Last week, the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state road safety agencies across the country, released a report meant to call attention to a worrisome uptick in pedestrian fatalities in the first half of 2010. Too bad it offers essentially no analysis – then compounds it with idle speculation on the causes of pedestrian deaths and victim-blaming.
The raw numbers show 1,891 pedestrian fatalities from January through June of 2010, compared to 1,884 in the first six months of 2009, a 0.4% increase after four years of steady decline in pedestrian deaths. By itself, an increase of just 7 fatalities nationwide is not particularly striking, but GHSA’s directors express concern about the findings, particularly in light of an 8 percent drop in overall traffic fatalities from the first half of 2009 to 2010. Said Chairman Vernon F. Betkey Jr., “Given that we have made so much progress in this area, GHSA is concerned to see this reversal.”
If the trend does indeed continue in the second half of 2010, there may be good reason to worry. But preliminary numbers for the tri-state region suggest that pedestrian fatalities have continued to fall. In New Jersey, for example, the number of pedestrian deaths fell by 11 percent in 2010 compared to the prior year, according to preliminary data from the State Police.
Regardless of the GHSA’s findings, the report itself is atrocious. The author resorts to analysis via anecdote, linking the increase to anything from distracted drivers to “broad economic and social factors” to car-centric road design. But the report devotes the most ink to the theory that distracted pedestrians and efforts to increase physical activity by encouraging walking are to blame. A “blame the victim” theme runs throughout the report, with repeated references to pedestrians distracted by cellphones or headphones — and no reference to data. Here’s a typical excerpt (emphasis added):
[Connecticut officials noted]:
“We’ve had some ‘distracted’ pedestrians, but not enough to create a trend.”
[...] As Delaware noted:“Though there is no solid data to indicate how large the scope of the problem is, there have been isolated cases to show that distracted pedestrians are becoming an issue… particularly those who walk or run for exercise and may be using headphones while listening to music.”
Despite “no solid data” to back up these “isolated cases,” here’s how the organization’s press release summarized that aspect of the report:
A growing national focus on walkable communities and “get moving” health and fitness efforts may cause pedestrian exposure, and thus risk, to increase.
Conservative news outlets picked up on this conclusion, suggesting that First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to push fitness could be responsible for the slight jump in pedestrian fatalities.
The report concludes that “no single pedestrian fatality cause stands out and no single countermeasure can make a substantial impact.” But both Tri-State’s reports on pedestrian safety and the national report Dangerous by Design cite evidence suggesting that the biggest single cause of pedestrian fatalities is road design that favors speeding cars over pedestrian safety. For example, in 2009 more than 53 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred on wide “arterial” roads, even though those roads comprised only 12 percent of the nation’s lane mileage.
Most appallingly, the report highlights the death of a 14-year-old girl who was trying to cross Sunrise Highway on Long Island as an example of pedestrian fault. Anyone familiar with that roadway knows that an old-school engineering design that put six lanes of speeding traffic through town centers is the reason it has been repeatedly named one of the most dangerous roads in the tri-state area. Shame on GHSA for saying otherwise.
Photo: Google Street View.