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.

136 thoughts on Experts: Feds Aren’t Fixing Pedestrian Safety Crisis

  1. Sorry, I totally disagree. Affordable private cars and good road systems transformed our society for the better over the last 100 years or so. We are never going to agree on this because I and a great majority of Americans favor the freedom to travel when and where we want to go in the privacy of our own vehicles.

    Those that choose to live and work in major metro areas where it is possible to do most things without a car are welcome to that lifestyle. It doesn’t fit me or most of my friends.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  2. “Drug overdose fatalities = 72,000.”

    First of all, the thing you are promoting kills roughly half as many people as drug overdoses. So does that mean that you’re roughly half as bad as someone promoting heroin as a lifestyle choice?

    Secondly, how many of those overdoses are due to living in a sub-standard, car-ruined society?

  3. We are not going to ever agree, so we should quit. Cars have made a good society possible, rather than have ruined it.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  4. Most federally approved projects involve interstates. Other grants approved for specific projects already have waaay too much red tape. City sidewalks have nothing to do with federal spending. Feds have though been funding a lot of (nice) bike/ped trails in conjunction with freeway projects.

    It’s not the job of Feds to tell a state what their transportation priorities and needs should be. That’s a 10th amendment issue.

  5. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the government never told states what their transportation priorities should be? If the national government hadn’t dangled 90% of the building costs of urban freeways in front of mid-20th-century cities, enabling them to tear down black and poor neighborhoods while simultaneously creating wastelands of central business districts in a vain attempt to fix congestion, maybe the states wouldn’t have to be spending so much on freeway maintenance now that those relics are crumbling.

    It’s a choice that federal funds continue to be sucked up by freeways while neglecting more sensible options like transit. We spend over $40 billion
    a year to keep polluting, dangerous, and inefficient vehicles viable. Eventually, maybe, the US will figure out what a mistake the last century’s priorities were.

  6. I know we’re not going to agree. You think tens of thousands of deaths a year are insignificant and that the poor should be grateful that they only need $4000 a year for the “freedom to travel,” and your mission in life seems to be ensuring everyone else is restricted to the one option that you and “most of your friends” prefer, despite its unsustainability from a geographical, economic, environmental, and moral perspective.

    Thankfully the engineering and planning professions have come a long way from the myopic days when your perspective was the default.

  7. So 40,000 deaths a year are cool, because the real problem is speeding tickets. You’re revealing a lot about your character.

    I’d like to see some reform there as well. We should switch to day fines, so fines stop functioning like a regressive tax. We should also increase user fees (especially in the form of congestion charges) on suburban commuters that currently depend on urban taxes to subsidize their lifestyle choice.

  8. Holy shit you are dense.

    I never said I actively subsidize flying by biking or walking…

    I actively subsidize driving when I walk or bike because I’m footing my share of over half the road costs in the taxes I pay while doing nearly zero damage to the roads I’m using. While drivers cause a ton of damage to the roads without paying enough extra to cover their damages.

    In the US the average cost in road damages per mile traveled by cars is 12 cents. My state has one of the highest gas tax rates in the country at $0.44/gallon. My car gets 25mpg city. 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. We all know that isn’t going to happen.

    On the other hand, when I get on my bicycle I can ride the same mile 17,059 times before I do comparable damage. That translates to roughly $0.0000070344 per mile traveled by bike. This really isn’t difficult to understand.

    Logic fail? Definitely, on your part.

  9. >That average includes some very expensive cars.

    Yeah, because that’s how averages work…

    >There are several NEW cars available at $14,000 to $16,000 With careful buying, you can drive a car for perhaps $4,000 a year.

    OK, math time!

    A loan for a $14,000.00 is going to be about $273/month on a 60 month term with a 3.5% interest rate. That payment alone comes out to $3,276/year. Now we all know the cost of owning a car goes far beyond the payment, you’ve got to have insurance and gas that thing up as well. For your sake I’ll go with the average for the states with the cheapest auto insurance rates at $137.00/month. So in insurance per year we’re at $1,644.00. Bringing our total to own the car to $4,920.00. Uh oh, we’re already nearly $1,000.00 over your estimate and we haven’t factored in gas…
    Let’s say your budget car was a Chevy Spark, it’s in the right price range and it gets decent mileage so I think it’s fair. The Spark gets a combined mpg rating of 33mpg. The average American puts 13,474 miles on their car per year. So they’ll use roughly 408 gallons of gas per year. The average price per gallon right now is about $2.89. So in a year that’s another ?$1,179.99 in costs. Now we’re at $6,099.99 for the year using your lowest price for the car and we haven’t included maintenence costs.

    >and used ones of those in very good condition perhaps half that much.

    I worked in autosales for a year. Anything under 10k was pretty much junk, sold as is, and not what any reasonable person would call reliable. Good luck getting financing for one of those cars as well. Don’t blow smoke.

    >I saw data that there are about 80 injuries per fatality, so once in every 70 years or so – and that includes minor injuries.

    Funny. I’ve been involved in 3 collisions none of which where I was at fault. 2 of which I experienced injuries and I drive far less than the average American. I’m definitely not 140 years old and I’m no where near 70. This kind of “data” is meaningless.

