We Know How to Fix Deadly Streets

by Leah Shahum | August 23, 2021 | in News, Webinars

National Study Shows Pedestrian Crashes are Predictable & Preventable

If we knew a certain model of airplane failed catastrophically and consistently, killing everyone on board – say, an average of 100-to-115 people dead every day, year after year – would we ignore the problem and chalk it up to an unfortunate risk of flying?

If a community’s drinking water was known to poison and kill a significant number of people every year – say, it were a leading cause of death in the general population and *the* leading cause of death amongst youth in the nation – would we let the problem slide, hoping for the best without insisting on system-wide change?

Of course not. Isn’t this a prime role of government – to help ensure systems intended to benefit the community do not, in fact, severely and persistently harm the community?

These were the kinds of questions running (frustratingly) through my mind as I read a 2021 study in the Journal of Transport and Land Use which shows that, in large part, we know where and when severe traffic crashes happen involving people walking, yet we look past that life-saving knowledge and, as a society, continue to accept an everyday transportation system that regularly kills tens of thousands of people each year and maims millions more.

What are we doing? Are we crazy? These were also questions on my mind in reading the study. Also: How do we get *influential people* to understand and act on this information?

We dug into these questions and more in our August 12th webinar with two of the study’s authors – Robert J. Schneider, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Rebecca L. Sanders, the founder and principal investigator of Safe Streets Research & Consulting, LLC, as well as Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of the LA Department of Transportation.

If you haven’t read the study, please do, it’s important. If you’re short on time, here’s a great summary from Streetsblog USA.

The Big Takeaway

What the study finds is that where people walking is hit and killed by people driving motor vehicles is far from random. In fact, these tragic incidents are, largely, predictable and preventable. The roads that are deadly for people walking (and, usually, also for biking and driving) are, for the most part, very wide, very fast, carrying a lot of car traffic, and flanked by businesses that draw visitors. They’re also more likely to be located in Black and Brown communities and in low-income communities. 

The study is not the first to show signs of this disturbing trend. In fact, many (perhaps most) cities find the same patterns when they analyze their local crash data, as demonstrated consistently through High Injury Networks. But this study is significant because it appears to be the largest in scope of its kind, with analysis of more than 62,000 fatal crashes across the nation over 16 years. What it shows is that we have a national problem that we should know how to fix when it comes to pedestrian safety. And given off-the-chart, dire trends in the number of people killed while walking in this country – pedestrian fatalities increased 45% from 2010 to 2019 – we should be taking notice and making change now.

Design Matters Most

There is alarming consistency in the designs of dangerous roads. For example, locations where people are most likely to be struck and killed while walking share these common characteristics:

  • 97% had three lanes or more;
  • 70% forced walkers to cross 5+ lanes in order to reach the other side;
  • 75% had speed limits higher than 30mph, a speed at which 40% of people walking are likely to be severely injured and 19% to die if struck by a vehicle;
  • 100% of them were in corridors with commercial land uses.

These findings may not surprise some people: of course, wide, fast, busy roads are going to be more dangerous. But, I find it alarming that we know all this – and yet – we continue to design, build, maintain and operate roads in the same deadly ways. 

These consistently tragic and predictable outcomes would not – and should not – be accepted in other realms of our daily life, such as air travel or safe drinking water. Then why do we accept this for getting around on a day-to-day basis, particularly walking trips?

Why in the World?

For too long, we’ve treated tens of thousands of traffic deaths and millions more injuries each year as (mostly) random events — something we can’t control in any systematic way because,  well, you know, “people will be people” and “accidents happen”. We’ve spent way too much time lecturing people walking to protect themselves with messages of “Be bright! Be visible!”, despite the reality that the built environments and unsound policymaking are failing them … sometimes to tragic ends.

When we have focused on patterns, traditionally, it has been predominantly related to individual actions (exs: drunk and distracted driving, “jaywalking”). What we’ve fallen short on is closely looking at – and learning from and acting on – the important patterns of where serious crashes occur and to whom. When we do that, we see that our country is systematically, though passively, accepting a staggering, heart-breaking number of preventable deaths and immense amounts of suffering as a result of our everyday transportation system. And we’re accepting it, particularly, amongst people walking and biking, kids and seniors, and amongst people of color and low-income people.

