By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Birmingham City Councilor Darrell O’Quinn knows the dangers of getting around the city without a car. O’Quinn recalled when he was hit by a car in 2010 while riding his bicycle on Highland Avenue.
“Fortunately, I was able to walk away from it without any significant injury, but I completely destroyed my bike and went flying across the vehicle’s hood and landed on the other side. It could have been bad,” said O’Quinn, who now chairs the council’s transportation committee.
October is National Pedestrian Safety Month, and according to data from the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office, there have been 16 deaths from motor vehicle accidents involving pedestrians this year. Just in the past month, a bicyclist and a pedestrian have been killed in separate hit-and-run incidents, and a pedestrian was hit and killed by a train in southwest Birmingham.
O’Quinn pointed to a number of measures the city has in place to protect pedestrians such as the “Complete Streets” ordinance, passed in 2018, which created committees to rethink the design of streets. Pedestrian deaths are a symptom of the way cities like Birmingham have been designed, he said.
“As the city was developed, and certainly Birmingham was not in any way unique in this regard…increasingly, the infrastructure was designed primarily for movement of vehicles and didn’t give any regard for pedestrians and bicyclists,” O’Quinn said.
The goal of the “Complete Streets” ordinance is essentially retrofitting the city to be more accommodating to all modes of travel,” he said.
Also, it seeks to address facilities for public transportation, sidewalks accessible to people at all levels of ability, highly visible crosswalks and protected bike lanes, he said, “so that those individuals that choose to use alternative modes have the space to do so safely and efficiently.”
“I remember just a few years ago, when there really wasn’t much consideration for alternative modes. The priority was for moving vehicles, and everybody else just had to live with it. We definitely, dramatically changed the paradigm, and just the philosophy of the folks who are leading our Department of Transportation is dramatically different,” O’Quinn said.
On the train front, the council recently approved a proposal, with funds from Norfolk Southern Railway and the city of Trussville, to seek federal grant money that would eliminate train crossings on roads in eastern Birmingham, among other things. Additionally, the council has approved some new safety measures around existing crossings.
O’Quinn said the council will continue efforts to make crossings safe.
The council’s governmental affairs committee, chaired by Councilor Clinton Woods, heard a presentation from Todd Rhoad of Peachtree Recovery Services, a Georgia-based company which could help with the Birmingham’s transportation safety problems.
Peachtree’s primary job is to recover money from insurance companies and individuals after damage is done to city property through motor vehicle accidents, but the company also reviews accident reports and provides technological solutions for problem areas in cities.
Technology can change the way people behave, without them realizing it, Rhoad said, comparing their work to the way cellphones changed his children’s way of living.
“We tried to follow [the] ‘my kids and the cellphone’ model. As soon as they got a cellphone, their whole behavior changed, and they didn’t really know it because everybody’s walking around with their head in the phone, or you check on your kids at night, and their face is all lit up,” Rhoad told the council committee.
The technology that mediates traffic in many American cities is outdated and doesn’t serve its purpose very well anymore, Rhoad said. His company pushes for new forms of lighting, as well as greater use of sensors on traffic lights that can better detect people and cars and change signals accordingly.
In addition to better serving the purposes of moving people safely, higher-tech solutions can be more cost-effective and adaptable, said Rhoad, who added that outsourcing some of the monitoring and management of traffic safety to a company like Peachtree can lessen the burden on small traffic engineering staffs and can speed up the process of making necessary changes.
“I think the private sector can move a lot faster and provide this data quicker…when you’re dealing with safety, you want to be fairly quick because, otherwise, when it takes six months, that’s a lot of lives that are still at risk while you’re trying to figure out what to do,” he told The Birmingham Times.
The City Council has not yet voted on a contract for Peachtree, but Woods said he is in favor.
Focusing on enforcement of traffic laws is critical and within his district 1 alone, there have been four or five deaths due to speeding this year, he said.
“All of that is preventable because you’re literally talking about speeding, and one thing we know about speeding is—I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten a ticket before, but I have, and it changes your behavior,” Woods said.
While pedestrians should be mindful, so should drivers, he said.
“. . . if you’re behind the wheel, you have heightened responsibility for paying attention to what’s in front of you,” Woods said.
Updated at 4:02 p.m. on 10/12/2022 to clarify the type of technology that Peachtree Recovery Services employs.