Rethink roads to lower pedestrian deaths
Wednesday, February 6, 2019
The number of pedestrians killed in the United States over the past decade or so — 49,340 between 2008 and 2017 — is about seven times higher than the number of Americans killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined.
Those are among the many sobering statistics from a recent report by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition, which rightly calls on local, state and national leaders to make safer roads a priority.
Perhaps even more troubling than the number of deaths, however, is the primary reason why our streets are so dangerous: We build them that way.
Over the 10-year study period, pedestrian deaths jumped by more than 35 percent while motorist deaths actually dropped by about 6 percent. And those shifts happened even as the nation drove slightly more and walked almost exactly the same amount.
In other words, our focus on building roads designed almost entirely for cars seems to be making things marginally safer for drivers, which is a good thing. But that slight improvement has come at great cost for pedestrians.
It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.
A big part of the problem is the way we measure the success of a road, which has a lot to do with a metric called “level of service.” Roads are given a letter grade based on traffic flow at peak hours. Congested roads fail, free-flowing roads get good grades.
But as the study correctly notes, “Minimizing vehicle delay as the number one goal often produces the roads that are the most dangerous by design.”
High traffic speeds are, not surprisingly, very closely correlated with pedestrian risk. The likelihood of a crash being fatal increases dramatically when cars are traveling faster than about 30 mph.
And the focus on moving traffic quickly isn’t just for pedestrians.
An incredible 340,000 American drivers lost their lives behind the wheel between 2008 and 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s about one person every 15 minutes.
Focusing on level of service also doesn’t necessarily mean taxpayers are getting the most bang for their buck. Some roads with good grades are wastefully overbuilt, for example. Other streets with failing grades run through popular, desirable and highly productive neighborhoods.
As the study notes, Congress has a prime opportunity to make safer streets a priority as part of ongoing federal transportation funding efforts and a potential bipartisan push for infrastructure improvements. State and local governments need to be part of the solution as well.
The top priority ought to be rethinking basic street design.
“Rather than designing roads that encourage speeding and then relying upon enforcement, states and cities should design roads to encourage safer, slower driving speeds in the first place,” suggests the study.
We can also fix problematic roads by testing out a variety of traffic calming measures, many of which are relatively cheap and easy to implement — and easy to undo if they cause more problems than they solve.
The Post & Courier of Charleston, S.C.