Policymakers have eagerly promoted walking and bicycle riding as a way to get healthy exercise while reducing traffic congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions. But those activities are becoming increasingly dangerous in America.
More than 6,200 pedestrians were killed by traffic collisions in 2018, the last year for which federal statistics are available, continuing the rising trend of recent years. That's the highest it's been since 1990, and a 53 percent increase since 2009. Up until then, the number of pedestrian deaths had been steadily falling. Bicycle deaths have followed a similar pattern. There were 857 of them in 2018, a 36 percent increase since 2009.
"It's a complete reversal of progress," says traffic engineer Richard Retting, who regularly authors reports on pedestrian fatalities for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "It's stunning. I've not seen any trend like this in the 38 years I've been in this business."
According to Retting, early indications are that the body count in 2019 could turn out to be even higher. The cities of Nashville and San Jose both reported record numbers of pedestrian deaths last year, according to local news reports. In Los Angeles last year, walkers and bikers made up 60 percent of all traffic deaths, despite being involved in less than one percent of all collisions. And in New York City, 28 cyclists died last year in traffic collisions, the most in decades and double the tally of the previous year.
This year is already off to a grim start. New York had four pedestrian deaths in the first week of 2020, including a 10-year-old boy.
Since 2008, the total number of traffic fatalities has dropped slightly, making the steep rise in pedestrian deaths all the more striking. Nearly one of every five traffic deaths is a walker or cyclist – much higher than in 2008, when the proportion was 14 percent.
The toll began to fall in 2009, due to less driving amid the recession. It bottomed out in 2014 and has edged up since. The fact that deaths have not increased more is due, in part, to improved safety features such as airbags, automatic emergency braking and backup cameras.
"Vehicles have gotten safer – for the people inside of them," says Joe Cutrufo, spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, a New York City advocacy group. "Our streets have not kept up the pace. Flesh and bone human beings are not being protected unless they're inside of a car."
The surge in pedestrian and bicyclist deaths has coincided with smartphone use taking off. How much wireless use contributes to the death toll is hard to determine. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 2018 report on crash deaths estimated that "distraction-affected" fatalities — involving smartphones and other sources of distraction — fell by 12 percent to 2,841 in 2018. But Retting says that statistic, based on police crash reports that don't always consider wireless use, is likely an undercount.
"Distraction is a momentary event," says Retting. "I can't imagine that drivers looking down for seconds at a time is a good thing for pedestrian safety."
Another possible factor is the changing mix of vehicles on the road. Pickups and SUVs, taller and heavier than cars, now account for 69 percent of all new vehicle sales – a record high. Studies suggest that pedestrians struck by these vehicles are more likely to be killed According to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association, pedestrian deaths from crashes involving SUVs are rising much faster than deaths from crashes involving passenger cars.
Three-quarters of all pedestrian fatalities occur at night. A study co-authored by Retting found that those deaths could be cut by as much as 50 percent with better street lighting.
A surprisingly high number of pedestrian fatalities happen on major thoroughfares. Ten percent occurred on interstates in 2018, and many others on freeways and state or federal highways.
David Shawiak was crossing Interstate 287, six lanes passing through Piscataway, New Jersey, on January 18, 2020, when he was struck and killed by a Subaru Forester SUV. He was 21. About a half hour later and 20 miles away, 44-year-old Telisa Holman was killed as she attempted to cross the Garden State Parkway.
While such deaths involve reckless behavior, some also blame the designs of cities and suburbs, which often force a choice between walking an extra half-mile to the nearest crosswalk or overpass, or taking a dangerous shortcut.
"We've designed systems where walking is an afterthought at best," says Cutrufo.
He and other advocates argue that streets must be redesigned to reduce vehicle speeds and add bike and bus lanes.
"We know that higher speeds have a higher rate of fatalities," says Heidi Simon, deputy director of America Walks, a non-profit that promotes walkability. "And we also know that our streets are designed to encourage inappropriate speeds."
Drivers often complain that such changes lengthen their commutes. Less contentious safety measures include the use of bicycle helmets, which reduce the odds of a head injury by 50 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is planning to revise its New Car Assessment Program, which rates the safety of new cars and trucks on a scale of one to five stars. The agency said in a statement to FairWarning that it may expand the ratings criteria to include "new technologies tied to the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists."
Dozens of American cities have signed on to the "Vision Zero" initiative, a long-term goal of eliminating all traffic deaths. The rise of pedestrian deaths is a major stumbling block, since the best way to eliminate traffic deaths is to get people to drive less.
"We want to address climate change and local air pollution, yet at the same time, in so many cities, the only rational, logical way to get around is by car," says Cutrufo. "We can't blame individuals for driving if there aren't safe, convenient alternatives to get around."