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Why Are Pedestrian Deaths at Epidemic Levels?

While the rest of the developed world has made progress in reducing the number of pedestrians killed by vehicles, America continues to move in the wrong direction. Author Angie Schmitt talks about root causes and solutions.

An illuminated "don't walk" sign.
(absolut/Shutterstock)
The United States is an extremely auto-centric nation. In even the most urban areas, it is often difficult to live without access to a personal automobile. Multi-lane highways cut through dense neighborhoods, dividing residents from amenities and turning a run to the convenience store into a death-defying race. For many Americans, this is just the way the world works.

For years, transportation consultant and writer Angie Schmitt has tried to pick apart why it works that way and how the U.S. could become a less car-centric and less dangerous place. In 2020 she published Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, an examination of the toll that the nation’s auto-centric infrastructure takes on those who are not encased in steel and glass when they travel.

Schmitt found that even as reported rates of walking among Americans have been on the decline, pedestrian deaths have surged in recent years. Between 2009 and 2019, total driving miles increased by 10 percent but pedestrian deaths increased by 50 percent. In Europe, by contrast, they fell by 36 percent over the last decade. Since then, the U.S. toll has only grown worse.

Governing talked with Schmitt about how the pandemic affected pedestrian deaths, the problem with the popularity of SUVs, and why education about safe driving is not enough.

Governing: Let’s open by laying out the parameters of the conversation. In 2018, 6,283 pedestrians died by car, the most since the mid-1990s, and that’s not including the 1,500 people killed in driveways and parking lots. Why have pedestrian deaths grown in recent years?

Angie Schmitt: There’s a few different trends happening that are all negative for pedestrian safety. One of them is that cars are getting bigger and faster. We’ve had this big switch from sedans to SUVs. It’s been really, really rapid in the last decade. That means cars are heavier and they have higher front ends, so pedestrians are hit with greater force when they are struck and higher on the body where it’s more likely to be fatal.

At the same time, the U.S. population is aging. Older people are more vulnerable to these types of crashes. And we have demographic shifts, like growth in the Sun Belt region of the United States. That’s negative for this issue, because that’s the most dangerous part of the United States for pedestrians. We also have growth in poverty in the suburbs and increasing diversity in our suburbs. There are more lower income people in locations that really weren’t designed with pedestrian safety in mind at all.

Governing: In the beginning of the book, you have a short foreword written in March 2020 where you predict that potentially pedestrian deaths could fall in 2020 because of shutdowns and a major recession. What actually happened?

Schmitt: It got worse. I made that prediction because usually during a recession driving miles will decrease and because of that traffic deaths will decline. But driving miles and traffic deaths unlinked during this pandemic, and one of the reasons that happened is because there was a lot less congestion, so there were wide open roads and people could speed. There was a lot of reckless driving.

Anecdotally, we were hearing reports throughout the entire pandemic and then the data really showed that there was an alarming uptick in deaths, especially if you control for how many miles people were driving. I think there was a 5 percent increase in pedestrian deaths, which is a really huge jump for a year, but it was actually 20 percent controlled for driving miles.

Governing: In my experience, this isn’t an issue that policymakers are particularly concerned with or even aware of. Is that largely a question of political and societal power? The people who are killed are, after all, disproportionately poor.

Schmitt: I think that’s part of it. In most cities in the United States, well-off white people aren’t doing much walking. If they are, they’re in a pretty safe spot. They’re not the ones who are having to cross a seven-lane highway in Florida to catch a bus. The people who are put in that position aren’t in positions of power in government and media and all the institutions that set policy.

Governing: Right, most reporters, politicians and policymakers have cars. They view the world through what’s called “windshield bias.” The pedestrian-unfriendly nature of our society is largely invisible to them.

Schmitt: Even most poor people in the United States drive to work. It really depends on the city, but for example, I was just down in South Florida and the kind of people who are out walking in locations like that are an underclass. It’s people with disabilities, the very poor, the kind of people that are working third shifts or are maybe unhoused. Most reporters or engineers probably don’t have any direct experience with that.

Governing: This is something I’ve seen even in places like Philadelphia, where many households don’t own cars. Even politicians and policymakers who represent the poorest areas of the city still have windshield bias. They represent the perspectives of the people they hear from, and who vote, in their districts and those people tend to own cars even if they are in the minority.

