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A new tool shows the Lehigh Valley's part in a 'national crisis on our roadways'

Traffic in Lehigh Valley
Donna S. Fisher for LehighValleyNews.com
Donna Fisher Photography, LLC
Traffic at right moves north on Route 378 over the Hill to Hill Bridge, in Bethlehem, Pa. on February 9, 2023.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Scott C. Bitting was described in his obituary as a talented mechanic and a kind and free soul with the ability to make people laugh.

Bitting, 44, of Allentown, died of injuries from a motorcycle crash at West Union Boulevard and Eaton Avenue in Bethlehem. The driver who hit him was charged with homicide by vehicle while intoxicated.

A month earlier, David Polczer, 57, died after a two-vehicle crash that shut East Fourth Street on the city’s South Side.

  • The U.S. Transportation Department has launched a new strategy to cut traffic deaths and serious injuries
  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the spike in nationwide fatalities "a national crisis on our roadways"
  • A hotspot-focused analysis showed impact at the local level. Northampton and Lehigh County both had fatality concentration levels above the average county nationwide

Polczer was a passenger in a dump truck that hit another vehicle, then crashed into a traffic signal pole. His cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma, the Lehigh County Coroner’s Office said.

The Bethlehem resident was remembered in his obituary as an avid fisherman and a loving family man with a heart of gold.

The deaths weren’t isolated incidents.

Both men were among the thousands of people who lost their lives on U.S. roadways last year.

The crashes that killed them also were part of a broader pattern of a spike in roadway fatalities, illustrating the significant impact of traffic deaths in local communities.

In response, the U.S. Transportation Department has launched a national roadway safety strategy to cut traffic deaths and serious injuries.

"Traffic crashes cost tens of thousands of American lives a year — a national crisis on our roadways — and everyone has an important role to play in addressing it,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg asked “all Americans — including private industry, non-profit and advocacy organizations, and every level of government to join us in saving lives."

Stephanie Sigafoos
U.S. Department of Transportation
This screengrab from a U.S. Department of Transportation Study shows hotspots that have experienced a high concentration of fatal roadway crashes. The map shows fatalities from 2016-2020.

A hotspot focus on roadway fatalities

In rolling out an ambitious long-term goal of reaching zero roadway fatalities, the Transportation Department also unveiled a new data visualization project to document every life lost on the nation’s roadways from 2016 to 2020, including drivers, passengers and pedestrians walking, biking and rolling.

A hotspot-focused analysis drilled down on the distribution of roadway fatalities compared to the national average by county. It also investigated the relationship between fatality rates and population size, outlining fatalities at the neighborhood level.

The hyperlocal data showed the number of traffic fatalities in Northampton County over the USDOT study period was 1.9 times greater than the average county nationwide.

The fatality concentration level in Lehigh County was even higher, at 2.4 times greater than the average county nationwide.

At a municipal level, Bethlehem had a higher fatality rate — 4.75 per 100,000 people — than neighboring Allentown, which recently was awarded more than $300,000 from the Transportation Department's Safe Streets and Roads for All, or SS4A, grant program to develop a comprehensive road safety plan.

READ: Initiative to make Allentown streets safer gets $312,000

Bethlehem also applied for the grant, said Darlene Heller, the city’s director of planning and zoning. But the city’s application was for the implementation of projects on which it still plans to move forward.

Heller said city Traffic Coordinator Tiffany Wells "has been implementing a shared lane marking program, which doesn’t really provide full protection for bicyclists.

“But it does provide some education to those driving vehicles, and we tried to do that on some of the [city’s] major routes.

“On Broad Street, that would have been our first proposal — to actually construct some bike infrastructure, and we are proposing to build protected bike lanes along the West Broad corridor. We were going to build the infrastructure that we had already identified as necessary, and we did get a grant through the WalkWorks program to lay that out and design it. And so we're really ready to move ahead with engineering and then construction on that.”

Bicycle, pedestrian safety

Bicycle and pedestrian safety are at the forefront of the city’s road safety initiatives. It also hears monthly recommendations from the Citizens Traffic Advisory Committee, or CTAC — a group that includes police, traffic engineering, planning and representatives from the Lehigh Valley Health Network Coalition for Appropriate Transportation, the Environmental Advisory Council and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

“Those are our standard partners around the table,” said Sherri Penchishen, Bethlehem’s director of chronic disease programs. “So we take a look at injuries and fatalities, you know, high crash areas in the city. And we try to determine how we can mitigate those … to reduce injuries and fatalities.”

Penchishen said CTAC has been active since 1999 and continues to look at all kinds of complaints in the city, as well as problematic intersections, and moves through a cycle of assessment, evaluation and problem-solving.

Traffic in Lehigh Valley
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
Traffic at right moves north on Rt. 378 over the Hill to Hill Bridge, in Bethlehem, Pa. on February 9, 2023.

