Federal roadbuilding manual gets an update An obscure federal manual that guides road signs and design is getting a rare update. The Biden administration says the changes will protect cyclists and pedestrians, but safety advocates wanted more.

The rules of the road are changing, but not fast enough for everyone

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ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

2023 was another deadly year on U.S. roads, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. That's bringing attention to a somewhat obscure document that's often referred to as the bible of road design. This month, the Biden administration unveiled a new version intended to make the road safer for everyone. But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, some advocates were hoping for more.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Matt Keenan was an experienced cyclist. He knew the best bike routes around San Diego. He bought the brightest lights for his bike. But his wife, Laura Keenan, says that wasn't enough.

LAURA KEENAN: He was doing everything right, you know? He had his helmet on. And a wrong-way driver crossed into his bike lane and hit him head-on.

ROSE: Keenan found out the next morning that her husband had been killed.

KEENAN: I then had to get my 15-month-old son out of bed and tell him that his dad was never coming home again.

ROSE: That was over two years ago. Since then, Keenan has become an advocate for safer streets. Do you think a better road, a safer road would have made a difference for him?

KEENAN: Oh, 100%, yeah. I'm confident that he would be alive if there was a protected bikeway or if the street was designed to prevent cars from going deadly speeds.

ROSE: Traffic fatalities in the U.S. are up sharply since the beginning of the pandemic, so there was a lot of pressure on federal officials as they prepared to revise the rules of the road for the first time in over a decade. Officially, this document is known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. It runs more than a thousand pages. And while it doesn't get much attention outside of transportation circles, it does have a big impact.

MIKE MCGINN: It is the most important pedestrian safety document that you have never heard of.

ROSE: Mike McGinn is the executive director of America Walks and a former mayor of Seattle. Since 1935, the manual has set national standards for street signs and road design. McGinn says it's hugely influential on the state and local traffic engineers who design the nation's roadways.

MCGINN: The old version really reflected a prioritization of moving vehicles through the community fast, rather than the safety of people.

ROSE: Advocates have been pushing the Biden administration to make the manual friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. More than a hundred thousand comments came in during this latest round of revisions, and federal officials say they're listening.

SHAILEN BHATT: We believe that this is going to help cities, states and other communities increase safety on our roadways, which is our top priority.

ROSE: Shailen Bhatt is the head of the Federal Highway Administration. He says the latest version of the manual has some major changes that advocates wanted. For example, there's a bigger section on how to design bike lanes. And the new manual recommends changes to the way traffic engineers set speed limits.

BHATT: When we built the interstate system back in the '50s and '60s, the predominant thinking was how do we move cars and trucks? And today, what I think you see is a focus on moving people and reflecting how these roads, streets and highways are also parts of the very communities that we live in.

CATHY CHASE: I think it's a small step in the right direction, but there's a lot more that can be done.

ROSE: Cathy Chase is the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. We met at a notorious intersection in Northern Virginia, where more than a dozen lanes of traffic converge from odd angles.

CHASE: It's kind of a mess here. It's very dangerous. There's not enough crosswalks, while there are a lot of pedestrians.

ROSE: There are no bike lanes here, barely even a crosswalk. It's totally car-centric. Chase was hoping the revised manual would do more to push traffic engineers away from this old approach.

CHASE: Yeah, it made some improvements. It considered vulnerable road users - pedestrians, bicyclists - more than it had before. But we would have liked to have seen it done so even more, considering the fact that pedestrian fatalities are skyrocketing.

ROSE: Safety advocates worry that the new manual still lets traffic engineers stick with the old ways if they want, even as it's clearer than ever that those ways are not working for everyone.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Arlington, Va.

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