Over the past several decades, transportation engineers have been able to introduce scores of automotive safety provisions, from roadway clearance measures to elements of the vehicle design itself. Street trees are removed from the sides of roads to prevent collisions. Families have long since traded up their station wagon for a larger, safer SUV. Some of these improvements have likely slowed the annual increase in traffic fatalities, and with a little help from the recession the total number of driver deaths even dropped in 2008 to 35,000. The Wall Street Journal declared last month that "driving a car has never been safer." (this statement is true only if you ignore the fact that Americans today are forced to drive more miles than they have been before).
Amidst the constant ratcheting up - faster cars and wider roads necessitate safety improvements which lead to faster cars and wider roads - there is a constant, external variable that often gets left out of the equation: that is, people. Pedestrians do not have airbags or anti-lock brakes installed. They are not now, nor ever have been, enclosed in steel.
Transportation For America just released a new report, Dangerous By Design, assessing the nature of pedestrian deaths in U.S. metropolitan areas. 76,000 people have been killed while walking along or across American roadways in the last decade and a half. According to the report:
"These deaths typically are labeled “accidents,” and attributed to error on the part of motorist or pedestrian. In fact, however, an overwhelming proportion share a similar factor: They occurred along roadways that were dangerous by design, streets that were engineered for speeding cars and made little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs or on a bicycle."While pedestrians make 9% of all trips in the country and comprise 11.8% of the traffic fatalities, less than 1.5% of all federal transportation funds are spent on improving safety for walking. It should comes as no surprise that the highest proportion of these deaths, in urban areas at least, occur on major arterials, roads designed exclusively to carry large volumes of cars quickly. 41% of all deaths happen in places where no crosswalk is even available.
While some people choose to walk, many others do not. They are either too young to legally drive or too old to be behind the wheel. They don't have enough money to buy a car. They have epilepsy or they are in a wheelchair. What does it say about us as a society that the most vulnerable road users, and those least able to inflict harm upon others, are not cared for to the same degree as the rest of us.
The report recommends four federal policy actions to reduce the number of preventable deaths:
- A national Complete Streets policy, a piece of legislation that is already included in a proposed transportation bill reauthorization package
- Increase in the current Safe Routes to School program
- A Fair share of federal funds given to pedestrians for safety
- Federal accountability measures to ensure that states spend funds as they are intended