Updated plan aims to make Missoula streets safer for pedestrians, bicyclists

Olivia DeJohn and Sebastian Schnobrich discuss the dangers they face when traveling through Missoula intersections. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Olivia DeJohn hasn’t driven her car to work or school since 2015. Rain or shine, each day she rides her bike to the University of Montana and to her job.

But almost every commute is dangerous, DeJohn said. Drivers are distracted by their cellphones and snow fills Missoula’s bike lanes.

That’s why she attended the Community Safety Summit Tuesday night at Franklin Elementary School, part of the process to update the city’s Community Transportation Safety Plan.

“Right turns [at intersections] are often pretty hard because cyclists have to be on the shoulder or the lane which is always toward the far end [of the street],” DeJohn said. “So even if it’s a straight lane, people are still going to turn right there. They don’t see the cyclist and turn right into them.”

Transportation planning manager Aaron Wilson writes ideas on a strategy board Tuesday night to address high risk behaviors that result in crashes, injuries or fatalities, such as using a cellphone, driving without a seat belt or driving impaired. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

The Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization last implemented a transportation safety plan in 2013, with updates every four to five years intended to address trends in crashes and fatalities.

The planning area expands east from the Wye to Turah and south from Evaro to Lolo. This plan focuses on three areas of emphasis: intersection crashes, non-motorized users and high-risk behavior that can lead to crashes, such as using a cellphone, not wearing a seat belt or driving while impaired.

“You can’t get from where you are to where you want to go safely when there are issues with our transportation system. We want to address those so people do feel safe and reduce our fatalities and serious injuries,” said Aaron Wilson, transportation planning manager for the Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Intersection crashes top the list of safety issues, by number of crashes and serious injuries, between 2013 and 2017. About 5,160 crashes were reported in Missoula intersections, while inattentive driving contributed to about 4,608 crashes. Impaired driving accounted for 16 fatalities in the planning area, the highest number on the list.

Crashes involving non-motorized users accounted for 4 percent of all crashes and 21 percent of severe crashes. There were eight pedestrian fatalities in the five-year time frame.

In total, there were 11,277 crashes, 38 fatalities, and 406 severe injuries that resulted from different factors.

There was, however, good news to share at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“Our goal was to reduce the five-year average of fatal and serious injuries by 25 percent. Our actual reduction was 35 percent overall for those two measures, so we’re doing better than our goal,” Wilson said.

Transportation planner for the Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization Tara Osendorf brainstorms strategies to address non-motorized user crashes, severe injuries and fatalities during Tuesday night’s Community Safety Summit. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

The organization asked the public to brainstorm ideas that could help achieve Vision Zero, a statewide initiative to eliminate deaths and injuries on Montana highways and roads.

Many of the ideas centered around policy, enforcement, engineering and education. They included better snow removal policies, additional traffic enforcement and better lighting and maintenance. Other ideas focused on using social media to deliver safe behavior messages, more youth education programs and having a right on red restriction in pedestrian-heavy areas.

For example, when the 2013 plan was implemented, one of the strategies looked to improve safety at Missoula intersections with an above average number of crashes. Once intersection committees studied the data and understood what was causing the crashes, solutions involving infrastructure or education were implemented.

For example, installing a signal to allow for a protected left turn from Higgins Avenue onto West Broadway in downtown Missoula helped decrease the number of crashes at that intersection.

“We had been seeing people trying to shoot through gaps of traffic,” Wilson said. “What that protected lefthand turn does is, it allows the left-turning traffic to go in a protected phase to eliminate conflicts with pedestrians and the oncoming traffic.”

The Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization will draft the newly suggested strategies into a plan that will be available for public review later this spring.