The United States has witnessed a troubling trend: an increasing number of incidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists fatally struck by motor vehicles. The seeming lack of accountability for drivers involved in these tragic incidents is even more disturbing. Freakonomics Radio recently published a podcast titled “Why Is the U.S. So Good at Killing Pedestrians.” The podcast provided insight into the reasons for the rising pedestrian deaths and what can be done to stop the killing. This blog aims to shed light on this issue.
Last year in the United States, there were approximately 7,500 pedestrian fatalities. It’s not just the number of deaths that are concerning, but also that the rate of pedestrian fatalities per mile driven has reached its highest level in over 40 years. The podcast acknowledged that sometimes crashes involving pedestrians are the result of pedestrian action, but a pedestrian can follow all the rules and still be seriously injured or killed in a vehicle crash. Pedestrian deaths are more often the fault of motorists, but our current system prioritizes protecting drivers over pedestrians.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), pedestrians account for 17% of all traffic deaths, despite only 2% of all people injured in traffic crashes being pedestrians. This statistic suggests that pedestrians are at a higher risk of fatal outcomes when competing against cars.
Kelcie Ralph, a transportation scholar at Rutgers University, was asked why she thought so many pedestrian deaths occur in the U.S she stated:
“We demand high speeds. We want to get to the places we want to go quickly, in part because Americans drive so many miles a day. The average American spends 55 minutes a day in their car, and we want to get to wherever we’re going quickly. So we have high speeds. We have a lot of cars on the same roadway, and then we have what we call arterial streets. So imagine two or three lanes in each direction, a McDonald’s, a Home Depot, lots of driveways, maybe there’s sidewalks, maybe there’s not. People are pulling in, people are pulling out. You’re going to have crashes there. And in fact, when we do crash hot-spot analysis, these are by far the most dangerous streets in the nation. In most cities, about 80 percent of the crashes occur on about 15 to 20 percent of the roadways.”
Philip Miatkowski, Senior Director of Research and Policy at Transportation Alternatives, was also interviewed on the podcast. He stated:
“Using New York City’s open data, we calculated that 76 percent of New York City’s street space is dedicated for either moving or storing vehicles, 23 percent is dedicated for sidewalks and less than 1 percent is dedicated for bus lanes and bike lanes combined.”
Many cities in the U.S. have similar roadway infrastructure that prioritize cars which seems counterproductive. A more efficient system with dedicated bus and bike lanes would increase safety and speed up transportation. In the podcast, Freakonomics radio’s host Stephen Dubner asked, “How did our streets get so dangerous in the first place? And why, over the past 20 years, have pedestrian deaths risen much more than other traffic deaths?”
Kelcie Ralph stated: “The cars we’re driving are bigger, badder, faster. If you get hit by a sedan, you break your legs and you get thrown over the windshield. If you get hit by an S.U.V., you get hit in the chest, and then you get pulled under the vehicle — so much more likely to die. And we’re selling way more S.U.V.s than we used to. We’re driving more. We’re also walking more. But pedestrian deaths per million miles driven increased 30 percent during that time. So it’s not just more driving and more walking. It’s something different. I think distracted driving remains really widespread. And interestingly, when we looked at police enforcement of distraction, every agency we’re talking to said, “Oh, yeah, we do a lot of distracted-walking enforcement. We do a lot of ticketing of people walking distracted. Not so much of people driving distracted, because it’s really hard to see them.”
Sara Bronin, professor of law and urban planning at Cornell, explained the 85–percentile rule, the rule that is generally used by engineers to set a road’s speed limit. Sara explained the 85-percentile rule is when, “the speed limit can be changed if 85 percent, or the 85th percentile of drivers, are driving a certain speed, even if that speed is higher than the suggested speed limit. So what it does — unusually among laws generally — is it actually allows a law, the speed limit for a particular road, to be rewritten by the law-breakers. The idea is that the 85th percentile rule recognizes what everybody would view as the commonly acceptable speed of traffic. But what it really does is, it gives the ability to make a road faster, and it hands that ability over to people who were recklessly driving in the first place.” Bronin added, “So the 85th percentile rule is a problem, don’t get me wrong. But it also illustrates the fundamental issue, which is that we are designing our roads to enable cars to drive faster, in a way that disrespects the other users of a roadway.”
