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Atlanta defends its rainbow crosswalks as symbols of pride. Federal highway officials say it impacts road safety

Atlanta’s dazzling rainbow crosswalks won’t be repainted any time soon, the mayor said.

The symbol of solidarity with the city’s LGBTQ residents will remain, the office of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced, days before Atlanta’s Pride festivities begin.

“Much like glitter, the crosswalk is here to stay indefinitely,” spokesman Michael Smith said in a statement to CNN.

The announcement comes the same week another city denied the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) request to remove its rainbow crosswalks.

Ames, Iowa, painted its first crosswalks with the colors of the gay, gender non-binary and transgender pride flags in September. That month, the FHWA sent a letter that claimed the new art interfered with the safety of road users.

But Ames kept its stripes. Because the intersection isn’t owned or funded by the US government, the presence or absence of a rainbow in the street should be up to Iowa to decide, Ames attorney Mark Lambert wrote in a memo to the mayor and city council.

What’s more, the agency won’t force the city to repaint the crosswalks or fine the city for keeping them.

The federal government hasn’t even asked Atlanta to remove its crosswalks, but if they did, Mayor Bottoms wouldn’t budge.

Atlanta first painted the town red (and orange, yellow, green, etc.) in 2015 at the intersection of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue, near Outwrite, a pioneering LGBTQ bookstore and coffee shop that closed in 2012.

The stripes returned permanently in 2017 around the one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

“[The intersection] is where many gay people who felt isolated–particularly young gay people–knew we could go to be around other people just like us, and an area where you could go to support gay businesses,” Smith said.

The trouble isn’t with rainbows, the agency says

Given the spotlight on LGBTQ rights — including two Supreme Court cases that weigh whether civil rights laws protect LGBTQ workers — the calls for removal can seem targeted and biased. The Federal Highway Administration assures they are not.

“Safety for all road users is FHWA’s priority,” a spokesperson with the agency who requested anonymity citing departmental policy said in a statement to CNN. “While we maintain that traffic control devices need to be uniform, consistent and recognizable, the agency is open to collaborating with state and local jurisdictions that have ideas with the potential to improve roadway safety and performance.”

Since 2011, the FHWA has discouraged cities from painting colorful or differently designed crosswalks, citing a threat to safety.

According to the agency’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, colorful pavement can obscure white safety lines recognized as crosswalks. Art that isn’t directly in the crosswalk can still distract drivers and pedestrians from obeying the rules of the road and encourage road users to “loiter in the street,” the agency said.

But the guidance doesn’t solely target rainbows. The FHWA added the guidance to its manual when it denied a request from Buffalo, New York, to paint a green, yellow and white jigsaw puzzle design within a crosswalk, replacing the parallel white lines.

The agency set its guidelines for crosswalks based on studies that examined their design, placement and visibility, among others.

But the agency is willing to consider new road designs. It grants interim approval to projects that aren’t in the manual yet, if applicants can prove the new traffic control device effectively keep road users safe.

But the experimentation process often takes more than a year to complete if applicants’ submissions are approved by the FHWA.

When the manual is updated in the coming months, the FHWA will consider public comments for new additions. That’s an opportunity for cities to collaborate with the agency to make their road art street-legal.

More pedestrians are dying

Pedestrian fatalities are on the rise, though the impact of street art on those deaths hasn’t been studied. The Governors Highway Safety Association projected that more than 6,200 people were killed while walking in the US in 2018, a nearly 30-year high.

The nonprofit said the rise may be due to an abundance of pedestrians — there are more of them, and more of them are walking to work during busy traffic hours. Alcohol impairment was a major factor, with nearly half of deaths involving a pedestrian or driver over the legal limit. Their study also pointed to other unsafe driving behaviors, like speeding or distracted driving.

Meanwhile, vehicular deaths are leveling off after years of troubling upticks.

About 40,000 people were killed in car crashes in 2018, the National Safety Council reported. It’s a modest 1% decrease from the previous year.

Speeding is still the most common cause of fatal car accidents. Somewhat surprisingly, phone use is down to just over 5% of drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (though that national estimate is based on drivers’ responses).

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