Experts: Feds Aren’t Fixing Pedestrian Safety Crisis

Photo: Don Kostelec
Photo: Don Kostelec

Federal officials are failing to protect pedestrians — and may even be contributing to the problem as the pedestrian death toll has increased 50 percent in just eight years, advocates and experts say.

Roughly 6,000 pedestrians were killed last year — roughly 16 per day — the most since the early 1990s and a 46-percent increase since 2009. The worrisome trend doesn’t seem to be reversing in part because federal authorities aren’t focused on keeping pedestrians safe.

“We know what to do, we just are not doing it,” Kate Kraft, director of America Walks told Streetsblog. “I don’t think anyone’s giving the level of attention that it really needs.”

Take the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Its safety effort consists largely of pedestrian “education” efforts that some experts say are counterproductive.

“NHTSA is not putting nearly enough attention on speeding,” said Sally Flocks, the director of the Atlanta-based pedestrian advocacy group, Peds. “They’re focusing primarily on alcohol and seat belts. Seat belts aren’t helping pedestrians. We’re not protected by airbags, child safety streets.

“Certainly alcohol is a problem, but it’s not primarily what’s killing pedestrians,” she added. “It’s poor road design and speeding.”

Atlanta offers a unique glimpse at the challenges: Gentrification of the urban core is pushing lower-income residents into the car-centric suburbs, where there is little infrastructure or design geared towards pedestrian safety. As a result, the region is one of the most dangerous areas for pedestrians in the nation. Flocks’s group calls for engineering reforms such as more crosswalks, more sidewalks and more street lights.

Instead, NHTSA only funds education campaigns, such as those that remind pedestrians to cross at the crosswalks. Flocks believes that effort might actually worsen the problem by blaming the victim.

“The places where road fatalities are rising is in the mid-suburbs. Crosswalks are sometimes over a mile and a half apart,” she said. “If you’e saying it was their fault they weren’t in a crosswalk, it takes the burden off the department of transportation.”

NHTSA wants to focus on pedestrian behavior, but the infrastructure is failing them. Image: NHTSA
NHTSA wants to focus on pedestrian behavior, but the infrastructure is failing them. Image: NHTSA

The Federal Highway Administration is doing a better job, fusing some streetscape improvements in Atlanta aft making it a “focus city” for pedestrian safety. The funding has also been used to conduct “road safety audits” that can point out problems. But there are still huge gaps in support.

A key problem is that traffic safety officials have a cultural blindness to the dangers pedestrians face, says Flock, who experienced this first-hand when she gave up using her car and started taking the bus, only to feel vulnerable waiting at her stop as drivers sped by.

“You see the world so much differently when you’re not behind a windshield,” she said. “It just becomes obvious how dangerous things are.”

The problem, of course, is speeding. Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board sounded the alarm that driver impatience threatens to wipe out a decade of progress on traffic safety. But the messages and strategies from federal agencies like NHTSA haven’t changed very much.

“The emphasis on speed nationally needs to be on par with drunk driving,” said Bob Dallas, the former director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and a board member at the Vision Zero Network.

He also emphasized the need for better road design.

“Why aren’t we building infrastructure that supports the pedestrian on par with how we build infrastructure that supports vehicle traffic?” he asked.

The NHTSA does have a program called “Towards Zero Deaths,” which seeks ambitious goals for dramatic reductions in road deaths, but it’s not clear that the agency is making the wholesale changes to its policies and approaches that drastically reducing traffic deaths would require.

And the Trump administration has yet to appoint an administrator for the agency.

“I think all of us could do more collectively,” Dallas said.

Part of the problem is political; there may be thousands of dead pedestrians, but far more political capital is spent on basic infrastructure like “crumbling bridges,” Kraft said. And pedestrian advocates have less power than auto makers, drivers, transportation industry contractors and their lobbyists.

“There’s disagreement in the transportation world about what we should use precious transportation dollars on,” she said. “I don’t think pedestrians have the same voice as road builders.”

Streetsblog has reached out to the NHTSA for comment. When the agency responds, we will update this story.

  • John Lindstrom

    If freeways weren’t built, how much money could be spent on in-close housing which would be definitely affordable? I, and many others predict: Suburbs will become the new SLUMS, reversing the unhealthy trend begun in the 1950’s. Suburbs make people FAT.

  • John Lindstrom

    What does one mile of four lane freeway cost?

  • jcwconsult

    Yes there were some losers in the suburbs from the 10 to 12 mile road areas – but 696 makes efficient east-west travel possible. The inappropriate Mason-Dixon Line is 8 Mile Road.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • John Lindstrom

    Do you ever use transit?

  • Sincerely

    Nope. My whole point, again, is that people should be free to make choices. Prioritizing cars at the expense of other modes takes away choice, as does the degree to which everyone currently subsidizes suburban, car-dependent lifestyles. If you and most of your friends want to live in SFHs in quiet suburban neighborhoods where you have to drive to all your destinations, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t expect those who make different choices to pay for you to drive, especially since your doing so makes urban life objectively worse.

