Connecting state and local government leaders
The trend appears to be especially troublesome in the South, and for minorities and lower-income communities.
The number of pedestrians getting struck and killed by vehicles on America’s roadways has been on the rise in recent years and there are steps that all levels of government could be taking to address the problem, according to a report released on Wednesday.
States and metropolitan areas in the South were some of the most dangerous for pedestrians over the decade that ended in 2017, the report says. It also highlights how people who are poor, minorities, and older face outsized risks when walking compared to other groups.
“The bottom line is that we are killing more people walking,” Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, said during a call with reporters on Tuesday.
The coalition worked with the advocacy group Smart Growth America to produce the study, which relies on federal crash data.
The authors of the report looked at pedestrian deaths between 2008 and 2017. During that period, they found that 49,340 people were hit and killed by vehicles in the U.S. That’s equal to a rate of more than 13 people per day, according to the report.
From 2008 to 2014, the annual total fatality figure was between 4,109 and 4,910. But in 2015 and 2016 it climbed to 5,494, then 6,080, before slipping to 5,977 in 2017.
Despite the increase in fatalities, people were not walking more during the 10 year period that researchers examined. And while people were driving more, vehicle miles travelled in 2017 was only 8.1 percent higher than in 2008, while pedestrian deaths rose over a third.
Pedestrian fatalities during the decade also increased as a share of all motor vehicle-related deaths, from 11.8 percent to around 16.1 percent. In contrast, motorist deaths declined.
Included in the report is a ranking of all 50 states and 100 of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. based on a Pedestrian Danger Index.
The index measures how deadly it is for a person to walk in a state or metro area, while controlling for population and the number of people who walk to work in that place.
Florida ranked worst on the index among states, followed by Alabama, Delaware, Louisiana Mississippi, Georgia, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and South Carolina.
Eight of the top 10 most dangerous metropolitan areas based on the index were located in Florida. Also in the top 10 were Bakersfield, California and Jackson, Mississippi.
The report authors take the position that street design is not evolving enough to improve pedestrian safety. They also say that federal and state policies, standards and funding programs prioritize the speedy flow of cars, over the safety of other users.
“Our infrastructure just isn’t keeping up with the needs we place on it,” Atherton said. “Changes to improve safety take awhile,” she added. “But when we are building, we’re most certainly building more dangerous roads, like arterials.”
There are other factors Atherton and others pointed to in explaining why more people on foot have been getting killed in crashes.
One is that more people are driving larger vehicles, like sport utility vehicles and trucks, than in the past. Research shows that these heavier vehicles are more likely to kill people when they hit them compared to smaller vehicles, like passenger sedans.
Another factor is the “suburbanization of poverty,” which has left poorer people living in areas with streets that are poorly designed to safely accommodate pedestrians.
Charles Brown, a researcher at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, described disparities in the report across minority and age groups and income levels, when measuring fatalities based on the number of deaths per thousand people.
African-American people between 2008 and 2017, he said, were 72 percent more likely to have been struck and killed by drivers while walking compared to people of other races.
Adults age 50 or older were 47 percent more likely to be fatally hit by a vehicle than their younger peers.
And in neighborhoods where median household income levels were $36,000 or less, between two and three pedestrians were killed per 100,000 people, compared to a rate of less than one pedestrian per 100,000 in neighborhoods with incomes of $79,000 to $250,000.
Brown said multiple reasons are to blame for the higher fatality rate in poorer areas.
People in poorer communities, he said, are more likely to be commuting on foot or using transit. Low-income neighborhoods in the U.S. are also often located in the vicinity of busy arterials and highways, and may lack sidewalks.
“It is also true, unfortunately, that this is and has also been historically a direct result of systemic racism,” Brown said.
“Lower income and minority communities receive education and enforcement. Whereas their counterparts receive a disproportionate share of quality infrastructure,” he continued. “As a society we have weaponized transportation as a tool of oppression.
“Complete streets, if done correctly, can be a tool of liberation,” Brown added.
Another concern is the safety of pedestrians with disabilities.
Carolyn Grawi, executive director of the Center for Independent Living Disability Resource Center, described on Tuesday’s call how she was struck in a crosswalk by an SUV in Pensacola, Florida. Grawi, who is legally blind, said the crash resulted in a concussion. Police determined she was not at fault.
“For many people with disabilities, driving is not an option,” Grawi noted.
So what’s to be done to combat the rise in pedestrian deaths? The report outlines a number of actions that state and local governments can take to improve pedestrian safety.
For example, prioritizing safety over the flow of traffic. Specifically, the report suggests getting rid of a road design metric known as “level of service,” which measures how successful a street is based on its lack of vehicle delays.
Designing roads to reduce speeds wherever possible is another step the report recommends.
It also calls for focusing on safety projects that benefit people in demographic groups that are disproportionately hit by vehicles. Testing out low-cost, short-term fixes to safety hazards, with an eye toward permanent solutions, is another option the report highlights.
Atherton stressed that the federal government has a role to play, and not just by providing more money for transportation projects.
Her group would like to see Congress adopt a national “complete streets” policy—which generally refers to designing and building streets that allow people to travel safely, regardless of their demographic group or what mode of transportation they’re using.
If a policy like the one the National Complete Streets Coalition envisions were to be adopted, she said, it would require states and metropolitan planning organizations to have to consider all users when they’re using federal dollars to plan transportation projects.
“That would mean,” she said, “that you can no longer just think of vulnerable users as an add-in.”
The coalition would also like not only for states to set stronger safety targets for pedestrians, but also for there to be federal penalties, with funding perhaps, if they fail to meet those goals.
A significant federal infrastructure bill, if one were to materialize, or the reauthorization of major federal surface transportation funding legislation, which is set to expire in 2020, Atherton said, could provide openings for discussions about these sorts of topics.
Billy Hattaway, director of transportation for Orlando, Florida, which is located in the metro area that the report lists as the most dangerous, said it would also help if Congress reversed a policy that restricts certain funds from being used for safety education initiatives.
Hattaway previously worked on pedestrian safety efforts during his time at the state Department of Transportation, after the same report in 2011 found that Florida had trouble with pedestrian fatalities. He dismissed a question on Tuesday about the validity of the index.
“We have a problem that needs to be dealt with,” he said. “We have way too many people dying on our roads throughout the country and we have our share, obviously, in the state of Florida.”
Hattaway noted steps that the state has taken to improve pedestrian safety, like targeting resources toward specific counties, and a complete streets policy adopted in 2014, which led to guidelines aimed at lowering vehicle speeds. He pointed to projects in Orlando, too.
But he also highlighted land development issues, and the fact that in many Sunbelt states communities are connected by arterial roadways that can be wide and busy.
“We still have a whole lot of work to do,” he said. “Historically, I would say many of the state DOTs have not treated safety as seriously as some of us are starting to do today,” Hattaway added. “To redesign and reconstruct roadways is not only very expensive, but takes time.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.