Cell Phones Don’t Make Walking Dangerous — Car-Based Cities Do

Forget mobile devices or dark clothing. What makes walking dangerous are streets and cities that were shaped during the heyday of auto-sprawl.

Highway signs downtown bode poorly for pedestrian safety. Photo: SPUI/Wikimedia Commons
Highway signs downtown bode poorly for pedestrian safety. Photo: SPUI/Wikimedia Commons

All the hype about cell phone use being to blame for pedestrian deaths doesn’t hold up when you review the data. To get a sense of the real sources of risk for people on foot, it helps to look at where fatal crashes happen, because fatality rates have a very strong geographic component. That’s true both within cities — where fatalities tend to be concentrated on a relative small share of streets — and from city to city.

A new study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee finds huge disparities in the risk of walking and biking between different American cities. The likelihood of being killed is about five times higher in the most dangerous regions than in the safest ones.

Several Florida cities, as usual, are among the most dangerous for walking, while cities with stronger transit systems and walkable street grids tend to be the safest.

pedestrian fatalities

To assess the relative safety in these cities, authors Robert Schneider, Aida Sanatizadeh, and Jason Vargo used federal travel survey responses and crash fatality data. By factoring in how much people walk and bike, they were able to compare safety per trip, not just per capita, though the authors caution that the bike safety data is less robust than the pedestrian data.

The results suggest public policies and physical characteristics separate the safer cities from the more dangerous ones, the authors told the UWM press shop:

“We compared our lists of the safest and most dangerous regions with the ‘Walk Friendly Community’ and ‘Bicycle Friendly Community’ rankings, which are based on the investments cities make in infrastructure and programs,” Schneider said. “The general connection between high rankings and low fatality rates is a good indication that those investments have paid off.”

Schneider also raises another possibility: “Communities that were developed in a more pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly pattern to begin with — typically older urban areas — may have chosen to continue to invest in walking and bicycling, meaning that the relationship may work in both directions.”

In either case, the findings suggest an important connection between walk-friendly and bicycle-friendly communities and safety, he said.

More recommended reading today: Transportation for America reports that a coalition of cities and active transportation advocates opposes automated vehicle legislation under consideration in the House of Representatives. And Plan Philly checks in on how the city’s Play Streets program lets children stretch their legs even if they can’t get to a park or playground.

  • Andrew

    So while it is not okay for a guy to use the phone while driving, it is safe for the same person to do the same thing once he or she gets out of the car and start walking?

    Because while he’s driving a very small mistake can cause serious injury or even death to multiple other people, while while he’s walking it’s exceedingly unlikely that his distractedness will result in even a minor bruise.

    I would ask whether it is safe for the same behavior while at a train/subway station? Yes, the person is not driving, and there are no cars, so there’s no driver to blame. But what about the stairs and escalators, as well as the consequences of falling onto the track?

    I ride the subway every day. Many if not most of my fellow passengers are using phones at at least some point during their rides. The ones who use phones while walking through stations are indeed quite annoying, and they hold up everybody else, and I wish they wouldn’t – but at least they’re not posing any significant danger to anybody else.

  • Sally Flocks

    The Americans with Disabilities requires far more than orange cones. Instead, contractors and agencies are required to install connected, cane-detectible barriers around hazards such as this.

  • Stuart

    To take the most obvious example: speeding in urban environments is extremely common, and many (most?) drivers think 5-10 mph above the speed limit is fine despite the significant increase it has on the chance of hiring a pedestrian, and of killing them if they do hit.

    “Culturally acceptable” is a fuzzy term, but if something is ubiquitous and people are comfortable admitting to doing it and defending the practice, that seems like a pretty good case for people thinking it’s acceptable.

  • jcburns

    Agreed: “Culturally acceptable” is a fuzzy term. But I have to disagree that speeding in urban environments is ubiquitous. And I sure don’t defend the practice.

  • Stuart

    Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the 2000 pounds of steel, etc is some sort of amplifier.

    This isn’t an “assumption”, it’s basic physics. Someone hitting you with 2000 pounds of steel at 25+mph will, on average, do dramatically more harm than someone waking into you.

