Death by Walking: New Report Analyzes Road Dangers for Pedestrians

May 27, 2014, 1:13 PM

A 2012 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that walking is hands-down the most common exercise activity in the United States—which only makes a new report showing the high rate of pedestrian fatalities and injuries that much more alarming.

The report, Dangerous by Design 2014, released by the National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of advocacy group Smart Growth America, finds that more than 47,000 people were killed and close to 700,000 injured while walking in the United States between 2003 and 2012. The report also found that the rates have been rising in the last few years, and that the majority of deaths and injuries could have been prevented with safer street designs such as crosswalks and traffic signs.

The report also ranks major U.S. metropolitan areas according to a Pedestrian Danger Index that assesses how safe pedestrians are while walking. The top four most dangerous cities—Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami—are all in Florida and the other six are, in order, Memphis, Phoenix, Houston, Birmingham, Atlanta and Charlotte.

“We are allowing an epidemic of pedestrian fatalities, brought on by streets designed for speed and not safety, to take nearly 5,000 lives a year; a number that increased six percent between 2011 and 2012,” said Roger Millar, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. “Not only is that number simply too high, but these deaths are easily prevented through policy, design and practice. State and local transportation leaders need to prioritize the implementation of Complete Streets policies that keep everyone safe.”

Complete Streets refer to “streets for everyone,” according to the Coalition, and are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. People of all ages and abilities are able to safely move along and across streets in a community, regardless of how they are traveling. Complete Streets also make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops and bicycle to work, while allowing buses to run on time and making it safe for people to walk to and from train stations.

Rates of walking deaths and injuries are far higher for more vulnerable populations such as older adults, children and people of color, according to the report. For example, while just 12.6 percent of the total population is over age 65, that group accounts for nearly 21 percent of pedestrian fatalities nationwide.

“Pedestrian fatalities disproportionately affect seniors, minorities and children [because] these demographics are more likely to walk for transportation for a number of reasons, including being too young, too old or not being able to afford a vehicle,” said Craig Chester, a spokesman for Smart Growth America. “With so my roads designed without the needs of pedestrians in mind, these groups face more exposure to traffic and face greater danger while walking.”

The majority of pedestrian deaths occur on roadways that “encourage speeding,” according to the report, and speeding is a factor in nearly one third of all traffic fatalities.

“Roads that 'encourage speeding' refers to wide, fast-moving arterial roadways that are primarily designed for moving cars and make little if any accommodations for pedestrians, bicycle riders or even transit users,” said Chester. “These roads typically lack frequent crosswalks, sidewalks or other pedestrian-safety measures like median islands. A majority of pedestrian fatalities over the last decade—52 percent—happened on arterial roads.”

The new report finds that these deaths can be prevented through changes to street design including providing sidewalks; installing high visibility crosswalks and traffic islands; and reducing speeding.

On NE 125th Street in Seattle, Washington, for example, the city added a marked crosswalk, reduced the number of travel lanes and installed other pedestrian safety measures to help reduce pedestrian injuries and fatalities on a road where 87 percent of drivers were speeding. The modifications have reduced the rate of collisions by 10 percent and speeding by 11 percent, and led to more people walking and biking along the roadway.

“Simple and affordable additions or retrofits to traffic signals, pedestrian islands and sidewalks can make a huge difference in safety and protection,” said Nancy Somerville, executive vice president and CEO of American Society of Landscape Architects.

Recommendations by the National Complete Streets Coalition to improve pedestrian safety include:

  • Encourage collaboration across transportation, public health and law enforcement agencies
  • Increase the available funding and maximize the use of existing federal programs for walking and bicycling projects
  • Adopt a Complete Streets policy and comprehensive implementation plan
  • Update design policies and standards
  • Standardize and gather more comprehensive data on pedestrian crashes
  • Give local cities and towns more control over their own speed limits

>>Bonus Link: The Complete Streets report includes a pedestrian fatality map searchable by neighborhood.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.