Why are Pedestrian Deaths Rising?

Here’s a traffic safety fact: You don’t really know if an increase in the raw number of pedestrian fatalities really represents an upward trend unless you know how many pedestrians there are and how many miles they’ve walked.

That didn’t stop the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from releasing a micro report on the subject, based on data collected for its annual compendium of crash statistics Traffic Safety Facts. The seven-page report, prepared by the agency’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis noted 4,280 pedestrian deaths -- a four percent increase from 2009 to 2010. It quantified when and where the fatalities took place and who was more likely to die on foot. But the report, Pedestrians, was short on the whys – other than alcohol involvement --and other factors underpinning the data. And the contextual gaps raised the ire of walking advocates, who watched the mainstream press report the raw numbers uncritically.

Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston, a group that advocates for walkable communities, says that two days after NHTSA released Pedestrians, the Centers for Disease Control issued an analysis saying that almost two thirds of Americans are taking regular walks – defined as at least one 10-minute walk per week – and that this group swelled by six percent over 2005. So, does the increase in pedestrian deaths have anything to do with the possibility that more people are walking? Pedestrians did not consider denominators – only numerators.

“What this report doesn’t get into is exposure,” Landman says. “We have one piece of the picture and only one piece. We need better data and more explicative data that could help us figure out what’s going on.”

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