Dangerous by Design, 2021. Smart Growth America

And, when it comes to solutions, we’ve largely focused on counter-measures to try to lessen problem areas once they already exist, rather than using a proactive Safe System approach to stop doing the things that we know are more likely to be deadly for someone walking. We should and could be doing things *before* problems occur, based on knowledge we have, to prevent problems. 

For instance, we know that certain speeds are likely to kill someone walking, yet we still set speeds at deadly levels in city centers and along arterials filled with destinations where many people walk. If we lowered speeds and redesigned roadways for safe speeds, while also ensuring a safe walking environment, we may still have crashes, but they would be far less likely to be serious. This is just a matter of physics, yet we continue to design roads and set speeds in ways that have deadly consequences for people, especially those walking.

Are the Study Findings Surprising?

“Does it surprise me?” said Seleta Reynolds, of LADOT, during the August webinar. “No. What surprises me is that it took this long for us to see something like this, and also that it didn’t come from a top-down approach.” 

“We must demand that there be attention paid to this issue in a more systemic way, and I think we’re starting to see that with this Administration,” she continued. Reynolds expressed optimism that we’re seeing more attentiveness and funding toward these issues, crediting, in part, strong leadership at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), including U.S. DOT Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg, who led NYC’s groundbreaking safety work, and Robin Hutcheson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Safety Policy for U.S. DOT, who led Vision Zero in Minneapolis. 

But, there’s a lot of resistance to change.

“There’s this trick of modal amnesia that happens for most people because driving is such the dominant way of getting around, and that’s by design, we made it that way in America,” Reynolds said. “When you see somebody walking or biking, they’re almost invisible because you view them as ‘other’ — they’re viewed as outside social norms.”

“That bias has seeped into a lot of the work that’s been done over the last several decades, and I think it does persist, in many state DOTs which drive the research agenda and fund the research agenda….”

Reynolds explained that the data sets of people hurt and killed while walking and biking in a local community may seem small in number and without any patterns, which can trick people into thinking there isn’t a problem that is solvable.

“One of the powerful things about Vision Zero is that it’s moved us away from that kind of analytical approach and it has revealed that the patterns are very clear,” said Reynolds. “They’re persistent. They’re part of status quo reality that absolutely will not change unless we do something different.”

In the webinar discussion, Reynolds and the study’s co-authors, Schneider and Sanders, all focused on the importance of addressing what is a clear correlation between pedestrian injuries and fatalities happening disproportionately in low-income communities and in Black & Brown communities. This relates directly to the fact that these neighborhoods have been treated inequitably in many ways – ranging from redlining policies to freeways wiping out communities to less road safety investments, overall – to the harsh reality that motorists are less likely to stop for Black pedestrians to give them time to cross the street.

What To Do?

So. Many. Things.

We know many of the solutions to prevent severe crashes – ranging from redesigning streets to discourage high speeds and to give people walking and biking dedicated, safe space to requiring proven safety technologies in vehicles, as many countries already do. We need our leaders – at the Federal, State, regional and local levels to take actions to make safe mobility the norm.

This includes investing in the kind of data analysis in this study and prioritizing funding and policy decisions based on the facts. (NOTE: This important study was not funded by the government. In fact, it was not funded at all. The study’s authors took on the task pro-bono because they wanted to help fill a troubling gap in safety knowledge.)

“In other parts of the transportation industry, these kinds of crashes are actually investigated with quite a bit more rigor,” said Rebecca Sanders, co-author of the study. “So, if we were to take this more seriously and give it the resources that it deserves – the “it” being the loss of a human life – I think we would have the resources we need to do this kind of analysis.”

“Relying on individual acts of researchers spending their weekends and nights doing this is not a sustainable strategy, but it’s also not an ethical strategy and it’s not an equitable strategy.”

Sanders also expressed optimism with the focus on safety being touted by the U.S. DOT’s leadership team “that we start to put resources to match where we say our values are – because we have not ever done that with pedestrians and bicyclists. And it’s beyond time.”


Watch the webinar to find out the panelists’ top pieces of advice to make real change in advancing Vision Zero today – some may surprise you! And read the full study.

Vision Zero Network thanks Seleta Reynolds, Bob Schneider, and Rebecca Sanders for their time, energy, and commitment. And we urge anyone reading this to step up their work for change. It is possible. And it is beyond time.

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