A Step in the Wrong Direction: Pedestrian Deaths Hit Highest Total Since 1990

This rendering of a possible “RiNo Promenade” along Arkins Court would be a slimmer and safer street than the current truck-first road. Pedestrians would have a path alongside it. Image: Wenk Associates for Denver Parks
This rendering of a possible “RiNo Promenade” along Arkins Court would be a slimmer and safer street than the current truck-first road. Pedestrians would have a path alongside it. Image: Wenk Associates for Denver Parks

This story is by Trevor Stankiewicz, a policy associate in the Denver office of The Frontier Group, a left-leaning think tank that is part of the larger Public Interest Network of advocacy organizations. It is cross-posted from the organization’s website and responds to the 75 percent increase in Colorado pedestrian fatalities and a 35 percent increase nationally

When I was 17 years old, I was hit by a car estimated to be driving between 25 and 30 miles per hour. I fractured my patella, tore two structural ligaments in my leg, and suffered nerve damage to my knee. I was in a crosswalk in a parking lot.

And I was lucky. In 2015, of the estimated 70,000 pedestrians involved in car crashes, 1 in 13 were killed. Those are the same odds as pulling an ace from a deck of cards.

According to a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), pedestrian deaths in the U.S. increased by 35 percent between 2008 and 2017. During the same time frame, all other traffic deaths decreased by 6 percent.

Those statistics show that we have made it safer to be in a car and more dangerous to be outside of one.

Some safety innovations for vehicles have come at a cost to people outside of them. For example, stricter roof-crush standards led automakers to widen the A-pillars (the part of the frame between the windshield and the front, side windows) to keep drivers safe if a car flips over. However, this widening has been shown to impede the vision of drivers, obscuring their peripheral vision and making pedestrians vulnerable to being unseen.

People on foot are also threatened by the rise in distracted driving. Texting behind the wheel and the growth of touch-screen systems in cars are contributing to an epidemic of distraction. A recent study examined 30 vehicle infotainment systems and found all of them to be distracting to some degree, with 23 receiving distraction levels of “very high” or “high.”

Meanwhile, as America’s streets have gotten meaner, Americans have increasingly been purchasing bigger, heavier vehicles that put other road users, including both pedestrians and drivers of smaller vehicles, at risk. In 2008, light trucks and SUVs accounted for less than half of vehicle sales. In 2017, that number was 65 percent. SUVs often make the driver feel safer, but a pedestrian being struck by an SUV is two to three times more likely to be killed than if they were struck by a car, according to a 2015 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.

It’s easy to be numbed by the statistics of pedestrian deaths. But each one of those deaths rips a hole into the lives of family and friends. And it creates an atmosphere of fear that makes it less likely that people will walk to work or the grocery store – making it harder to reduce transportation’s contribution to climate change and eroding our quality of life.

The climbing death toll should be a wake-up call for our leaders to the fact that this is a public health crisis that requires immediate action.

We need to start with how we design our communities. A majority of pedestrian deaths occur on local streets and state highways, according to the GHSA report. Slower speed limits and stricter enforcement of these limits can help protect people on foot or bike. A person that is hit by a car driving at 25 mph has a 25 percent risk of sustaining a serious or fatal injury. Those odds double when the speed is increased to 33 mph.

We can also give people more transportation options, such as public transportation, and invest in better infrastructure for people who walk or bike. Cities in the U.S. with more public transit usage have lower traffic fatality rates, including pedestrian deaths. And just as unsafe streets can create a vicious cycle that drives more people into the refuge of their cars, improvements that get more people biking and walking create safety in numbers that makes it even safer to travel on foot or by bike.

Cities across the country have joined the Vision Zero movement, an initiative focused on reducing the number of traffic deaths to zero. To achieve that goal, all the choices we make – from how we design communities to how we design cars – need to be geared towards keeping vulnerable people safe on the streets.

But there is no time to waste. No 17-year-old should come to know as much about the anatomy of the knee as I did because someone thought the gas pedal was the brake. And no one should have to face the loss of a spouse, a child, a family member or a friend in a traffic crash – especially when we have the tools to keep people safe.

