Nearly hit by a car? New tool will let students report close calls.

Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Lowery
“The silent near-misses throughout the city don’t get the attention they deserve,” said Jeremiah Lowery, advocacy director at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

A bike group in Washington, D.C., working with safety experts at Howard University, is creating a new tool for elementary through high school students to report if they almost get hit by a car while biking or walking around the city.

The idea – backed by federal safety funds – is to gather and share data on dangerous intersections with local government officials before tragedies occur.

Howard researchers are examining neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River to help guide the development of the near-miss reporting tool for use citywide and beyond.

“There’s a lot of near misses and near accidents occurring. Let’s not wait until there’s a tragedy to do something about it,” said Jeremiah Lowery, the advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Last year, young children were among those killed and seriously injured walking and riding bikes on District streets. Lowery and other safety advocates concluded the city’s youth needed a more effective tool to communicate the everyday dangers they face.

While the association already has a crash reporting form on its website – collecting data from cyclists on the crashes they’re in or see, as well as near misses and incidents of harassment – “we said to ourselves, this isn’t good for young people. Young people aren’t using it. What would a system look like for youth?”

They are going through an elaborate process to come up with an answer.

First, Howard researchers are analyzing high-resolution video images from cameras set up along at least 15 intersections, trying to document near-misses, according to Stephen Arhin, director of the Howard University Transportation Research Center. The cameras, often placed near school zones, run for at least three days, he said.

“If we do not capture any near misses at this location, then potentially there’s nothing wrong with the characteristics of the location. So we may be able to move the camera somewhere else,” Arhin said. “That process is what we’re going through now.”

The project organizers will then use those findings to help select a nearby school to partner with and host a workshop in April. The goal is to hear from students, parents and teachers about how to make a reporting tool for near misses that people will actually use. It will be housed on the group’s website.

In defining a near miss, safety experts sometimes talk about how close a dangerous collision was to occurring if someone didn’t shift their direction. For young people, what they experience and witness could both be reportable. But the precise definitions have yet to be set.

“We want to build it from the ground up, by listening to folks who were most impacted,” Lowery said.

The tool could roll out shortly after the workshop, first to some schools that will provide feedback, then to all city schools and later more broadly around the region, Lowery said.

The effort is backed by a $100,000 grant from the nonprofit National Safety Council, which is tapping funds from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Safe Routes Partnership, which works to increase safety for students headed to schools, is also part of the project.

“The U.S. does not need to wait for deaths to occur to realize its problem areas,” said Heidi Simon, senior program manager of mobility safety strategy at the Council, a nonprofit leader in road safety. A number of other cities also analyze near-misses, sometimes using automation. “Near-miss data allow safety to be proactive, giving communities the information needed to prevent crashes before they happen and ultimately save lives.”

Simon added that crashes are a leading cause of death for children and teens, and “engaging youth raises their awareness of the crisis on American roads and, in particular, for young people.”

Lowery also emphasizes a political edge to the work, noting that the tool will be designed to send notifications to the city council member representing the spot where the near miss occurred as well as to the District Department of Transportation.

“I think a lot of times our elected officials only respond when there’s a death, when there’s an absolute tragedy that happens,” Lowery said. “We’re trying to flip the script a little bit. We’re going to make sure our elected officials get all those near misses in front of their faces: Tuesday there was a near miss. Wednesday there was a near miss, Thursday, Friday . . .”

Everett Lott, director of the District Department of Transportation, said in a statement that the city uses police crash data and other safety research to direct its resources “to the most crash-severe and dense areas of the District, including areas of highest crash risk.” The District has been more aggressive in recent years in its efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate traffic deaths, he said, including focusing on equity concerns.

Lott also raised questions about the information that could emerge from the new tool.

“It’s important to remember that self-reported or crowdsourced inputs can be biased by who is reporting, where they travel, how widely the reporting tool is known/used, as well as what constitutes a ‘close call,'” Lott said.

For Lowery, who started riding his bicycle in the city as a child, the risks that young people in the city will continue to be victims of what he calls “traffic violence” require residents and officials to explore new ways of doing things.

Lowery is now 37, and in the decades since he shook off his training wheels, he estimates he’s had hundreds of near misses with automobiles in the city.

The time on Georgia Avenue was among the worst.

“I was riding and the truck was making a turn – I guess he didn’t see me – and I jumped off my bike. And the truck just ran it over, just crushed it. I had to throw it away,” Lowery said. “I feel as though I’m blessed to be here.”