people crossing the street

Why Have Pedestrian Deaths Increased by 50% in the Past Decade?

The number of pedestrian deaths in the United States has grown exponentially in the last 10 years, but why? Car accidents and other types of vehicle-related deaths have decreased in that time period, as the risk to pedestrians becomes greater. The statistics are troubling, the issue is complex, and the answers may not be as obvious as most would expect.

Possible Causes

Former Streetsblog editor Angie Schmitt explored the issue of climbing pedestrian accident cases in her book, Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. The book looks beyond more commonly-cited reasons for the rise in deaths — namely the use of cellphones — and identifies underlying issues. Primarily, she emphasizes that “the pedestrians who die are disproportionately Black, brown, low income, or over 65;” additionally, “Cars are getting bigger, drivers are going faster, roads are getting wider, and more people are moving to transit-lacking suburbs and Sun Belt cities,” stated an article from Curbed. The lack of consideration for the safety of disadvantaged pedestrians informs many infrastructure decisions, and unfortunately, contributes to higher rates of pedestrian deaths in these demographics. Pedestrian deaths rarely prompt a reaction or a change in policies, especially if a victim is not white.

Potential Solutions

Solving the pedestrian death crisis will require an undoing of the deeply-embedded racism and classism that disregards the needs of people, Schmitt argues. The infrastructure that is created with pedestrian safety in mind is crucial, along with an approach that emphasizes better design rather than enforcement. Instead of adjusting infrastructure, cities often rely on the policing of pedestrian behavior in an attempt to decrease accidents. However, this strategy rarely works.

Pivoting away from the focus on victims could be another way of decreasing pedestrian deaths. Charles T. Brown of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers suggested to Curbed that “a national, publicly accessible registry of drivers who have killed people” could potentially contribute to a decrease in pedestrian accidents.

Ultimately, centering the people who are most affected by pedestrian accidents into conversations about infrastructure and policy changes is the best strategy for addressing the issue. A change in approach could combat this symptom of ingrained systemic issues.

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