Route 378 "is a problem,” Penchishen said. “But we did through CTAC, we did talk about the south end of the Hill to Hill Bridge and that whole crossing component, we did bring that to PennDOT’s attention. They knew that it was a high-priority area for us because we had been looking at different solutions."

“There were lots of conflicts going on in that specific area. And they did make improvements to that area when it rose to the attention on their list.

"But as far as the speed on 378, unfortunately, that's a more difficult task to accomplish than what our educational efforts do. And there's no infrastructure that we can do to change that. But our police are out there doing speed enforcement and doing the best that they can for that particular area.”

Easton, which had zero fatalities in four of five years of the USDOT study, did not respond to calls seeking comment on what officials might view as successful traffic and pedestrian safety improvements that contributed to a drop in fatalities.

Other local municipalities with low fatality rates in the study period included Emmaus, Northampton and Hellertown.

Vision Zero

In 2016, Bethlehem officials outlined a vision to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city by 2030.

Moving toward that goal, it became the first local municipality to join Vision Zero, a nonprofit organization that supports communities with information, training, peer exchange and more.

It follows the Safe System approach, which addresses the safety of all road users and recognizes a shared responsibility to prevent crashes from happening.

U.S. Department of Transportation
This graphic from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows the Safe System Approach to prioritize the elimination of crashes that result in death and serious injury.

“It hasn’t provided money, but it has provided some goal to steer us more in the right direction as far as where to look for fatalities and crashes, and what other municipalities have done to help mitigate some of the issues we have here in the city,” Penchishen said.

Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network, said the program is an approach to how communities address road safety. The program compares a traditional approach, where traffic deaths are seen as inevitable, and the Vision Zero approach which sees them as preventable.

On its website, Vision Zero further outlines a new vision for public safety, which addresses the fact that people inevitably will make mistakes and decisions that can lead to or contribute to crashes. By that thinking, the transportation system can be designed and operated to accommodate those mistakes, and avoid death and serious injuries when a crash occurs.

Allentown also has begun the work to commit to becoming a Vision Zero community, said Genesis Ortega, the city’s communications manager.

“It will require cooperation, collaboration, data collection, community engagement, and ultimately an action plan,” Ortega said. She said part of the $312,000 the city received for Safe Streets and Roads For All will help with the development of that plan.

Trails as commuter corridors

“We’re collaborating and sharing information and problem solving together. And we’re not working in silos."
Bethlehem's Sherri Penchishen

While single occupancy vehicle travel remains the main form of transportation in the Lehigh Valley, and the number of miles traveled by motor vehicles on area roads is rising — a major component going forward will be focused on people who aren’t behind the wheel.

“Some of the trails really are commuter corridors; people use them to get back and forth to work,” Heller said. “We did a trail feasibility study … it’s been a while now, several years ago, but we did reconstruct and expand the Monocacy Way trail on the north end.

"We [also] have funding to move forward with the southern end of Monocacy Way, and we’ve been building out the [South Bethlehem] Greenway and now we’re trying to connect that to the Saucon Rail Trail.

“I think that those connections are important, as well, for pedestrian safety. It just gets people off the street entirely. And you know, it’s just another venue for getting people out of vehicles.”

Pedestrian safety is called out in the Walk/Roll LV Active Transportation Plan from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. The purpose is to develop what the plan calls a “seamless, high-quality on and off-road trail and sidewalk system for the region integrated with public transit.”

Nearly 40% of respondents to LVPC’s plan said they are willing to ride a bike in traffic but prefer dedicated bike lanes and routes, and 30% said they prefer not to ride in traffic at all.

Shared data also showed that residents increasingly want to live in communities that are walk, bike and roll friendly.

Traffic in Lehigh Valley
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
The view looking west on Broad Street in Bethlehem, Pa. on February 9, 2023. The city is proposing to build protected bike lanes along the West Broad corridor.

But the overall goal is safety and accessibility that reduces crashes and improves personal safety, the plan says.

That fits with the goal of Bethlehem and other cities.

“We’re collaborating and sharing information and problem-solving together,” Penchishen said. “And we’re not working in silos. So things happen in Bethlehem quicker and more efficiently and more effectively because we are all partnering together to make that happen.

“So if we have a project where we're doing pedestrian enforcement, Tiffany will send her crews out, and she'll make sure that their crosswalks are updated, she'll make sure that the signs are visible, you know, she makes sure that our programs are going to be run to the best of our ability.

"And likewise, if Darlene or Tiffany need to call attention to one particular area, our program will go out to do education in that area to make sure that people understand what the changes are, things like that.

"So I do feel like we are doing a lot and we're ahead of the game in Bethlehem and we have been for quite some time. We want to make sure that our roads are inclusive not only for bikes and pedestrians but for those who are disabled, so they can all be on the roadway together safely.”