Pedestrian deaths often occur at “safe speeds”

Guest post by Chris McCahill, featured in Smart Growth America’s latest Dangerous by Design report.

Read the full report here

People in vehicles often die in high-speed crashes when speed limits are being ignored. Pedestrian deaths tend to occur on roads designed for moderate speeds, which typically keep drivers safe but do nothing for people on foot.

Among vehicle occupants, only 18% of deaths occur on roads with speed limits under 40 mph, and 40% occur under 50 mph. Traffic deaths spike at 55 mph. Among those killed while walking, however, 33% are on roads under 40 mph, and 63%—nearly two-thirds—are on roads under 50 mph. These lower-speed roads are often in busy activity centers that lack sufficient protection for people on foot.

Information about vehicle speeds is much less common in national data sets, meaning it can be difficult to determine the exact number of fatal crashes that involved speeding. However, from what we know, speeding is more likely at play when people die inside of a car than when people are hit and killed while walking. Among deaths of vehicle occupants, speeding is reported in one-third of cases, and speeds exceeded the limit in another 8%. Among pedestrian deaths, however, speeding is reported in only 7% of cases and speeds exceeded the limit in another 8%.

The graph above shows that at least 29% of pedestrian deaths occurred when drivers were traveling at “safe speeds,” legally speaking. The remaining percentage, in gray, shows the crashes with unknown details due to a lack of reporting.

Preventing pedestrian deaths requires a paradigm shift in thinking about traffic speeds and road design. In major activity centers and anywhere people might be walking, speeds above 30 mph pose an exponentially greater risk. That means it is not just the responsibility of drivers to obey speed limits, but it is also up to road designers to set appropriate target speeds that both support lower limits and encourage slower driving.

Check out Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design report here

Photo Credit: Will Kamei via Unsplash, unmodified. License