In 2018, seven pedestrians died in traffic accidents in Ada County. It’s a number that’s part of a national trend.
Across the country, the number of people who died while walking last year reached its highest level since 1990. Officials in state after state project the carnage to increase in 2019, in 2020, and beyond.
The federal government spends big money year after year to promote, research and improve pedestrian safety. Four years ago, it added a special program that states could use to find ways to make streets safer.
But it also spends far more to build, improve and repair bigger, faster roads even as the pedestrian numbers remain grim. Experts and members of Congress lament that far more needs to be done.
Ten years ago, 4,109 pedestrians died nationwide. The number has risen virtually every year since, and last year, the death toll was up 3.4% to 6,283. Pedestrian fatalities in urban areas are up 69% over the last 10 years.
Nighttime fatalities were up 4.6% from 2017 to 2018. Pedestrian deaths in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes increased by 2.2%.
Projections in 25 states, including California, Florida and Texas, are that the carnage will get worse this year, according to state data compiled by nonpartisan advocacy groups Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition.
“In fact,” their study found, “We are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people. Furthermore, federal and state policies, standards, and funding mechanisms still produce roads that prioritize high speeds for cars over safety....”
Bigger Cars, Distracted Drivers
While there is no single agreed-upon reason for the rise in pedestrian deaths, experts routinely cite a number of factors, including distracted drivers, larger vehicles and more people walking and bicycling in urban areas.
“It’s a combination of people getting out more, having healthier lifestyles and moving more into urban areas,” said Shaun Kildare, director for research at the nonpartisan Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
“There is no single reason or solution to the growing number of pedestrian deaths in California and across the country. We wish it were that simple to address and reverse the trend,” added Timothy Weisberg, spokesman for California’s Office of Traffic Safety.
Idaho had 19 pedestrians involved in fatal crashes last year, up from 18 in 2017.
In Boise, the problem is severe enough that about 50 people gathered in March near an intersection where an elderly couple were hit by an SUV to honor them and others killed in crashes while walking or bicycling.
Organizers called for drivers to be held more accountable when their actions result in serious crashes, and for public officials to consider infrastructure changes to improve safety before people die.
Key congressional lawmakers said government policy needs adjusting, and fast.
“We’re going by all measures in the wrong direction, and corrective action is needed. Obviously what we’ve been doing hasn’t been adequate,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
While the government has long spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote safety – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a budget of nearly $1 billion – Congress created a new “national priority” program in December 2015 to direct money to states specifically to promote pedestrian and bicycle safety.
But critics charge that the program and others aimed at making roads, intersections and driver behavior safer for pedestrians are underfunded, while most of the transportation-related money goes to road and bridge construction and repair.
Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, a nonpartisan advocacy group, calls the zeal for road building a “culture that’s so strong, so deep ... it’s hard to overcome.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which administers key safety programs, would not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Bumpers with Better Insulation?
House leaders are crafting legislation now that DeFazio said would revamp the safety initiatives. “I think we pretty much know what we need to do,” he said.
DeFazio cited efforts that have proven effective, such as “bike boxes,” special areas at the head of a traffic lane that allow motorists to see the bicycles ahead of them.
Kildare cited European strategies, which include pedestrian impact protection systems that would provide more bumper insulation or more space under the hood and pedestrian collision avoidance systems that could stop or slow a vehicle before impact.
Such systems are designed to soften the blows pedestrians get when a vehicle hits them or prevent the collision entirely.
Kildare noted that such systems would provide help regardless of the road design. “While we believe roadway improvements are necessary,” he said, “the vehicle based technology would be a great start to addressing the problem.”
In the meantime, pedestrian and bicycle death tolls show few signs of significant decline in state after state.
The government has a wide range of programs aimed at making roads safer. The four-year-old special pedestrian and bicycle safety promotion program is authorized to spend $70 million over a five year period that ends in the next fiscal year. So far it’s spent $42 million.
“$70 million nationally is a pretty insignificant amount of funding, in fact I’d say a very insignificant amount of funding,” DeFazio said. “A major city could easily spend a heck of a lot more than that reconfiguring bike lanes, pedestrian crossings, signalization and all that.”
Osborne agreed, saying of the budget for all safety programs, “These programs are pitifully underfunded.”
The budget approved this month by the Senate Appropriations Committee would provide $49 billion in highway aid during the current fiscal year. Its House counterpart approved roughly the same amount, as well as $1 billion for the safety administration. The overall transportation budget also includes other safety-related funding.
Pedestrian fatalities rise
Yet the pedestrian death toll remains stubbornly, historically high.
The National Transportation Safety Board conducted a pedestrian safety investigation last year involving 15 different crashes.
It described “a widespread belief by many drivers they can multitask and still operate a vehicle safely. But multitasking is a myth; humans can only focus cognitive attention on one task at a time. That’s why executing any task other than driving is dangerous and risks a crash.”