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.”

The NHTSA data showed that with nearly 5,000 deaths, the 2010 figure was still a 13-percent decrease from 2001. Nearly three-quarters, 72-percent of the deaths, occurred in an urban setting; nearly 80 percent were killed in non-intersection locations and 68 percent were killed at night. A third of the pedestrians killed were under the influence of alcohol at .08 percent Blood Alcohol Concentration or greater.

This sole root-cause factor – included because alcohol involvement happens to be one of the data points that is always collected for Traffic Safety Facts – also ticked off pedestrian advocates. Tanya Snyder, who writes for DC.StreetsBlog.org, expressed her frustration with the agency’s focus on alcohol in Pedestrians and the accompanying Consumer Advisory:

“And remarkably, the agency implies that drunk walking, which is perfectly legal, is a bigger risk factor in pedestrian deaths than drunk driving,” she writes. “And in keeping with recent national coverage about the hazards of “distracted walking,” the advisory only mentions distraction by electronic devices in the pedestrian section, despite the fact that ending distracted driving is the signature cause of the current transportation secretary.

“Certainly, it’s everyone’s responsibility to be safe, no matter what mode they take. But the stakes for pedestrians wouldn’t be so high if people weren’t driving around at high speeds in heavy cars on roads designed with little regard for the different ways people get around.”

“This report seems to be blaming the victim,” Snyder said in an interview. “If they are looking at data, they should look at all the factors. Street design is a major issue that NHTSA doesn’t address.”

For example, in 2011 Transportation for America, a transportation reform group, released its own report on the state of pedestrian safety – Dangerous by Design. It argues that pedestrian deaths, and the slower rate of their decline compared to vehicle occupant deaths is the result of the national neglect of pedestrian safety in policy, budgeting and road design. Most pedestrians die on arterial roadways, “streets engineered for speeding traffic with little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs or on bicycles,” the report says. The mandate to move large swaths of vehicle traffic on high-capacity, high-speed connectors between major destinations attracts commerce, and auto-centric stops such as gas station and fast-food drive-throughs, but is built with no consideration to bikers or pedestrians. The space is allocated for more lanes, often at the expense of crosswalks, sidewalks, bike lanes, on-street parking and street trees.

Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks and a contributor to Dangerous by Design calls the data in Pedestrians “insufficient.”

“I’m not sure this is helpful, and it may actually muddy what we need to do in our communities to make them more walkable and use all modes of transportation, to give people options. I’m not sure this report gives us much insight.”

Speed is a major factor in pedestrian fatalities, Bricker says. The NHTSA report categorizes suburban areas as urban, when the former tend to have a large percentage of major arterials and fewer sidewalks, while city roads are typically narrower, slower, and feature sidewalks and crosswalks.

“When it comes to pedestrian safety, fatalities and traffic speed are linked,” he says. “Generally if an automobile is going 20 miles per hour, the average person walking has a 90 percent chance of surviving.”

The statistical picture is further clouded by a paucity of data related to how many, how far and how often people walk for transportation and by a lack of accurate injury data. Injury statistics are not routinely or uniformly collected by any entity, advocates say.

Instead of putting the onus on pedestrians for drunk or distracted walking, NHTSA might better spend its research efforts on identifying all of the factors driving these increases. Numbers without context don’t do much at all.