INDOT has 11 median u-turn intersections, and has logged 81% fewer injuries and deaths at those locations. It’s planning to put 40 more in the ground in the next five to seven years.

But the projects still face significant local pushback, several said.

Pressel recounted attending “heated” public meetings over such alternative intersections.

Residents often tell INDOT a proposal “doesn’t fit for our community,” Zimmerman said.

Pedestrian fatalities have increased in Marion County. (Source: Indianapolis Department of Public Works)

“We understand that these are community-based decisions,” she added. “So we don’t want to do something that community won’t accept. We will continue to work with them and hopefully they will come around to seeing the benefit.”

She additionally told lawmakers that drivers use “context clues” — not posted speed limits — to decide how fast to go. Engineers can reduce the number of lanes, narrow lanes, ditch wide shoulders, add curb bump-outs, and more to communicate to drivers.

The city of Indianapolis has made some of those changes, Department of Public Works Director Brandon Herget told lawmakers: it’s working on several road “diets” to streets that have more traffic capacity than actual volume, and has added crosswalks, bike lanes, sidewalks and more.

The city has also created “focus areas” for pedestrian crash sites and has introduced a multi-disciplinary team to review fatal crashes and come up with recommendations, Herget said.

New technologies, no new recommendations

Technology can help prevent traffic crashes, Cisco Systems transportation expert Mark Knellinger told lawmakers.

Cameras and sensors could detect pedestrians and send warnings straight to drivers’ cars, or catch wrong-way highway drivers and send warnings to the digital signs that hang overhead, he said.

After two hours of testimony, the committee adopted no legislative recommendations aimed at reducing traffic fatalities. It did adopt several specialty license plate recommendations.

Pressel told the Capital Chronicle that he desired a more thorough conversation, noting that some members of the interim body weren’t on the roads committee he chairs during legislative sessions.

But that will also come with time constraints: it’s a short, non-budget session. Pressel anticipated holding just two committee meetings and said he’d have to “pick and choose” bills to hear.

Still, he expressed interest in continued driver education, as well as how technology could interact with signage to warn drivers of dangers ahead on the road. And he’s among those leading a key road funding conversation that’s expected to result in major changes in the coming years.

“I think having that longer conversation is probably better than a knee-jerk reaction,” Pressel concluded. “Government moves a lot slower than I’d like it to.”


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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie covers state government for the Indiana Capital Chronicle with emphases on elections, infrastructure and transportation. She previously covered city-county government for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She has also reported on local, national and international news for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and more. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.