Jessica Morriss, the city of Missoula's transportation planning manager, doesn't like the word "accidents."
"We like to use the word 'crashes' instead of 'accidents' because in almost all cases, if not all cases, a crash occurs because someone wasn't doing what they were supposed to do, and it could have been prevented," she said. "The word 'accident' makes it sound like it was not preventable."
Morriss and her staff are on a never-ending quest to reduce these preventable crashes, and they have a trove of data and research to assist them.
They've found that although the estimated average number of daily trips taken by bicyclists and pedestrians in Missoula has steadily increased over the past five years, the number of reported vehicle vs. bicycle or pedestrian crashes has remained flat.
That means the likelihood of an individual getting hit by a vehicle while on a bike or walking is decreasing.
“We’re seeing pretty big increases in users, but crashes are remaining relatively flat,” Morriss explained. “There’s somewhat of a ‘safety in numbers’ correlation, I think. The more people that are out biking and walking, the more drivers are used to seeing them and are prepared to see them."
The city uses a nationally recognized methodology to estimate the average number of daily trips taken by bicyclists and pedestrians. Two-hour volunteer counts are conducted at 30 stations citywide on four days a year: a Tuesday and a Saturday in the spring, and a Tuesday and a Saturday in the fall.
The city now has five years of data from 2010 to 2014.
“Overall, our data showed that between 2010 and 2014, we had a 25 percent increase in pedestrian average annual daily trips and an 18 percent increase in bike activity,” Morriss explained. “There are some dips and peaks in between years, because sometimes the weather that is happening on those count days influences the counts. But overall, we’ve had some increases.”
Last year, there were 68 total crashes that were reported to police between bicyclists and cars and 17 reported injury crashes involving pedestrians and cars in urban Missoula.
As the use of bikes in Missoula increases, residents are becoming more vocal about places where they'd like to see safety upgrades.
Katherine Auge, director of the ASUM Off-Campus Renter Center at the University of Montana, doesn't own a car and is one of the thousands of Missoulians who often commutes to work on her bicycle. She's had some close calls with vehicles not being aware of bicyclists.
"I think Van Buren (Street) is sketchy when you're coming down the Rattlesnake toward Broadway," she said. "The interstate exit is right there and drivers aren't thinking to look for bikers. I also had someone slowly roll into my bike while they were turning right on red at Broadway and Russell (Street). I was crossing at the walk sign so they really had no excuse, but it was dark out and they totally didn't notice me and kept going and my bike was under their car before they noticed and stopped."
Auge said Hillview Way going up to the South Hills – which is planned for reconstruction next year and will get two bike lanes – is horrible right now for bicyclists.
"It has that steep ledge and no shoulder," she said. "I refuse to bike up there. I feel like the people who live up there have no safe bike route to downtown."
The areas where bicycle vs. vehicle crashes appear to occur more often include West Front Street, Higgins Avenue, the area around the intersection of North Russell and West Broadway, and the stretch of North Reserve between Mullan Road and Raser Drive.
Missoula's most dangerous intersection for bicyclists is the intersection of Mullan Road and Great Northern, where there have been a total of eight crashes since 2007. That includes two incapacitating injury crashes, four non-incapacitating injuries, one possible injury and one non-injury.
The next three most dangerous intersections are the corner of Higgins and Broadway (seven total crashes), Broadway and Mullan (six crashes), and Broadway and Orange (six crashes).
The intersection of Broadway and Orange is the most dangerous for pedestrians, although there have been only four crashes in that spot since 2007, and none involved incapacitating injuries.
From 2007 to 2014, there were three fatal bicycle crashes in the Missoula urban area. Two occurred on Reserve Street, and one occurred on a residential street in Missoula's Westside neighborhood.
In that same time, there have been nine fatal pedestrian crashes caused by vehicles. Among the dead: A 19-year-old Hellgate High School senior, Chance Geery, was killed in 2013 when a distracted driver struck him as he was walking on a sidewalk along Mullan Road.
In 2009, two young high school freshmen, Ashlee Patenaude and Taylor Cearley, were killed by a drunk driver as they walked along Montana Highway 200 near East Missoula.
Bob Giordano, executive director of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation and the founder of Free Cycles, said bicyclists and pedestrians are facing ever-increasing dangers as more drivers become distracted by technology.
“What I’m sensing is a lot of drivers are speeding, and distractions are increasing almost exponentially by the day,” he said. “It’s a recipe for disaster. From cellphones to Pandora to Sirius Radio to even GPS mapping systems, all it takes is one second to push a button for a different genre of music and it's disaster. So we’ve got to keep addressing this as a community.”