  • jcwconsult

    But also remember that pedestrian safety involves the pedestrians as well as the drivers. NHTSA data reveals that a very high percentage of pedestrian fatalities occur outside of marked crosswalks. A high percentage are also at night with reduced ability of the pedestrians to be seen. Pedestrians can improve their own safety in both circumstances.

    NO, this is not victim blaming. It is just noting facts. My parents taught me how to be safe walking to my elementary school which involved crossing a busy four lane collector street. Look left, look right, look left again, and NEVER try to occupy the same space as a moving vehicle. I found it to be simple advice and quite safety-effective.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

    • Sincerely

      Yup, it’s victim blaming. Even more pathetic is your suggestion that somehow crossing streets outside of marked crosswalks puts people walking at fault for their own death. Many states require motorists to at least yield to pedestrians in unmarked crosswalks, and many also require motorists to yield regardless of the presence of a crosswalk.

      If night time driving is so difficult for drivers, that’s even more strong evidence against your fantasy that motorists magically know what speed is the safest.

      • TakeFive

        You must get special pleasure from stalking jcwconsult?

        Who doesn’t yield to pedestrians they see? For whatever reason people like to wear dark clothing which doesn’t reflect what little light there may be. I know… you have a counter for everything (except reality).

        • Sincerely

          What an odd comment.

          JCW is engaged in a deliberate disinformation campaign because he apparently never grew out of his teenage fixation on automobiles.

          In my experience, the majority of motorists regularly fail to yield to pedestrians.

          • TakeFive

            I’ll accept your view within its context.

            I can recall coming around a curve with poor lighting and a person in dark clothing suddenly appeared in front of me as my headlights swung around thru the curve; not only was I happy to yield I was grateful I saw the person in time to not run him over. I’ve also seen numerous instances when cars stop even when a pedestrian is walking against the lights. I really can’t believe that most drivers would be happy to run somebody over rather than stop so I’ll assume we are talking about two very different things.

          • Sincerely

            If you’re coming around a curve in low lighting, it is your responsibility to be traveling at a speed appropriate for that poor visibility.

            I don’t think most motorists want to run somebody over, but motorists often drive too fast for conditions, aren’t paying adequate attention, or feel entitled to road space such that they expect others to yield when it is they who should be yielding. All those errors contribute to motorists failing to yield in 90%+ of situations where they are required to by law.

          • TakeFive

            lol, as I said, an answer for everything.

            Speaking only for myself I live in a world where most people are imperfect and many are even irresponsible but best of luck finding your Utopian village.

          • Sincerely

            I don’t think it’s utopian to expect people to not act in a way that kills other people. That kind of seems like it should be the bare minimum. I suppose we have different standards. Good luck wherever you end up, and drive safely.

    • gojoblogo

      Your comment makes the design of our streets sound inevitable and unchangeable.

      If pedestrians are consistently crossing streets where there isn’t a marked crosswalk, perhaps add more safe crossings in. If night time driving is the problem, slow traffic on difficult roads, provide more and safer crossings with longer signal.

      I think what you are doing is victim blaming. If it were one or two people a year, you may be able to make the case that it was that one or two people’s fault. It is an enormous number though. Maybe we can identify the root cause (infrastructure designed to efficiently move cars as a priority over pedestrians) and target our solutions there instead of asking pedestrians to apologize for trying to get where they are going. Street design is not inevitable or unchangeable. Get ready for change.

      • jcwconsult

        Street design IS changeable for more safety. We’ve had a fierce debate in my town about the need to have good lighting at all pedestrian crosswalks, whether at intersection or mid-block and I support that. I support pedestrian-demand rapid flashing beacons and similar devices at crosswalks. I support advance pedestrian signals at downtown intersections with high pedestrian counts.

        Night is an issue of visibility, particularly when pedestrians cross at places without a crosswalk. That action requires seriously more care on the part of the pedestrian – assuming they have a good self preservation instinct. Just assuming they can be seen at night without a crosswalk wearing dark clothing is nonsense and quite dangerous.