    There’s a reason you don’t see the headline: “Terrorist walks into crowd, killing 15 people and injuring 40 more by bumping into them”, but do see the version where they drive a truck instead of walking. That reason is that the thousands of pounds of steel amplify their ability to do harm, making them more dangerous.

    What bizarre definition of “danger” are you using where that’s not true?

  • jcburns

    It can be an amplifier of the ultimate damage, but hardware doesn’t amplify or fundamentally change whatever distracted behavior triggered the problem. Folding in terrorist acts into this discussion just muddies the water. We’re talking about safety and accidents and the danger of accidents, not deliberate acts.

  • Andrew

    How often does a distracted pedestrian cause a serious injury or fatality to somebody else? Distracted motorists kill multiple pedestrians in my city every single month.

  • Stuart

    Name a city where speeding isn’t common. Where it’s not a factor in a large fraction of collisions. Where physical interventions to discourage speeding (like speed humps) haven’t been deployed due to common speeding on numerous streets.

  • Andrew

    The following are extremely common behaviors among motorists in my city (New York):

    – Driving in excess of the speed limit, even in areas with lots of pedestrians.
    – Failing to yield to pedestrians while turning.
    – Failing to yield to pedestrians at unsignalized intersections.
    – Slowing but not stopping for stop signs, even with pedestrians approaching or already in the crosswalk.
    – Stopping for stop signs, but then proceeding even while pedestrians are still in the crosswalk.
    – Running red lights, even when pedestrians are crossing or are waiting to cross.
    – Driving and parking in bike lanes and on sidewalks.
    – Using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving.

    These are all culturally acceptable in my city.

  • Andrew

    If you can’t see a pedestrian wearing dark clothes at night, then get better headlights or make an appointment with an eye doctor or stop driving.

    But, really, chances are that you didn’t see the pedestrian because you couldn’t be bothered to look for pedestrians.

  • Andrew

    I don’t carry $100 bills in plain sight while walking through unsafe neighborhoods at night, because I don’t want to be mugged. I wouldn’t recommend that others carry $100 bills in plain sight while walking through unsafe neighborhoods at night

    But if somebody doesn’t take my advice and is mugged, it’s still the mugger who’s to blame. If the local police department has successfully convinced most people to keep their $100 bills in their pockets in unsafe neighborhoods rather than attracting muggers, the unsafe neighborhoods are still unsafe.

    It’s a good idea for pedestrians to pay close attention to approaching traffic, in case a motorist breaks the law and doesn’t stop for them, but that doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that so many motorists freely break the law and endanger pedestrians.

  • Andrew

    I believe you and I live in the same state (and city). Drivers can go for years on end, using their phones while driving (and speeding and failing to yield to pedestrians) every day, without getting a single ticket.

    That, on the exceedingly rare occasion that they may get a ticket, it’s “very expensive” has no effect whatsoever on their behavior. If the overwhelming majority of the time, they engage in their dangerous behavior without being ticketed, the ticket becomes a random nuisance rather than a disincentive to engage in dangerous behavior.

    (By the way, the fine in New York State for using a cell phone while driving is between $50 and $200 for the first offense. For an offense that can kill other people, that’s quite inexpensive, especially when it’s quite likely that the offender has actually committed the offense hundreds of times before being fined for it.)

  • Andrew

    You don’t measure the size of a problem by the size of the vehicle they may or may not be operating.

    But you do measure the size of a problem in part by the likelihood of its severely injuring or killing other people.

  • Andrew

    You don’t linger in the street (if you’re a ped). You get in, do your business, and get back to the sidewalk.

    Many pedestrians in my city cannot walk quickly, due to age or disability. They sometimes have to cross streets to get places. Would you like to personally tell them that they have to stay home, because they take too long to cross the street?

  • Andrew

    Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the 2000 pounds of steel, etc is some sort of amplifier.

    Wow, this is rich.

    In the first six months of 2017, motorists killed 56 pedestrians and cyclists in my city, while pedestrians and cyclists have killed 0.

    Why do you think that is?

  • Stuart

    It can be an amplifier of the ultimate damage, but hardware doesn’t amplify or fundamentally change whatever distracted behavior triggered the problem.

