Pedestrian Deaths Skyrocketed Over the Past Decade, But Which Cities Have It Worse?

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
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pedestrian deaths skyrocketed over the past decade but which cities have it worse

Late last year, we delivered some upbeat news — U.S. motorist deaths fell 1.8 percent in 2017, after two years of steep increases. This decline in fatalities came in a year where the number of miles travelled by American drivers actually increased 1.2 percent. It’s progress, albeit meager, but it’s still nowhere near the ideal of zero fatalities.

But what about people killed in vehicle collisions who weren’t riding in a car? Thousands of pedestrians and cyclists die each year at the hands of motorists, and some 5,977 met their end this way in 2017. What can we learn from the available data?

Smart Growth America’s just-released Dangerous by Design report looks at the decade leading up to the last year of complete data — 2017. Over that period, we see a steady climb in pedestrian fatalities (2017 was the first year since 2009 in which fatalities actually dropped, though only by a small amount — just 103 fewer deaths).

Averaged out, pedestrian fatalities rose 35 percent over the past decade. Like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report published last year, there’s many elements at work here. Many point to increased dangers born of an evolving populace.

Since 2008, the total number of miles travelled by vehicle increased 8.1 percent in the U.S., while the number of trips accomplished through foot power rose less than 1 percent. Over the same time period, deaths of vehicle occupants fell 6.1 percent due to a variety of factors, including safer automobiles and reduced rates of impaired driving.

In its report, the NHTSA’s data pointed to a hollowing out of rural America and an influx of citizens to major urban centers.

Between 2008 and 2008, total vehicle miles travelled dropped 2.1 percent in rural areas and rose 13.1 percent in urban areas. At the same time, urban traffic-related deaths rose 17.4 percent and rural fatalities sank 18 percent. In this fact, we see a key reason for the upswing in pedestrian deaths. Drivers and urban walkers/cyclists are increasingly on a collision course simply because more exist in close proximity to each other.

Even as vehicles become safer, incorporating recent advances like pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking (not to mention energy-absorbing hoods), rates of distracted driving are set to muscle out impaired driving as the greatest scourge on our roads. Pedestrians, too, have more opportunity to find themselves distracted. We’re boozing less, but replacing the practice with another danger.

With a higher percentage of pedestrian fatalities now occurring in major cities, the death rate among marginalized communities is also on the upswing. The same goes for the elderly. Pedestrians aged 75 or above are twice as likely to die in a vehicle impact as the U.S. average. Unsurprisingly, the lower a person’s income, the more likely they are to be struck by a car.

So, where is the carnage the worst? Think warmth. Cities in the Southern U.S. surpass much larger Northern urban centers in pedestrian danger, based on fatalities and the rate per 100,000 people. Smart Growth America combined these figures to create a Pedestrian Danger Index score. Florida counts for eight of the top 10 worst cities, with Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford at the top.

A heavier mix of retirees and distracted tourists, coupled with year-round warm weather and lackluster transit, combined to give Florida the undesirable title of pedestrian death king. Of the remaining Lower 48, only Bakersfield, California and Jackson, Mississippi managed to crack the top 10. Other Southern or Southwestern cities, including Baton Rouge, Memphis, Birmingham, Greenville, and Albuquerque, populate the list of most-dangerous locales — with the exception of the Motor City itself at number 18.

You’ll need to scroll to number 41 — Indianapolis — in order to see another Northern city on the list. In contrast, Northeastern and Rust Belt cities, with the exception of Youngtown, Ohio, fall well below the national average in terms of pedestrian danger.

To the organization behind the report, one pedestrian death is too many. The group uses the report to advocate for better road design and public policy to mitigate the rise in vehicle-pedestrian collisions.

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Acd Acd on Jan 28, 2019

    I can’t believe the number of people who don’t use crosswalks and just run out into traffic and will stand in the center median waiting to dart across traffic. A lot of people just don’t know how to safely cross a street.

  • APaGttH APaGttH on Jan 28, 2019

    Live in the Seattle area. I'm surprised Seattle isn't higher up the list. Pedestrians are suicidal basically ignoring signals, crossing where there are no legally defined crosswalks, even walking in front of traffic on a don't walk as the light turns green. Never mind the preferred color of black on black for clothing choice, and the required cellphone in hand. The lighting here is worse than other parts of the country - urban "dark" looks/seems darker compared to other cities. The more gentle rain of the wet season doesn't deter pedestrians or cyclists but turns the urban streets at night into a Hellscape of blinding glare. For about 3 months out of the year the brightest part of the day at 48.3 degrees north is late afternoon sun at best for most of the country. If it is clear the sun is sitting so low to the horizon you're basically staring into it as you drive sans the dead center of the day. Toss in endless construction, road closures, and militant cyclists. My wife is well employed as a doctor at the local trauma center in putting human beings back together.

  • Carsofchaos Bike lanes are in use what maybe 10 to 12 hours a day? The other periods of the day they aren't in use whatsoever. A bike can carry one person and a vehicle can carry multiple people. It's very simple math to figure out that a bike lane in no way shape or form will handle more people than cars will.The bigger issue is double parked delivery vehicles. They are often double parked and taking up lanes because there are cars parked on the curb. You combine that with a bike lane and pedestrians Crossing wherever they feel like it and it's a recipe for disaster. I think if we could just go back to two lanes of traffic things would flow much better. I started coming to the city in 2003 before a lot of these bike lanes were implemented and the traffic is definitely much worse now than it was back then. Sadly at this point I don't really think there is a solution but I can guarantee that congestion pricing will not fix this problem.
  • Charles When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.
  • Marky S. I own the same C.C. XSE Hybrid AWD as in this article, but in Barcelona Red with the black roof. I love my car for its size, packaging, and the fact that it offers both AWD and Hybrid technology together. Visibility is impressive, as is its small turning circle. I consider the C.C. more of a "station wagon" by proportion, rather than an “SUV.” It is fun to drive, with zippy response and perky pick-up. It is a pleasant car to drive and ride in. It is not trying to be a “Butch Off-Roader”, or a cosseting “Luxury Cruiser.” Those are not its goals or purpose. The Corolla Cross XSE Hybrid AWD is a wonderful All-Purpose Car (O.K. – “SUV” if you must hear me say it!) with a combination of all the features it has at a reasonable price.
  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.