        James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

        • gojoblogo

          How about road diets and right-sizing? Bulb-outs and smaller turn radii? The inclusion of better and safer biking, walking, and transit infrastructure, even when it equates to reduced capacity for SOVs? How about any design treatment that isn’t only topical, but actually structurally changes the street to enforce slower safer driving?

          Also, since you seem to represent an organization that tracks this sort of thing, I would appreciate it if you could point me to a comparison of how many car/ped collisions occur as a result of distracted/reckless walking and distracted/reckless driving. Peer-reviewed is preferred.

          Even if there were data indicating distracted or reckless walking is as much of a problem as for driving (data I suspect does not exist), pedestrians have been pushed to the sidelines almost everywhere. It was not always the case that pedestrians HAD to be constantly aware of their surroundings in order not to be killed. Yes, some level of awareness should simply come with being human, but the stakes are so high for pedestrians in urban areas. Urban areas should be safe for pedestrians to daydream a little, take in the sites, etc without constant fear of death. That shouldn’t be normal yet over the course of nearly a century, we have made it standard operating procedure that the design of our cities defers to the car first.

          Remember, streets are not only about moving things and doing it as fast as possible. Streets are also our shared spaces, our gathering places, and by far the largest amount of publicly accessible land in cities. Under that paradigm, pedestrians should own the streets and everything else should bend to their needs.

          • jcwconsult

            I don’t have specific data on the % of car/ped collisions that are due more to distracted driving vs distracted walking. I have read at least two NHTSA reports saying 60+% of ped fatalities involve the ped’s actions or inactions that contributed to their fatalities.

            The net conclusion for me is that every pedestrian, cyclist and driver should be constantly aware of the dangers of accidents in urban, suburban and rural environments.

            Streets – the paved parts of the active roadways – are primarily for moving vehicles efficiently. Streets – again the paved parts of the active roadways – are not “gathering places” for pedestrians, cyclists, or vehicle drivers.

            Pedestrians, cyclists and drivers MUST be constantly aware of their surroundings for safety. Distracted walking, biking, and driving are not acceptable for any road user. Daydreaming while crossing or proceeding down the streets is NOT OK for any road users.

            Road diets are fine, but with limits on the overall ADT and/or the peak hour ADT. Bulb outs and shorter turn radii are fine when they do not take a travel lane to build them. Engineering changes on collector & arterial streets that reduce the speeds the slowest 85% of the drivers find to be safe and comfortable must take into account the transportation requirements of commerce for commuters, shoppers, tourists, visitors and commercial traffic.

            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • gojoblogo

            So, in summary, changing the design of the street is only acceptable when it the design doesn’t substantively change anything.

            Your myopic definition of streets proves the point I was making. Streets were, can be, and should be shared spaces again. Despite what car industry shills like you think.

          • jcwconsult

            Streets – meaning the active paved portions of the roadways – are for moving vehicles. They are not for pedestrian or cyclist conventions – and they are most definitely not the places for distracted drivers.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • Sincerely

            Not vehicles. People.

    • Sincerely

      You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    • mckillio

      Your cognitive dissonance is truly breathtaking. When drivers don’t obey laws and protect theirs/other’s safety you blame street/road design. When pedestrians don’t obey laws and protect their safety they need to take on more personal responsibility.

      • Sincerely

        Another fun one: when it’s pointed out that 40,000 people die a year because of motorists, JCW waves it away by claiming that, as measured by VMT, roads are much safer now. But when we’re discussing red light enforcement, he’ll happily claim that the Florida data, which shows crashes overall either decreasing or only got increasing consistent with increases in miles traveled, and which shows the most severe crashes decreasing relative to that increase in VMT, as a sign that red light cameras don’t make intersections safer.

      • jcwconsult

        It has been known for 75+ years that most drivers will not comply with posted limits set well below the speeds the slowest 85% of the drivers find to be safe and comfortable and which ARE safe and comfortable almost all the time. Engineering, not numbers painted on signs, controls the actual travel speeds and engineering can be changed.

        It is the responsibility of all drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to take responsibility to drive, cycle and walk safely.

        James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

        • mckillio

          Thanks for confirming that you’re a blatant hypocrite.

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