About Impact Recovery Systems

Order Our Catalog

GSA Contract Holder # GS-03-002CA

Click Here to view and download our newsletter archives.

Traffic Safety Systems: Tackling Urban Street Design

Traffic safety systems in the United States are entering an increasingly post-motorist world, thanks to the rising health-consciousness of the nation.  Where most people once used their automobiles for even short trips, now millions of them are opting to use bicycles or their feet for quick visits to local shops, offices, and dining venues.  This trend is great news for those concerned about the country’s level of physical fitness.  However, it’s also creating challenges for traffic engineers, who worry about an uptick in vehicle-pedestrian accidents in communities across the nation.


The causes of this problem can be traced back to the late 1940s, when the layout of American streets began to change.  For the first half of the 20th century, towns grew up in block formations connected by short, inter-connected streets.  Higher population densities enabled merchants to locate businesses within easy walking distance of customers. 


This, combined with the fact that sidewalks were typically wider than modern ones, encouraged most people to use their feet whenever possible, instead of vehicles or public transport.  Also, short streets tended to be aesthetically pleasing, with mature trees lining them to create both beauty and shade.  In short, the typical approach to street design until around 1950 was pedestrian-centric, as opposed to vehicle-centric.


This began to change immediately after WW2, when millions of soldiers began arriving home, combined with a pent-up demand for consumer goods that had been building for over a decade, created an explosion in spending.  The one thing that American families wanted most of all was a home they could call their own, preferably away from the crowded cities that had begun to deteriorate.  Thus, what came to be known as suburbia was born, with huge tracts of land devoted entirely to housing as the new norm. 


This trend took people away from the easy access they once had to shopping, dining, and other venues, but there was an answer to this problem: the automobile.  The government had prohibited the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) from building new vehicles during the war so that their industrial facilities could be devoted fully to making the tanks and planes needed for victory.  The result was a feverish demand for cars, beginning in the second half of the 1940s. Detroit, desperate for ways to replace the loss in revenue from canceled government contracts, was more than happy to supply this demand. 


The result of all these factors was a complete transformation of the American landscape, with the phenomenal growth in the number of cars on the road leading the way.  In 1950, 25 million motor vehicles cruised the nation’s streets.  By 1960, that number had almost tripled, to nearly 70 million.  Reacting to this development, road construction emphasized longer, wider roads, with multiple lanes on each side of the yellow line to accommodate growing numbers of vehicles.  Sidewalks were narrowed, and merchants fled urban areas to take advantage of new opportunities along busy highways.  In short, traffic engineers adopted a vehicle-centric approach to city and road planning.


Nowadays, with gasoline at record prices and more people than ever becoming physically active, the shortcomings of that philosophy are becoming apparent.  So what should be done? As this online publication available at the DOT’s website points out, the way forward is summed up by what is known as the “complete streets initiative.”  This is how the movement’s advocates envision the streets of the future:

  • Sidewalks located well apart from vehicular traffic, with a standard width of five feet to accommodate larger numbers of pedestrians.
  • Bicycle lanes (or spacious, paved shoulders).
  • Frequent safe crossing paths for foot traffic, including median dividers, islands, and curb extensions marked by pedestrian crossing signs.
  • Safe, easily accessible stops for public transport vehicles.
  • Increased use of public transport as opposed to automobiles.
  • Shortened streets, with generous use of traffic calming devices like speed bumps.
  • Efforts to beautify roadsides, such as planting shade trees and flower beds.


This vision has several advantages over existing approaches.  It will encourage citizens to walk more.  It will decrease the number of vehicular accidents and reduce consumption of fuel.  It will also foster the development of neighborhood-based merchants, community organizations, and activities, strengthening community bonds. 


This offers a way forward for cities and towns, one that reduces traffic congestion and pollution while at the same time promoting health and well-being.  Adopting the goals of the complete streets initiative is thought to be in the nation’s best interests.  It is being pursued by many of those concerned with the future of America’s citizens.  Whether driving, cycling, or walking, traffic safety systems are essential to ensuring safety on the roadways.