Schmitt: The prevailing narrative for a long time has been if you are killed by a car, it’s your own fault. If you’re killed while you’re walking, it’s your own fault. You shouldn’t have been in the street. That’s the moral lens we’re seeing the problem through, even though if you step back it’s cruel and inaccurate. If you step back, we can see that there’s all these patterns about where this is occurring, and it has to do with a lot of factors outside individual agency.

Governing: I’ve noticed that politicians often say we just need better education about driving or pedestrian practices. There’s even been these ideas that pedestrians should wear reflective gear or carry a flashlight at all times. These ideas are plainly ineffective, so why are they trotted out again and again?

Schmitt: Part of that exercise is just people who are in positions of power absolving themselves of responsibility. The whole issue of clothing color, I mean, I don’t dispute that it would be helpful if all pedestrians wore white when they were out at night. But we just default to this individual explanation, and then we’re rejecting things that could really make a difference.

Governing: So what is actually effective? It seems like the answer that you arrive at in your book is, in part, changing design. But it’s obviously a much steeper climb to change professional practices and built infrastructure than to just scold people.

Schmitt: Design is important, but I think we also need to change cars. We can go a lot of the way there just with better vehicle safety regulations. The RAND Corporation estimated we could be saving at least 10,000 lives a year, maybe 20,000, if we were requiring some existing vehicle technologies in all cars like automatic emergency braking. Or blind spot detection and alcohol ignition interlocks. A combination of things like that already exists, and we could save tens of thousands of lives. We’re just not doing it. There’s been so little attention paid, it’s been hard to generate political will.

Governing: That’s something to pursue at the federal level. But at the state and local level, road design is where policymakers can actually make a difference.

Schmitt: Road design is a big problem. There are some local governments that are fighting the good fight here. But there’s so much institutional inertia and things like the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices that it’s hard for them, when it should be automatic. Safety should be automatic. Instead, it’s the exception and the dangerous thing is automatic.

Governing: Are you seeing signs of change among local policymakers? I recently wrote an article about New York’s Democratic primary, where all the candidates embraced more bike lanes, more bus lanes, more pedestrian-friendly policies. But you also highlight that in 2019, Phoenix’s City Council voted against a vision zero policy. To me, Phoenix seems a lot more representative of other American cities than New York.

Schmitt: New York is obviously a special place and they do have more well off people who walk and use transit. That’s very helpful, politically, for those causes. They also, and I think it’s related, have established, effective advocacy groups that have been working really hard for a long time.

Meanwhile, people in places like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland are frustrated with the pace of progress and don’t feel like enough is being done. But the real problem is places like Houston or Phoenix, where they’re seeing enormous growth every year, 10 percent growth every year, and their record is terrible. There’s not much happening to improve it, although I should mention Houston is talking about trying to do some big things around this.

Governing: You draw an interesting analogy to the anti-drunk driving movement, which managed to make an issue that no one cared about a common sense policy fix embraced by both political parties. Is that possible for dangerous driving and pedestrian safety? Or is this a tougher fix because so many of the solutions require more spending by governments as opposed to just punishing people?

Schmitt: I do think it’s possible. We have seen shifts, although we haven’t had very many in the United States. But we have had some big breakthrough moments in traffic safety. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) was one of them. Another was after Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe At Any Speed, and then we got NHTSA (our auto regulatory agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), and that saved a lot of lives too.

There’s a lot of international examples too, where they’ve figured this out in a lot of our peer countries to a much greater degree than we have. [On a population adjusted basis, Canada loses less than half as many people to traffic crashes than the U.S. does, Schmitt’s book reports, while the United Kingdom suffers half our pedestrian deaths per capita.]

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So I definitely think it’s possible, and I do think the lack of attention and care to it is one of the things that is preventing us from addressing it.

It’s sad. A lot of times in the state legislatures, they’re very dismissive of people who have really gone through terrible things, losing family members this way. It cuts across demographics. Pedestrian deaths are concentrated among more marginalized groups, but traffic deaths, in general, nobody can escape that. It’s sad that we are so unsympathetic to people who go through that. There just isn’t a very wide recognition of how much policies and public decision-making and design decisions affect all this.

Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart
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