    So basically, you’ve invented a new definition of the word “danger” that’s totally divorced from how everyone else uses it. Okay, have fun with that.

    We’re talking about safety and accidents and the danger of accidents, not deliberate acts.

    The physics involved in cars hitting people at high speed (which is a thing that happens in accidents too) doesn’t care about intentions. I was just pointing out the absurdity of your claim that cars don’t amplify ability to do harm (accidental or deliberate). But I guess since you think harm is unrelated to danger, that wasn’t your claim? Since your use of words doesn’t seem to match my understanding of them, I no longer have any idea what your argument is.

  • This is correct. Nothing can change the fact that all of the responsibility to avoid collisions lies with drivers. Not some. All.

    And this would be true even if people were walking around blindfolded.

  • jcburns

    Since you think “everyone” shares your definitions and world view, you might want to inform the other commenters here who may not have got that message.

  • Stuart

    Since you think “everyone” shares your definitions

    You’re right “everyone” was an exaggeration; it’s a big world, so there must be at least a few other people who believe the word “danger” has no connection to harm. But they might want to consider checking a dictionary, and/or what people around them think, about whether potential harm is a component of danger.

    and world view

    Huh? Personally I don’t think that expecting people to agree on the basic definition of common words is the same as expecting people to have the same world view. But hey, that’s just my personal world view.

  • bettybarcode

    That is correct. In 1890, 806 people were killed on American railroads.*
    In 1990, 44,599 people were killed on American highways.**

    *http://www.wcrscorp.com/resources/frasafety.pdf See p.4

  • bettybarcode

    Very interested to see the statistics on stroller-related injuries & fatalities, other than babies hurt by faulty products.

  • jcburns

    I think you’ll find that (surprise!) pedestrians have legal responsibilities and restrictions too. And although I’m not a lawyer, I think wearing blindfolds would get you into trouble in most states. Here’s a convenient summary of some of them: http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/pedestrian-crossing-50-state-summary.aspx

  • Lincoln

    It does not matter if they are accurate. They are not acceptable excuses.

    There is one factor to blame in each case. THE DRIVER.

    It doesn’t matter if a pedestrian is entirely blind, and is wearing entirely black. If a driver hits them in a location where they have the right of way, the driver is ENTIRELY to blame.

  • jcburns

    The key phrase there is “where they have the right of way.” I suspect many distracted accidents involve the pedestrian, bicyclist, or driver being where they do NOT have the right of way. And in some states (look it up) that includes marked crosswalks.

  • Lincoln

    Just checked. 50/50 require at least yielding.

  • jcburns

    Just one example from http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/pedestrian-crossing-50-state-summary.aspx …California: Pedestrians may not suddenly leave the curb and enter a crosswalk into the path of a moving vehicle that is so close to constitute an immediate hazard. Pedestrians may not unnecessarily stop or delay traffic while in a crosswalk. Pedestrians must yield the right-of-way to vehicles when crossing outside of a marked crosswalk or an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. Where traffic control devices are in operation, pedestrians may only cross between two adjacent intersections in a marked crosswalk.
    That’s all I’m saying: humans have responsibilities when they are pedestrians as well as when they are drivers. No blindfolds!

  • Michel S

    It’s almost as if a dense environment created for occupation by and convenience of people is inherently safer than one created exclusively for the operation and convenience of private automobiles. Huh, weird.

  • Miles Bader

    78% of U.S. adults believe that distracted walking is a “serious” issue

    Irrelevant to injuries; people are notoriously bad at correctly assessing risk.

    Not only is it a completely absurd “datapoint” for that reason, but also because it’s a survey of “U.S. adults,” who in general fall squarely into the “blame anybody and anything except muh car” camp.

  • Miles Bader

    “You don’t linger in the street (if you’re a ped). You get in, do your business, and get back to the sidewalk.”

    That’s just depressing. This is a blog for people who want livable streets that cater to human beings.


    There was a big street redevelopment around where I live, in which a narrow street which was previously “shared” (no sidewalks, both people and vehicles use the same space) but in practice 99% pedestrian, was replaced by a much wider street with sidewalks fenced off.