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Giordano said a lot of work remains, even though Missoula is slowly becoming more bike-friendly.
“It’s hard to say if safety is getting better or worse in Missoula,” he explained. “The infrastructure seems to be improving, with more bike lanes or trails, but there are so many gaps in the system. That tends to be where crashes happen, where a bike lane ends.
"When you are coming south off the Higgins Bridge, the bike lanes completely disappear. There are not too many people on bikes that feel comfortable down the center of a travel lane, so they move far right. And that is where they can be hooked by people making right turns and are more at risk in the door zone of parked cars.”
Giordano, who serves in leadership roles for various neighborhood councils, has researched everything from the increased safety of roundabouts, to car-free streets called "bike boulevards" or "green lanes," to road diets.
"Four-lane roads are pretty inefficient for everyone," he explained. "When you reduce it to three lanes and add bike lanes with the extra space, now you have a left-turn lane. Almost everywhere it's been done, traffic flows better and you get an extra boost of safety."
Giordano said there is a growing movement to view the sharing of roads as "social justice."
"Sometimes a biker is at fault," he said. "But speed and distractions among drivers are the main things, and more and more I think it is an unjust situation, where all of the sudden a bicyclist's or pedestrian's life is severely changed with an injury."
In Missoula County in 2014, drivers traveled an estimated average of 2,706,780 miles a day, according to the Missoula Department of Transportation.
It might come as a surprise to someone who has ever tried to travel down Russell Street at rush hour, but the number of cars and the traffic congestion on Missoula’s roads have not increased over the past five years, according to city data.
“Just generally speaking, on all of our major roads like Brooks (Street) and Russell and Broadway, the average daily trips for vehicles have stayed flat or even gone down in the past five years,” Morriss said. “Some of that might be post-recession stuff. We’re not really sure if it’s going to stay that way. It will be interesting to see. But overall, vehicle traffic hasn’t gone up and congestion hasn’t increased in the last five years either, from what we can tell.”
The city also keeps track of crash data from before and after improvements have been made along certain routes. In 2010, the city completed a $1.45 million streetscape project on North Higgins that brought larger corners for pedestrians and protected bike lanes between the sidewalk and parked cars.
From 2007 to 2009, the city recorded three bicycle crashes on North Higgins between Broadway and Alder Street, and four crashes in that same stretch from 2011 to 2013.
“There was no reduction in the number of crashes, but the severity of crashes is decreased post-cycle track installation,” explained Aaron Wilson, a planner with the Transportation Planning Department.
The Higgins upgrade did not address the intersection of Broadway and Higgins, Wilson explained, and from 2007 to 2009, there were two non-incapacitating bicycle injuries there. From 2011 to 2013, there were five total crashes, including one incapacitating injury at that intersection.
However, Wilson said bicycle traffic has significantly increased along Higgins Avenue from 2010 to 2014, up 52 percent at Front Street and up 53 percent at Spruce Street.
Wilson also said there is evidence that roundabouts decrease the severity of crashes, even if they do not decrease the overall number of crashes compared to intersections with stoplights.
At the Higgins/Hill/Beckwith intersection, there have been no reported bike or pedestrian crashes since 2007.
In the two years before the roundabout was installed in 2009, there were nine non-injury vehicle crashes and one incapacitating vehicle injury crash.
Since installation of the roundabout, there have been zero fatal or incapacitating injury crashes at the intersection, but seven non-injury crashes and one non-incapacitating injury.
The city’s Transportation Planning Department is in the process of updating its 30-year long-range transportation plan, which sets priorities for the future of the region's network for all modes of transportation, including driving, walking, bicycling, trucking, rail, freight and air.
Members of the public can go to activatemissoula.com and participate until the end of the year. The federal government requires updates to the plan every four years.
“We have a wiki-map where people can leave comments, drop a pin on a certain intersection or spot, and leave a comment on an issue or what they want to see,” Morris said. “We’ve had over 350 comments so far. We just want to assess where we’re at, what we’ve built in four years, what we have on the docket and kind of keep moving forward. We want to take a lot of public input.”
There are several areas where the city is looking at massive projects to increase safety and decrease congestion.
The first phase of the city's complete remake of Russell Street will start next year and will take a couple of years to complete. The first portion to be redone, between West Broadway and Dakota Street, includes replacement of the Russell Street Bridge, widening of the road to four lanes, and the construction of sidewalks and raised bike lanes. There will also be a tunnel for the Milwaukee Trail bike path under Russell.
The roundabout for the interchange between Orange Street and Interstate 90 is scheduled for construction next fall, and the roundabout at Van Buren and I-90 is scheduled in 2017. The reconstruction of Hillview Way is set to begin next year.