Dangerous by Design 2019: Roads aren’t getting safer for pedestrians

By Rayla Bellis
Last week, Smart Growth America released the latest edition of Dangerous by Design, a biennial report examining trends in pedestrian fatalities. The report looks at changes in the occurrence of pedestrian deaths nationwide overall and ranks states and metropolitan regions according to how dangerous they are for pedestrians. At the same time, a national committee of traffic engineers called on their colleagues to consider pedestrian and bicyclist safety when setting speed limits, and a researcher reports on why pedestrians break the rules, blaming poor roadway design.
The latest data paints a sobering picture. According to the report, between 2008 and 2017, drivers struck and killed 49,340 people walking nationwide, and pedestrian fatalities increased by 35 percent over the decade. The authors argue that this is not because more people are walking; while individual cities and metropolitan areas have observed increased walking rates, the share of trips made by walking nationwide barely increased from 2009 to 2017 according to the National Household Travel Survey. Further, vehicle miles traveled only increased by eight percent over the decade, and overall traffic fatalities dropped by 6.1 percent over the same time period. The report also notes that:

  • 2016 and 2017 were the two highest years since 1990 for the number of people who were killed by drivers while walking.
  • Four out of five states and major metro areas have become more dangerous for people walking since the previous edition of the report, released in 2017.

The data also indicates that certain groups of people continue to be disproportionately struck and killed while walking, including older adults, people of color, and people living in low-income communities.
Sunbelt states continue to have the most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians
Dangerous by Design ranks states and metropolitan areas around the country using a “Pedestrian Danger Index”, or PDI. The index measures how deadly it is for people to walk based on the number of people struck and killed by drivers while walking, controlling for the number of people that live in that state or metro area and the share of people who walk to work. The 2019 edition of Dangerous by Design includes traffic deaths that occurred between 2008 and 2017 from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).
The report indicates that states and metropolitan areas across the southern continental United States continue to top the list of most dangerous places, potentially because much of the growth in these states occurred after the rise of the automobile, producing car-oriented development patterns.

Roadway design is a major factor
Like prior editions, Dangerous by Design 2019 argues that roadway design is a key factor in the nation’s pedestrian fatalities. Wide lanes and other design elements that enable high vehicle speeds also put pedestrians at higher risk and increase the chance that crashes will be fatal.
Further, when pedestrians are forced to navigate a roadway environment with poor conditions for walking—like incomplete or obstructed sidewalks, infrequent crossings (particularly near bus stops and other pedestrian activity generators), lack of signalized crossings, and poor pedestrian-scale lighting at intersections—they adapt their behavior in ways that put them at risk. For example, recent research in Rockford, IL, using video footage of high-crash locations shed light on roadway design factors like lack of ADA ramps and poor access to bus stops that prompt pedestrians to “break the rules” when crossing.
However, a growing number of transportation decision makers are taking seriously the nation’s pedestrian death epidemic and taking steps to address it. For instance, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices voted earlier this month to require city transportation officials to consider “pedestrian and bicycle activity” when determining the speed limit on most urban and suburban streets. The current MUTCD say that engineers may use other criteria, like the presence of pedestrians, in setting speed limits, but the new language orders them to use that information in addition to the 85th percentile rule.
Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.