    This pissed me off no end, because the area has a huge pedestrian presence, and there are large numbers of shops (and rail station entrances), and the new “sidewalk fencing” crazily interferes with the natural flow of people.

    The result though, was in the end, I guess, simply the obvious: large crowds of people starting walking in the street, instead of on the sidewalks, and despite the fencing, cars are forced to drive at walking speed and stop often. As a result, pretty much nobody drives there despite the road having been apparently designed to encourage more car traffic.

    I’m proud of the public here, having responded to an attempt to disenfranchise them by simply refusing to accept it!

  • If blind people can walk anywhere, then someone wearing a blindfold could do likewise.

    The bottom line is that drivers should drive slowly enough that they can stop if a pedestrian crosses mid-block. This, of course, means that no street should have a speed limit in excess of 20 miles per hour. We need a federal law on this.

    Ulitmately we need built-in speed governors that would electronically read the speed limit for the street that the car is on, and that would prohibit the car from going faster than that limit. (This would come with an emergency button that could disable the speed governer, and would be used if a driver needed to speed to a hospital. The emergency button would also alert the police, who would meet the driver at the hospital.)

    The frustrating thing is that the technology to implement such a scheme exists right now; the obstacle is the backward attitudes of American drivers, whose ugly sociopathic tendencies are revealed by their unwillingness to acknowledge their responsibilities to the most vulnerable road users.

  • jcburns

    Yeah, and we need built-in governors to make sure that an airplane never reaches the ground faster than 2 miles per hour, and that a train comes to a dead stop if a human or squirrel is within 500 yards.

    And if a horse and carriage ends up on a street, an automatic system should…

    MAN, you really have it in for American drivers.

    Safety is a good thing. Responsibility can (and should) be SHARED ALL AROUND. Pedestrians and bicyclists need to play by the rules when they’re in that mode as well as when (those same people!) are behind the wheel of a car.

    And accidents will STILL happen. Ferdinand, look up from your device.

  • Don’t make it about me! I am a bicyclist more often than I am a pedestrian; so my interaction with distracted walkers comes when I am trying not to hit them. They sure annoy me; but that doesn’t change the fact that the responsibility to avoid collision is mine, not theirs.

    And, when I am walking, I am definitely not looking at my phone. My only experience with distracted walking came back in the pre-cell-phone days, when in 1988 I foolishly stepped off a curb while reading a book. I learnt my lesson.

    Finally, your mocking examples of airplanes and trains are inapplicable as comparisons to cars on streets because pedestrians have no right to be on an airport runway or on railroad tracks. (They also have no right to be on a highway, which is why we mustn’t hold a driver responsible for not being able to avoid colliding with some goofball who decides to walk on a highway.)

    By contrast, ordinary city streets are places where pedestrians have supremacy. All other uses of the road have to defer to the needs of pedestrians.

  • jcburns

    “By contrast, ordinary city streets are places where pedestrians have supremacy. All other uses of the road have to defer to the needs of pedestrians.” <- Just plain not true, wishful thinking on your part.

    In my idealized world ordinary city streets are a place where everyone there is alert, everyone plays by the rules, and everyone yields at one time or another.

    No one class is "supreme."

  • disqdude

    This is not necessarily true. I live in an urban area with a good mix of peds, bikes, cars, and public transit. The number of distracted and/or oblivious peds and bikes that do stupid things like wander into traffic between parked cars, cross against red lights, etc. is staggering. I’m surprised hundreds of bicyclists and pedestrians aren’t killed every month where I live. Drivers are driving a car. They are not miracle workers. They can’t magically stop when a distracted ped or bicyclist does something incredibly stupid and/or illegal.

    Streetsblog is turning into nothing but an apologist website for pedestrians and bicyclists who don’t take necessary personal responsibility for their actions. Playing the victim card when you aren’t a victim gets tiring quickly.

