Dangerous By Design: How the U.S. Builds Roads That Kill Pedestrians

With sporadic sidewalks, seven lanes, and crosswalks spaced a half mile or more apart, this arterial road in Atlanta doesn't even allow residents of the apartment complex at right — perhaps including the pedestrian in the center lane — to access the store across the street. Photo: National Complete Streets Coalition

If you had to cross this road on your walk to work, wouldn’t you rather drive?

Millions of Americans live in communities without safe places to walk. And so they either don’t walk, adding to traffic congestion with every trip, or they do walk, risking joining the ranks of the 47,700 pedestrians killed and 688,000 injured in crashes with automobiles in the last decade.

Transportation for America’s new report, “Dangerous by Design,” highlights that these deaths could have been prevented with better street design. But despite the fact that pedestrians account for 12 percent of all road fatalities, pedestrian safety only gets 1.5 percent of safety funding. “Worthy efforts to improve vehicle design, encourage seat belt and child booster seat use, eliminate drunk driving and end distracted driving have helped save the lives of thousands of motorists and their passengers,” writes report author Michelle Ernst. “Unfortunately, pedestrian fatalities have not received the same kind of attention or response.”

T4America’s analysis of the national traffic safety database reveals that more than 52 percent of pedestrian deaths happen on arterial roads designed to accommodate many cars on many lanes at high speeds, with little to no accommodation for people on foot. Those roads often lack sidewalks, crosswalks, and medians for safe pedestrian crossings. “All too often, the consequences of this lack of basic infrastructure are fatal,” the authors note. “Of the 40,037 pedestrian fatalities for which the location of the collision was known, more than 40 percent were killed where no crosswalk was available.”

People with few transportation options are especially vulnerable. Low-income people and people of color are disproportionately victims of traffic fatalities while on foot. Children too young to drive are also at risk: “Pedestrian injury is the third leading cause of death by unintentional injury for children 15 and younger, according to CDC mortality data,” Ernst writes. “Nearly 3,900 children 15 years and younger were killed while walking from 2000 through 2007, representing between 25 and 30 percent of all traffic deaths.”

Seniors are nearly twice as likely to be killed while walking as people under 65, the report goes on to say. The higher rate is attributable to the fact that elderly people are more likely to die of their injuries and are more likely to “have physical impairments that decrease their ability to avoid oncoming traffic.” But it’s also an engineering flaw that puts them at greater risk: Older people can’t run across seven lanes of traffic in the time allowed by the crosswalk signal. Nearly two-thirds of transportation planners and engineers said in a survey that they do not consider the needs of older Americans in their planning.

Does the disproportionate vulnerability of senior citizens explain Florida’s abysmal rankings on pedestrian safety? The report ranks metro areas according to a variety of metrics, but by the most basic one – “most dangerous” – Florida takes the cake for the worst pedestrian safety.

The four most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians are all in Florida. Source: Transportation for America

Florida also has the worst pedestrian fatality rate of any state in the nation. But apparently, Florida pedestrians are not killed so frequently because a disproportionate number of them are seniors: Adults 65 or over accounted for 22 percent of the state’s pedestrian deaths — the same as the national average. There seems to be something especially dangerous about Florida’s roads. (Florida is also among the most dangerous states for bicyclists.)

Recently, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been debating whether objectives like increasing pedestrian safety rise to the level of national significance. Many members of Congress have been assiduously working to limit the federal role in transportation, with only highways fitting under their definition of “the national interest.” But T4America counters that argument in its report:

Pedestrian safety is often perceived as a strictly local issue, but 67 percent of all 47,000+ pedestrian fatalities from 2000 to 2009 occurred on federal-aid roadways — major roads eligible to receive federal funding for construction and improvements with federal guidelines or oversight for design.

Taxpayer money that goes to the federal government and is distributed to the states for transportation should be used to build streets, roads and highways that are safe for all users. With millions of Americans walking along and crossing these federally funded roads each day, the billions in federal dollars spent on them each year must result in safer conditions for pedestrians.