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Why pedestrian deaths in the US are at a 40-year high

How many fatalities will it take to get officials to take the problem seriously?

A photo of an In memory sign on the roadside Cristian Lazzari/Getty Images
Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safety, gun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications.

How many deaths does it take to get the government to take a crisis seriously?

That’s the question raised by the Governors Highway Safety Association’s latest preliminary report on pedestrian deaths in 2022. The annual overview of state data on pedestrian fatalities helps the public and policymakers get a better understanding of the overall picture of road safety in the US.

This year’s report makes clear how dangerous it is to walk in America: The GHSA projects that 7,508 people were killed while walking in 2022, the most pedestrians killed since 1981, when 7,837 pedestrians were killed.

The roads were already getting deadlier for pedestrians before 2020, but the pandemic turbocharged the trend. In 2021, 7,624 pedestrians were killed in the United States, a 13 percent increase from the year before, when 6,721 pedestrians were killed. Between 2010 and 2021, the new GHSA report says, pedestrian fatalities increased 77 percent.

There’s no single explanation for why it’s getting more dangerous to walk on US roads, but there are a few major contributing factors. One is deadly road design. In the decades after World War II, new communities emerged, centered on the premise that inhabitants would drive everywhere. Governments and regional planners designed wide, multi-lane arterial roads for high-speed travel. In the years since, traffic engineers and planners continued to widen those roads and add lanes, ostensibly to address congestion, while local officials approved commercial development alongside them. It led to what former traffic engineer and Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn calls “stroads.”

In Marohn’s parlance, a street is a gathering place, where people can shop, dine, and live. It needs to be designed for pedestrians to be able to safely access the businesses around it, while a road is designed to move cars efficiently from point A to point B. A stroad is the worst of both worlds, and is incredibly dangerous to pedestrians. The data bears this out: In 2021, the latest GHSA report says, 60.4 percent of pedestrian fatalities happened on such roads, which often lack infrastructure that would make it safe for pedestrians, such as good lighting and frequent crosswalks. As a consequence, many of the people killed last year were struck at night.

Another major factor contributing to climbing pedestrian fatalities is the American love affair with big vehicles. Over the last 20-plus years, US consumers have turned away from the small cars that used to dominate our roadways in favor of increasingly larger SUVs and light trucks. These larger, heavier vehicles create big blind spots and are more deadly to pedestrians when they strike them — especially children. From 2000 to 2019, smaller vehicles such as sedans dropped from 60 percent of all vehicles to around 40 percent, while the number of SUVs surged, from 10 percent to over 30 percent. In 2021, trucks and SUVs made up more than 80 percent of new vehicle sales, and there’s little sign of that trend abating, now that auto manufacturers are increasingly turning their production efforts toward more profitable luxury vehicles. Electric vehicles, being boosted by manufacturers and policymakers as the environmentally friendly future of automotive travel, are also significantly heavier than their gas-powered counterparts.

Other potential factors are harder to prove but would probably make sense to anyone who’s almost been run over in a crosswalk the last few years: One theory is that the pandemic, which saw more people staying at home and upended the usual traffic patterns, encouraged drivers to behave more recklessly because the roads were emptier. Another is that the turmoil of the pandemic, plus political and social unrest in 2020, led to a fraying of the social contract, with people — including drivers — acting more aggressive and unpredictable in public settings. A third is that the police, in response to the Black Lives Matter protests and other critiques of law enforcement, have largely given up on enforcing road safety, leading drivers to reasonably assume that they can drive dangerously without facing consequences.

In a society where the car is so central that most Americans get behind the wheel every day without thinking about the broader consequences of auto dependency, it’s easy to view pedestrian deaths as an unfortunate but unavoidable reality. In fact, the United States has a uniquely terrible track record on pedestrian fatalities, which are continuing to increase here while they decline in many other countries.

There are a multitude of reasons peer countries are getting safer for pedestrians while the US gets deadlier. They include better regulation of vehicle design and size, the adoption of safe technology requirements for vehicles that take into account both vehicle occupants and pedestrians and cyclists, and more aggressive street-calming measures including narrower lanes, slower speed limits, protected bike lanes, and even car-free streets. Maybe most importantly, other developed nations have political leaders who move aggressively and unapologetically toward making streets safer.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has significantly limited cars on streets in the city’s core, added scores of bike trails, and articulated a vision of safety culture that puts pedestrians first. Leaders in Oslo, Norway, and several other cities have made similar moves.

In the United States, with a few notable exceptions, political leaders have paid lip service to the goal of reducing pedestrian deaths without committing to the necessary policy changes that would save lives. The federal government, meanwhile, has failed to address the problem of SUVs and trucks getting bigger, even though researchers have known for decades that large vehicles are deadlier to pedestrians. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, after intense campaigning from safety advocates, finally announced in late May that it would begin considering the safety of vehicles for people outside of them — something European regulators have long done — but those safety considerations won’t be included in the government’s five-star safety rating system for new vehicles, meaning people can still buy cars that are deadly to pedestrians but rated five stars for safety. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, when asked about vehicle size and pedestrian fatalities in a recent interview, said more research needs to be done before introducing new regulations — even though the research is clear.

In the Netherlands in 1970, the country was overrun by cars, and pedestrian fatality rates were soaring. In 1971, 3,300 people were killed, more than 400 of them children. The Dutch public was incensed. They started a movement, Stop de Kindermoord — “Stop the Child Murder” — and staged large protests in Amsterdam. Government officials took notice. They instituted car-free days, added bike lanes, and put the country on the path to being one of the safest countries for pedestrians on earth.

For the Dutch, the limit was 400 children in one year. How many deaths will it take to make US officials prioritize pedestrian safety? We apparently haven’t reached the limit yet.

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