  10. Those that wish to live a life using a car only rarely with a rental can do so in many places in the USA. It would make my life in the midwest virtually impossible. So many of my destinations would be inaccessible by transit.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  11. Michigan has one of the highest rates for auto insurance in the country and I pay about $1,100 a year for full coverage – not $1,644 for $137×12.

    It is easy to buy a decent 3 year old small car for well under $10,000 that isn’t junk. I worked in the car business for 30 years. 2015 Sonic, 70,000 miles, $8.300, est. loan$155/mo.

    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.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  12. When traffic laws and enforcement are used as for-profit rackets, it limits the ability of police organizations to work for safety. Many years ago, the founder of the NMA said tickets should only assess license points – no fines, fees, surcharges, court costs, etc. That way police would try to ticket only dangerous drivers and the for-profit enforcement rackets would instantly stop.

    Congestion charges are far too regressive for lower income service workers with fixed work hours that make travel at peak rush hours mandatory.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  13. “I actively subsidize driving when I walk or bike because I’m footing my share of over half the road costs in the taxes I pay while doing nearly zero damage to the roads I’m using.”

    So you “actively subsidize” FLYING by not taking airplanes because you and millions of other taxpayers pay for Airports and Federal Airspace infrastructure.

    You STILL don’t get to ride your bike or play in the middle of the runways.

  14. Sure, there are some places that truly can’t be served by transit. That’s not an argument for continuing the broad, car-centered policies that have led to so many traffic deaths, so much pollution, so much sprawl, so much wasted urban space, and so few options for many of our most vulnerable citizens.

    Most of those places are rural. Cities have been supporting rural areas for a long time now through taxes. That’s fine. What’s not fine is allowing rural needs to dictate urban policy. Cars should be kept out of the city as much as possible, for the health of the people and for the health of the city itself. There simply isn’t room to waste on such an inefficient mode, even if it didn’t come with so many the negative externalities.

  15. Yeah, all those neighborhoods and landmarks and parks that we destroyed just so we could pump more cars into our cities — nobody needed them really. It’s not like every single urban freeway was built over protests.

    It would be interesting to compare outcomes between cities where freeways were successfully opposed versus ones where they weren’t. In fact, we can! The cities like LA and Houston that were most gung-ho about facilitating automobile commuters are also the cities with the most sprawl, the most congestion, and the least character today. We can even compare cities before and after freeway removal: Portland’s waterfront park used to be a scar of asphalt, for instance.

  16. Dear Jim,

    Nobody who frequents this blog will ever agree with you, so you should quit. You have shed light on the egotistical and flawed logic of the auto lobby, however. For that, we are grateful.

    Frank Kotter, International Motorists Destroy Communities Association

  17. Ever think about changing your username to “Cars, Above All Else”? And you realize you’re on a site called “streetsblog”, right? Whose entire purpose is to promote equity for our public right of ways?

  18. I understand your argument and it has advantages in some places. But it requires large percentages of people to give up the privacy and convenience of private cars much of the time – a very difficult task to achieve.
    And overall in America, there are far more places that cannot be served by transit than places that can be served.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  19. Some were poorly planned, others were planned well.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  20. Dear Frank,

    Every debate has two sides. Ending or very sharply decreasing the use of private cars in most of America is an impossible goal. It is proper for those advocates to understand why.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  21. There are many ways to compromise to achieve both goals.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  22. If everyone who works, shops, visits, etc. lived in or very near the center city – it would be fine to have a much reduced roadway network. But that is not the case. For economic or personal preference reasons, many who come into the center of cities live far outside them – in many cases without viable transit.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  23. That doesn’t make my statement any less true. And those preferences are based on the fact that we designed our metro areas like that over generations and will take generations to fix.

  24. Find ways to create large amounts of desirable & affordable single family housing in the more central areas of cities – and we might see more families willing to “move back”. The realities of land areas and costs will make that near impossible.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  25. I advocate for the free choice to go either way. Something about …. the pursuit of happiness …. as evaluated by the free person.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  26. We don’t need to find ways, we already have ways and it’s not even a matter of getting people to move back to the central city. The reality is that we’ve dedicated too much land to cars.

  27. No, you advocate for cars above all else, time and time again. All you do is say why we can’t do things because of cars and why we have to do things because of cars.

  28. I admire your commitment to idealism, but there simply isn’t room in our cities to accommodate your vision. Cars take up too much space, and their infrastructure costs too much money.

    Nothing I advocate for requires people to “give up” anything. I’m advocating for choice. I want a society in which people aren’t forced to live in environments clogged with deadly machines that poison the air, where they aren’t forced to use those machines to participate fully in society.

    I get that you really like cars, but the fact is that they’re not viable for the cities of the future. American cities are already stunted because of our mistaken support for the automobile in the last century, and the sooner we move to correct those errors the sooner we can restore our cities. A good first step would be dismantling the boondoggle freeways that bring congestion and blight. Most urban spaces in the US have already widened their roads as much as they can, and the result has been more congestion, not less. We can be smarter than this.