  • jcwconsult

    Occasionally in vacation travel, but not at home. Door to door trip times would usually be over twice as long as driving and require waiting in 4 season weather for the bus.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    We have long advocated for proper road user fees. The fact that so many politicians lack the gonadal material to implement them is not our fault.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    So we’ve established that you think 40,000 deaths and several million serious injuries a year are insignificant, that poor people should just suck it up that car-centric planning forces them to pay approximately $4,000 a year (by your estimate) to simply be able to move about their city, and that bulldozing over houses and public opposition is worth it if it makes for “efficient” travel for people who choose to use automobiles to enter a city.

    Did I miss anything in the growing list of selfish, short-sighted, and immoral positions you and your lobbying group hold?

  • mckillio

    And you overlook how our obsession with roads and travelling in private vehicles as fast as possible negatively impacts the quality of life, affordable homes, including single family homes in quiet neighborhoods.

  • Sincerely

    If land for single family homes is simply not available, then the land for the parking and roadway needs of continuing the 1950s vision of city planning that you advocate is definitely not available.

  • TakeFive

    I’m quite familiar with constitutional protections; not sure how that relates to transportation policies but there’s never a shortage of lawyers if you think one of the amendments has been violated.

  • jcwconsult

    Yes, you missed that we drive 3+ trillion miles a year and that life is not risk free. The risks to particular drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are tiny per mile traveled, but they are not zero.

    And you missed the value of privacy and personal choice.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • scoot777

    With 200 million drivers logging almost three trillion miles per year, a rate of one fatality every 80 million miles is unacceptably high. We are sacrificing our fellow Americans at 100 per day and 40K per year.

    If we were to suffer terror attacks on the scale of 9/11 once each month, would that constitute a national crisis?

  • rwy

    And cars take free choice away by making other modes too impractical or too dangerous. Just looking at numbers won’t tell you the whole story.

  • Sincerely

    It’s not choice if the only way you can get to your job is driving.

    I

  • jcwconsult

    Today, one fatality per 86 million vehicle miles traveled.
    1960, one fatality per 20 million vehicle miles traveled.

    If you are in a vehicle for about 15,000 miles a year, that vehicle will be involved in a crash with a fatality of a pedestrian, cyclist, or vehicle occupant about once in every 5,700 years.

    Life is not zero risk – but it is low risk from auto crashes.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    Seriously, are you reading my comments? I’m advocating for more choice, not less. It’s not a choice if the only way you can get around is by automobile and cars are going so fast that walking doesn’t feel safe. It’s not a choice if urban folks, even the poor, are paying more in taxes and their health so others can conveniently drive into the cities from the suburbs (where people are paying less in taxes and are less subject to the health ramifications caused by their mode choice).

    And I know people in the US drive a lot. That’s part of why you’re more than three times more likely to die in an auto collision here than in, say, Great Britain. (Incidentally, you can reduce your risk of dying in a traffic collision by 90% by simply taking the bus.) Life is not risk free, but it is also not responsibility free. The policy approaches you seem to favor will result in more people dying.

  • Sincerely

    Motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death for people ages 8-24 and in the top ten leading causes of death for all age groups, including infants, until we hit 65. That doesn’t include the deaths associated with the myriad health effects of car dependency, from respiratory disease to obesity.

    That’s what you’re brushing aside because you like the suburban lifestyle.

  • jcwconsult

    People can choose to live in places where transit is available to go the most common places they wish to go. I choose to drive most of the time, so I have more choices of where to live.

    I have never found it difficult to walk safely, including crossing very busy multi-lane streets in Moscow for two years in the early 1990s when it was “open season” on pedestrians 24/7. Some of the time it does take patience for a safe gap to cross.

    Safety is NOT the only factor in these choices.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    Sure, safety is not the only factor. If it were, we’d all be using public transportation, not getting into automobiles that we all know kill so many people. Economics plays a big role in mode choice, too. Which is why the current, massive subsidies of car-dependent suburban lifestyles need to stop.

    What’s it like to be so dedicated to a cause that literally kills children in exchange for convenience?

  • jcwconsult

    Life is not risk free, but the risks from auto crashes is quite low.

    Young people are often less cautious. I walked to my elementary school, about 8 or 9 blocks away. It included crossing a then four lane collector, not at a light (now a 3 lane with bike lanes). My parents taught me that it was terribly simple to do safely: look left, look right, look left again, and NEVER try to occupy the same space as a moving vehicle.

    A very high percentage of people like the suburban lifestyle and the advantages of freedom, privacy, flexibility, and efficiency of individual travel. That is not likely to change.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    I think that’s quite likely to change if we stop subsidizing suburban lifestyles through transportation spending.

    But even accepting that, there’s no reason “suburban lifestyle” must be synonymous with “car dependency.” The first suburbs were the streetcar suburbs, and many suburban outskirts of Dutch cities are built around bicycling, walking, and transit. Major cities in most countries are fed by trains more than by freeways, resulting in more choice, more freedom, fewer deaths, and less pollution.

  • Sincerely

    Also nice job victim blaming. The toddlers that die because of the priorities you espouse should just look both ways.

