The Today Show Completely Botched Its Coverage of America’s Pedestrian Safety Crisis

The Today Show's Kerry Sanders stood in the middle of an enormous intersection in Orlando and blamed distracted pedestrians for the rise in pedestrian deaths.
The Today Show's Kerry Sanders stood in the middle of an enormous intersection in Orlando and blamed distracted pedestrians for the rise in pedestrian deaths.

They say you should never let a crisis go to waste. Well, there’s a life-threatening crisis happening for people who walk in this country, but our national media is wasting this chance to inform the public how to fix it.

A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association [PDF] estimates that nationwide, there were nearly 6,000 pedestrian deaths in 2016. That’s a 25 percent increase since 2010 and the highest number in two decades.

That was enough to get news outlets like the Today Show to pay attention to pedestrian safety for once. But the Today segment was a victim-blaming disaster, writes Joseph Cutrufo at Mobilizing the Region:

If you ask the Today Show, it’s distracted pedestrians who are to blame, a point they illustrated by showing a video clip of a person being struck by a driver while standing on the sidewalk. The whole segment seems utterly ridiculous, but then again, in a country where more than 90 percent of households own at least one vehicle and more than three-quarters of commuters drive to work, maybe the Today Show’s audience is actually buying it.

Here’s the thing: if you think distracted walking is what’s causing more people being killed, ask yourself what happens when two pedestrians collide. Usually nothing. But that’s not the case when you add cars and trucks to the mix. Motorized vehicles are an “amplifying agent in the coming together of a driver and a pedestrian”; when a pedestrian is struck with a vehicle, there’s a good chance the pedestrian is going to suffer — and the driver is going to walk away unscathed.

Certainly we all have a responsibility to ourselves and our families to avoid taking unnecessary risks with our own lives. But simply being aware of your surroundings isn’t much help when the driver of a two-ton vehicle jumps the curb and runs you over.

Why does the Today Show’s terrible coverage matter? If the problem of 6,000 lives lost each year boils down to victims’ behavior, the way Today implies, that absolves everyone else of any responsibility. We can all get back to living our lives comfortable in the assurance that nothing important has to change.

However, the issue of distraction (among both drivers and walkers) was only a minor point in the GHSA report, which called for a number of reforms, including better engineering and better enforcement of dangerous driving.

We’ll never make progress on pedestrian fatalities if so many streets look like the highway where Sanders stands at the beginning of his report. We need streets where motor vehicles travel at non-lethal speeds and people can cross without taking their lives in their hands.

We should be asking why the United States is doing so much worse than other nations on traffic safety:

pedestrian_fatality_rates_international
Image: International Transport Forum

In the United Kingdom, not only are the streets much safer than in America, but the pedestrian death rate is falling even faster than the overall traffic fatality rate. In other words, British streets are getting safer for walking and driving, but especially for walking.

So instead of another segment blaming people on foot for their own deaths, how about a trip to the UK to investigate how they made a transportation system that’s so much safer than ours?

More recommended reading for today: Seattle Bike Blog says there’s only one major transportation project in Seattle that isn’t threatened by the Trump budget — a bridge project with a terrible design for walking and biking. Modern Cities looks at how mid-century urban renewal and construction of the interstate system devastated a black community in Orlando. And Greater Greater Washington makes the case against a flat fare for transit service across the D.C. Metro system.

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