Kelcie Ralph mentioned data from Edmonton, Canada, about how many people get hit by drivers. She noted that in 2017, 284 people were hit by motorists while 49,000 other objects were hit, and 5,500 of them were stationary objects like parked cars and signs. “We’re talking about parked cars and signs. These aren’t things darting out. It’s tempting to focus on the pedestrians because that’s where the action is, in terms of deaths. But I think we need to focus on the drivers, because that’s where the action is in terms of risk.”
Stephen Dubner pointed out that one of the hardest things about understanding pedestrian deaths is the lack of data and accountability from the driver. “As you can imagine, the driver who hits a pedestrian may tell a story that takes the blame off themselves; and the dead pedestrian isn’t around to tell their story.”
David Strayer, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Utah, was also interviewed. Strayer directs the Applied Cognition Lab and studies driving and driving behavior. “When we look at fatalities on the roadway, the four things that are killing people are speeding, alcohol and intoxication, fatigue, and distraction. Distraction has been prevalent for a long time, but increasing quite rapidly. And we think that that’s one of the major reasons for the increase in the number of roadway fatalities.”
Strayer went on to mention the studies he has done in his lab that quantify a scale rating for distractions. It is fascinating when he explains the dangers of the tech built into our phones that is supposed to help aid multitasking while driving but does the opposite. He rated this a four or higher out of a five-point scale because voice assist is still error-prone and takes longer to complete a task, which means more time for the consequences of distracted driving.
Stephen Dubner asked a critical question, “Drivers in every country have phones. So why would pedestrian deaths be so much worse here?” American roads are engineered for efficiency for the automobile and speed. As mentioned above, this design flaw causes an increase in crashes. Strayer stated that manual transmissions are very prominent in other countries, whereas in the U.S., most cars are automatic. Driving a manual transmission requires a lot more focus from the driver and eliminates the desire to engage in reckless distractions.
Kelcie Ralph added another theory that contributes to pedestrian deaths known as “other-regarding behavior” which correlates with aggressive drivers; we have seen a considerable uptake in this behavior since the pandemic. She stated, “Safe infrastructure is not sufficient if the drivers are road-raged.”
A solution that supports vision zero initiatives and infrastructure is known as a shared street. Philip Miatkowski, from Transportation Alternatives, took Stephen Dubner to the corner of 39th and Broadway in Manhattan. At first glance, this street appears to be a “no car zone,” but in reality, it is designed for vehicles and pedestrians. The design and infrastructure significantly slow down traffic, increasing safety. Sara Bronin added “The safest streets in Europe are streets where pedestrians and cars are entirely intermixed. In other words, where there’s not even really a distinguishable sidewalk. You see those streets in England, you see them in Switzerland, where cars, bicyclists, pedestrians are all navigating, sometimes even without striped lanes, the same roadway. And the reason that that is safer, is because the cars, lacking clear direction as to where their exact lane is and where the sidewalk is, they have to be more careful, so they slow down. The pedestrians, who in such a situation have as much of a right to the road as any, they’re not relegated to sidewalks — can actually feel like they can walk in between cars. And again, despite our intuition, our probably, you know, American mindset, that that kind of situation might be dangerous, it’s actually in many ways safer, because it signals to drivers that they’re not the only users of the road.”
Overall, it is clear that reducing the speed of cars could aid in reducing fatalities on our roadways. A simple solution Kacie Ralph suggests is to increase the number of speed cameras. She stated, “The best way to slow people down is to make sure we have rigorous enforcement. We can’t have a cop at every corner, we can’t afford that. But we can have a camera at every corner. And the beautiful thing about it is that it reduces recidivism. People get a ticket the first time the cameras are up, and then they don’t get another ticket.”
The issue of American drivers getting away with killing pedestrians is distressing and multifaceted. By examining the problem from various angles, and exploring potential solutions and applying a safe systems approach, we can work towards a society that values the lives of all road users and ensures that justice is served. Together, we can strive for a future where such tragic incidents become increasingly rare and accountability is prioritized for the sake of all involved.