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National News Roundup – September 11, 2023

Monday, September 11, 2023

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Reforming Federal Road Construction Rules

City transportation officials seek updates aimed at safer roadways.

The federal government dictates how roads are built in the United States through a set of rules called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) is pushing for reforms in federally mandated road construction safety fundamentals. While the MUTCD hasn’t been updated in over 50 years, the Federal Highway Administration has finished drafting a new, 11th edition. The revision is being reviewed by the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Once the OMB approves the new manual — likely in the next few months — it will be published and go into legal effect, shaping the design of U.S. streets for years to come.

Over 40 thousand people die on U.S. roads every year. According to many safe streets advocates, the MUTCD is uniquely responsible for the unsafe design of many American roads. “The MUTCD governs all road markings, stop signs, and traffic lights in the U.S., and prioritizes moving vehicles quickly at the expense of safety, sustainability, and accessibility for people walking, biking, using a wheelchair, or riding transit,” the city transportation officials’ organization said in a statement.

Some of the changes NACTO advocates include:

  • Update of formulas for determining speed limits on streets and roadways.
  • Reform of regulations for traffic signals to make street crossings safer for pedestrians.
  • Revision of the chapter on autonomous transportation to place the burden on manufacturers of driverless vehicles to “build vehicles that keep road users safe within the existing transportation network.”
  • Removal of unnecessary restrictions on the use of paint for bus lanes, bike lanes, and crosswalks. The guidelines prevent the use of green paint, “for no obvious reason,” according to NACTO.
  • Elimination of design restrictions for urban bikeways that conflict with data on bike safety.

(Sources: Planetizen, NATCO)

Disaster Planning Efforts May Overlook Some

Advocates: plans must address those with mobility issues, other disabilities.

According to a global study by the United Nations, people with disabilities are two to four times more likely to die or to be critically injured during a disaster. There are over 42 million disabled in the United States alone. Unfortunately, many communities around the world have not considered the disabled in their disaster planning for such issues as evacuation.

Under both the Rehabilitation Act (Rehab Act) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), government entities have a legal obligation to provide equal access to emergency services to people with disabilities.

Disaster aid for the disabled goes beyond helping residents who must use wheelchairs. For example, people with asthma — about 26 million in the U.S. alone — are particularly vulnerable to air quality emergencies such as those caused by recent Canadian wildfires. Conditions like multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy worsen significantly in high heat and humidity.

A first step toward effective emergency management for individuals with disabilities is to have a full and accurate understanding of various forms of disability among residents of any given community. Planning should include an effort to identify who, and how many, have disabilities and what needs they may have compared to citizens without disabilities. Planners need to know who may need extra help in an evacuation or in navigating potential chaos in designated shelters.

“We’re thought of as expected losses; we’re kind of just not expected to make it,” said Anna Hope Landre, a wheelchair-using activist and scholar at the Global Disability Innovation Hub at University College London. She works for the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a disability-run disaster preparedness and response organization. “Disaster plans become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where disabled people aren’t written into them. We’re not given survival mechanisms. So of course, we don’t survive.”

(Sources: Harvard Law School Project on Disability, Bloomberg News, Paralyzed Veterans of America)

Emergency Response Lessons Learned

Maui wildfire disaster response highlights need for effective communication.

One criticism to emerge after the deadly wildfires that devastated a portion of the island of Maui, Hawaii, last month was the silence of the state-of-the-art warning sirens when the flames were beginning to rage.

Emergency management officials didn’t use the siren system because they believed residents would think a tsunami was imminent and would race up the hills toward the fires. Officials were convinced people would associate the sirens with a menace from the sea.

Maui officials relied, instead, on texting and Internet messaging to urge evacuation. But those methods failed when the massive wildfires disabled cell phone towers and other online communications infrastructure. The wildfires claimed 115 lives, making it the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but experts say the lesson from Maui is the importance of having multiple paths of communication between authorities and their citizens.

Analysts say it is unfair and unrealistic to expect first responders to shoulder the load in major disasters. Cities and counties simply don’t have enough public employee first responders to fully manage community response in a disaster of the size and scope of the fires that swept Maui. One suggestion is development of a “people” network of emergency notification. This requires raising awareness of the value of word-of-mouth communication — and asking the public to help.

Stephen E. Flynn, founder and director of Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute, says he has been impressed by reports of how the indigenous people of Maui and other longtime residents are setting up their own aid networks in response to the fires.

“It’s going to be a powerful story coming out about how everyday people responded and what we can learn from that,” Flynn said, adding: “How do we support that? Who are the nonprofits and faith-based organizations and others who are likely to step up? The real challenge is, how do we democratize emergency management?”

Disaster researchers note most of the world’s infrastructure is not built to withstand a wide range of potential hazards. They say official emergency responders should assume they may have to use multiple methods of issuing warnings and plan for severe disruptions of evacuation routes, among other unpleasant surprises.

(Sources: USA Today, Northeastern University Global News)

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The above news items are provided for informational purposes and are not intended to reflect MMRMA opinions, coverage, or risk management recommendations.

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