    Quick q for all you apologists: A few days ago I saw a bicyclist nearly get run over by a public transit bus. The public transit bus had right-of-way, and the driver did a very good job of making sure he was safely making a right turn. About 2/3 of the way through the turn, a guy who was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk decided he wanted to cross the street…directly into the side of the bus. He stopped just a couple inches from running into the bus just beyond its back door. So do you blame the bicyclist or the bus? Curious since there’s no “evil” car to blame in this scenario.

  • In the scenario that you lay out, the bicyclist was obviously in the wrong, for a couple of reasons.

    Let’s be clear that no one denies that pedestrians often do stupid things. I have repeatedly said, in this conversation and in others like it, that clueless pedestrians annoy the living f out of me. Just this morning, I encountered an adult who was leading two children across a street when they had a red light and I, coming in the perpendicluar direction, had a green. I sounded my horn while I was a good distance away from the intersection; and the kids dropped back to the sidewalk, thereby showing that they were smarter than the adult, who continued across the street. He stood on the centre yellow line as I passed him; I shouted “don’t walk” while pointing to the big bright red light in the shape of a human hand, a notification that he had blithely ignored.

    This guy was a total moron. Yet, it was my job not to hit him. If he had stopped walking not on the centre line but in my path, then it would have been my obligation to stop in time and not collide with him. And, indeed, I was travelling at a speed that would have allowed me to stop, if that had been necessary. This is what we must require of operators of all vehicles.

    So don’t get the idea that bicyclists can do no wrong. Even in relation to cars, sometimes the bicyclist is in the wrong. I can remember one dramatic event when I was riding home on a winter night, so it was already dark at 5:30pm. I came to a complex intersection of three streets, and stopped at a red light. But another cyclist decided to go through that red light — while travelling in the wrong direction and while not having any lights. A car nearly hit him, with the driver swerving around him and barely missing him. I told that bicyclist that, if he had been hit, the fault would have been his.

    But we’re talking here about pedestrians, and their relationship to vehicles (mainly cars, but also including bikes). I don’t object in principle to asking everyone to behave predictably and reasonably. But we have an existing inequality in which too much leeway has been given to cars at the expense of pedestrians; and, in that context, asking anything at all of pedestrians as opposed to imposing constraints on drivers strikes the wrong note.

    It is not unreasonable to insist that people operating vehicles (again: mainly cars, but also bikes) accept that the responsibility to avoid hitting pedestrians is entirely on them. This applies even in a case such as my example from this very morning, in which I as the operator of a vehicle was doing nothing wrong and the pedestrian was doing nothing right.

  • Duncan Watson

    How many drunk walkers killed people that way… bzzt times up, it is effectively 0/year/100000 people

  • jcburns

    “Effectively”!? I think that means “I really don’t know any genuine statistics, so I’ll make something plausible up to continue the argument.”

  • Andrew

    Look in a mirror.

  • jcburns

    Checked the mirror. Didn’t see someone who said “effectively 0/year/100000 people”, so I’m good.

  • oogernomicon

    You may think you live in New York, and you may actually live in New York, but based on your list it’s pretty obvious you live in Chicago.

  • Andrew

    But did you see someone who keeps making up all sorts of outlandish claims without a shred of evidence to back them up? Why, indeed you did.

  • jcburns

    Only if you were standing behind me.

  • @totalitat – The “examined life” is apparently worth trolling. ?

  • @totalitat – Your “actual argument” is a straw doll fallacy. Being good at fallacy is nothing to brag about.

  • @totalitat – An ad hominem fallacy to toss onto the heap of your failed arguments.

  • @jcburns – “DO BOTH” means increasing police enforcement, at increased cost. You okay with that? Historically this has also meant disproportionate enforcement against racial or ethnic groups. You okay with that?

    (I’m not.)

  • @jcburns – The number of people hit by cars has no correlation with the advent of distracting devices. It is, however, in lockstep with vehicle miles traveled.

  • “Little deuce coupe / You don’t know what I’ve got”
    “Looking for adventure / And whatever comes my way”
    “Take away my license / All that jive / I can’t drive / 55”

  • @Carter O’Brien – With “advocates” like you, who needs enemies?

  • @bettybarcode – I’m sure there are millions and millions of stroller-related near-injuries, highly correlated with the millions and millions of tragic victims who were almost hit by bicycles.


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