    I have no problem with people continuing to use automobiles outside of our cities, though they should be expected to pay a fair share of the costs and not be so heavily subsidized by those who make more sustainable, sensible choices.

  29. You know some things that don’t feel like freedom? Having to wait a long time for a gap in cars on a 4 lane street before crossing on foot. Having to carefully plan a snake like bike route to avoid major streets.

    Properly designed complete streets would not banish cars as you seem to imply.

  30. “Posted limits have almost no effect on traffic speeds with any level of enforcement cities are willing to fund”

    This a lie. Posted limits absolutely change the chosen speed of drivers. This has been repeatedly confirmed across the world, including the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, and Germany, to name the most obvious.

  31. In most cities, the land for a lot more affordable single family homes is simply not available.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  32. I have NO problem with people who want to arrange their life style to use cars only rarely. I advocate for the people who do want to use their cars in their … pursuit of happiness …
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  33. There are several in metro Detroit including I-696, I-275, the Lodge, I-94.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  34. People who want to live, work, shop, etc. in metro areas that make a car unnecessary for most uses are free to do so. If you can muster the political will to design new cities or new areas in cities specifically to suit those goals – that is fine.

    But you will fine a high % of people that prefer the freedom of living where they want to and traveling by private cars.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  35. I realize that if everyone were just like you what a wonderful world it would be. But we live in a representative democracy which favors the majority. Were your parents and grandparents happy or unhappy about the decisions made at that time since they were the relevant voters?

    Rather than fuss over what happened decades ago, ‘splain to me how we ended up with a goofball in the Oval Office in these ‘modern’ times?

  36. Sorry, the most extensive study ever done in the USA with 100 sites of urban and rural streets showed you can raise a limit by up to 15 mph or lower one by up to 20 mph – and the MAXIMUM change in the 85th percentile speed will be 3 mph, with the average change of about 1.5 mph.

    The IIHS which advocates for the lowest possible limits so their member insurance companies can surcharge the premiums of safe drivers caught in for-profit speed traps just proved OUR point. Boston lowered most limits from 30 to 25 mph. The mean speed before and after was 24.8 mph for a change in the actual speeds of 0.0 mph. The 85th percentile speed before and after was 31.0 mph for a change in the actual speeds of 0.0 mph.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  37. Taxpayers, the great majority who drive pay for 100% of the costs of roads at the federal, state and local level. Hint: there’s no manna from heaven.

    Vehicle owners as taxpayers also help to cover 100% of the capital costs for things you like. In many places they also help to cover up to 80% of the operating costs.

  38. I don’t agree that it is an impossible goal, just a very difficult one. This will be a long struggle, one I’ve been in for 40 years. It will require persuading planners, politicians, engineers and motorists that there are immense economic, health and environmental benefits to reducing the enormous subsidies and enticements to drive solo vehicles. Drivers can be lured out of sedentary, lonely, expensive private cars through walking on better sidewalks, using human powered electric motor assisted enclosed trikes, bicycle buses and cycle trains. They will be able to share electric, mostly automated vans along arterial roads and ‘free’ ways without waiting more than a few minutes, and rent pedal assist bicycles for the last mile or two. I agree with you that debate and dialogue is essential, but I would like to make sure that your organization is not an ‘astroturf’ club, funded by petroleum and internal combustion engine industries, and wedded to their legacy economic interests.

  39. Who said anything about single family homes? But having said that we could put thousands of homes in cities if we wanted.

  40. You’re overlooking the fact that the people who choose to live close-in are heavily subsidizing those who don’t. Suburban sprawl is incredibly expensive.

    If we had a level playing field, in which car use and suburbanization was not subsidized, you’d find a lot fewer people would choose to live where they needed expensive personal vehicles to get around. Especially since the suburbs are appealing in large part because they are an escape from problems largely caused by automobile-centric urbanization.

    All I’m suggesting is that cities prioritize modes that serve the needs of cities, that citizens are given a real choice in how they wish to get around, and that those who choose modes that cause pollution, death, and other negatives pay into society something commensurate to the costs they currently foist on everyone.

  41. A project that cost $1.17 billion in today’s dollars and was completed literally decades behind schedule is a success? That was subject to multiple delays and redesigns because of protests from those affected by its route? That planning experts agree contributed to the remarkable decline of the city it was meant to serve? That residents refer to as “the Mason-Dixon Line” because of the way it has contributed to racial and economic divides? That’s a success? And that’s just the first one on your list.

    For someone who is such a fan of roads, you seem to have remarkably little understanding of their history.

  42. The whole point of the document you cited earlier is to prevent the will of the majority from violating the basic rights of the minority.

    The relevant voters were those who had their homes destroyed to serve the federal government’s fantasy. They didn’t like it.

  43. We are a grass roots organization funded mostly by dues from members plus a bit of advertising in our quarterly magazine and online. We have 3 full time paid staff, occasionally use part time people for projects, and everyone else is a volunteer like myself. We are the lead organization that got the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit finally repealed in 1995.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  44. And I think you overlook the quality of life issues of private travel, affordable single family homes in quiet neighborhoods, and personal choices in life styles.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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