  • jcwconsult

    Toddlers should NEVER be in streets without supervision.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    It’s a shame that’s true, but I agree. Cars are too dangerous, and we’ve sacrificed our public space to them.

    You missed my point again, though. Motor vehicle collisions are a leading cause of death for toddlers not because they’re in streets but because they’re in cars.

  • SurlyCyclist

    I gave an average because I can’t do a case by case cost. That isn’t reasonable. I live in Michigan and pay less as well. But, I realize that my rates come from a handful of factors and it isn’t fair to assume everyone else is eligible for the rates I get. I got my average from a US based insurance agency. Once again, how do averages work? Some pay more, some pay less, this is right in the middle…it is the fairest way to do this.

    The average listing price for a used 2015 Sonic is $9,277.00. It looks like you did a search on autotrader and found the one of the cheapest available Sonics in the area and posted the price to attempt to prove your point. Also, I can estimate financing all day long. That doesn’t mean financing will be available. It’s common knowledge in auto financing that the older the car and higher the mileage – the less likely you are to get financed it is also going to negatively affect your interest rate causing the payment to go up. Let’s also not pretend that the people buying these economy cars used are going to generally have stellar credit which will also affect their ability to get financed and will also increase their interest rate. But, let’s run the numbers again with the average listing price at a reasonable 3.5% interest rate again.

    $180.58/month is $2,166.96/year
    Insurance because we’re going with the average is $137.00/month, so $1,644.00/year
    Gas is the same at $1,179.99
    Bringing our total to, 4,990.95 which is $415.91/month. Once again, this is before vehicle maintenance costs.

    Looks with a used economy class car we’re still about $1,000.00 over your estimated cost to own a car. That may not seem like much to someone that isn’t hungry, but to someone living below the poverty line that is huge. Even if we went with your low balled $8,300.00 Sonic were still over at $4,683.99 which is $390.33/month. Let’s not forget we aren’t even factoring in maintenence costs which we all know are going to increase with higher mileage and older cars.

    >My last accident was in 1989 when a car ran a stop sign right in front of me. I turned fast enough to make it a side blow instead of a t-bone so there were no injuries.

    Good for you! My last collision* I was plowed into while legally crossing the street by a negligent woman in an F-150 making a left turn only looking for oncoming cars not pedestrians in the crosswalk. I couldn’t do anything to lessen the blow. I went from athletic with a 315lb squat and an average speed of 18mph on 70 mile bike rides to hurting every day. I also know several other young people with permanent injuries because of auto related collisions. Not to mention the fact that around 40,000 people are killed every year in the US and according to the CDC “More than 2.5 million Americans went to the emergency department (ED)—and nearly 200,000 were then hospitalized—for crash injuries in 2012.” Don’t tell me there isn’t a problem.

  • SurlyCyclist

    So you advocate for a gas tax that actually pays the cost of the wear and tear motor vehicles do to the roads? (roughly $2.88/gallon)

  • SurlyCyclist

    Good call.

  • jcwconsult

    And those risks if properly restrained are quite tiny.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    I would have to see your math. And please note that normal weight cars do very little road damage. Most is done by heavy vehicles and weather.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    Yes, with vehicle speeds below 20 mph, the risk of death is quite low.

    What is the acceptable number of toddler deaths to facilitate the lifestyle you prefer?

  • SurlyCyclist

    According to taxfoundation.org in the US the average cost per mile traveled by cars is about 12 cents. My state has one of the highest gas tax rates in the country at $0.44/gallon. My car gets a combined 25mpg. So I pay $0.017 in taxes per mile driven while doing roughly $0.12 in damage per mile. For me to actually pay for my road usage the gas taxes would have to be about $3.00/gallon (I got the $2.88 figure from them as well). You’re right about one thing. Heavy trucks do much more damage. For a truck in an urban area, the cost is as high as 70 cents per mile.

  • jcwconsult

    The DOT experts I know say the “damage” per mile driven by an ordinary car is difficult to measure it is so small. Roads built to handle 80,000 pound trucks barely notice passing cars.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • SurlyCyclist

    I come at you with information with an organization you can look up to back up their claims. Your response is basically, “well these guys I know say X.” Get real man. Come back with something you can cite or jog on. I’m interested in data, not hearsay and BS.

  • jcwconsult

    I don’t record conversations I have with experts I trust. But here is one article:
    http://www.spokesman.com/blogs/boise/2010/jul/27/trucks-vs-cars-pavement-damage/
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Frank Kotter

    You forgot ‘presently’ in your declarative statement. It is the future readers of this blog are trying to change against dinosaurs from such organizations like NMA who think the status quo of deadly streets is just about right.

    When living in the Netherlands, both my children spent each and every summer day outside, in the (gasp) street playing, meeting friends, developing into the wonderful creatures they are today (just kidding, they’re in their teens) and the neighborhood supported us in doing so.

    This is not possible (as you so clearly state) in the United States because of you and your efforts. Well done, I hope your heart swells with pride as you drive to and from your house in the suburbs at what you have created.

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