By on February 18, 2019

Pedestrian fatalities in the United States climbed sharply over the past decade. Between 2008 and 2017, which constitutes the most recent data available, on-foot fatalities increased 35.4 percent — despite walking not growing in popularity. All told, the United States lost 49,340 people within the timeframe; about 13 people per day.

While still lower than vehicular deaths, the influx of pedestrian fatalities is cause for alarm for many. Forty countries, backed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, recently agreed to a resolution requiring passenger cars and light commercial vehicles to come equipped with automated braking systems starting as early as 2020. The primary goal? Improving pedestrian safety.

Not everyone is in agreement as to the solution’s effectiveness, however. Earlier this month, the National Complete Streets Coalition released Dangerous by Design 2019 to highlight the country’s plight — and suggested that the old ways might still be the best. 

The document, sponsored by Smart Growth America, attributed the increase in pedestrian deaths to a myriad of factors. Larger vehicles, like SUVs and pickups, have grown in popularity and have a tendency to significantly lower the survivability rate of struck pedestrians; poorer people, more dependent upon walking, have begun shifting to suburban areas; and distracted driving is creating is becoming an increasingly serious problem due to drivers being inundated by complex multimedia systems and their own mobile devices.

However, Smart Growth America’s biggest concerns revolve around poor infrastructure design. The group claims points to a severe lack of pedestrian consideration in most roads built after the 1960s. If you want an example, note how infrequently you’ll see sidewalks and dedicated pedestrian crossings in and around strip malls. Therefore, the organization’s solution is less concerned with mandating advanced driving aids than it is with improving the physical infrastructure of roads. That means things like more sidewalks with a substantive buffer between pedestrians and vehicles, lower speed limits in residential areas, and additional dedicated crosswalks.

There’s a case to be made here. One of Uber’s autonomous test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian last year. The victim had chosen to cross at a less than ideal area that resembled a crosswalk, but wasn’t. Meanwhile, the car failed to identify the woman early enough to provide sufficient time for braking and the safety driver was reportedly glued to a video playing on their phone.

“The fact is, we’re a long way out from putting a lot of faith into new technology to protect us,” said Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition and co-author of the study. “But we can protect ourselves now with tools we have that can lead to safer street designs.”

As for which parts of America are suffering the worst, the south leads by a wide margin. According to Smart Growth’s Pedestrian Danger Index (and most other studies) Florida is the worst offender by far. After Florida, the report ranks the most dangerous states for walking as Alabama, Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and South Carolina. The group is asking the federal government to make a change.

From Smart Growth America:

Our federal government needs to take the lead on prioritizing safer streets. Federal dollars and policies helped create these unsafe streets in the first place. And federal funds, policies, and guidance have a significant role to play in fixing these streets and in designing the streets we’ll build tomorrow.

We call on Congress to adopt a strong, federal Complete Streets policy that requires state departments of transportation (DOTs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to consistently plan for all people who use the street, including the most vulnerable users.

We call on state DOTs and MPOs to put people first and give their organizations the tools and training they need to create transportation networks that serve all users.

We call on the over 1,400 communities that have adopted a Complete Streets policy to turn their vision into practice and implementation.

Considering the group’s bread and butter involves city planning and promoting investments in infrastructure, it’s unsurprising to see it take this path. However, it’s not one we’ve seen echoed within the auto industry or by most elected officials. The NHTSA and most other regulatory agencies are pushing advanced driving aids as the most logical way to bolster vehicular and pedestrian safety. Meanwhile, roadway infrastructure advocacy is placed on the back burner, unless it serves to help vehicle-to-infrastructure data relays.

Truthfully, most of Smart Growth America’s solutions involve redesigning roads to better suit the needs of pedestrians and cyclists at the expense of cars. While that sounds obnoxious for drivers, fewer opportunities to encounter a surprise jaywalker or rogue bicycle are always welcome.

If you want the extended version of the the National Complete Streets Coalition’s paper, but don’t feel like reading it, they’ve provided a comprehensive webinar (below). It’s incredibly dry and fairly preachy but has some interesting takes on the pedestrian problem and solutions that don’t revolve around mandating vehicular autonomy. It also goes into exceptional depth regarding national accident statistics and what some parts of the country are doing to mitigate it.


[Images: Smart Growth America]

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38 Comments on “Automated Driving Systems Aren’t Ready to Save Pedestrians: Safety Group...”

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    All those factors are contributory, so why can’t we have both improved infrastruction AND emergency braking?
    Is it possible to inter/extrapolate what pedestrian deaths would be without safety “nannies?”

    • 0 avatar

      So if you have auto braking on every car pedestrians could just keep walking out in front of your car if they know its gunna stop cant move.

      • 0 avatar

        It would only be every car manufactured after it became a mandatory feature. And assuming it hasn’t been disabled and is in good working order. That’s a lot of “if’s” to risk your life on. The pedestrian hit in Arizona last year was reportedly homeless and in my experience, the homeless often cross in front of moving traffic regardless of conditions.

  • avatar

    The introduction of smart phones and smart phone zombies is more a factor in pedestrian deaths than anything else.

    The graph above (detailing year over year pedestrian fatalities) suspect as it claims deaths have increased since 1990 (ok) but fails to show at any data before 2008. Also, if you matched up smart phone adoption and the rise in pedestrian fatalities I bet you would find a correlation.

    This may be propaganda designed to bolster auto braking regulations being proposed. That’s fine but call it like it is.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m sure you are correct – streets haven’t gotten more dangerous in the last 10 years, cars have gotten safer, so higher pedestrian death rates are most likely due to something big that has changed in the last 10 years, which is the widespread adoption of smart phones. Between drivers texting, and walkers engrossed in their smart phone screen, bad things are going to happen.

      • 0 avatar

        Cars have “generally” gotten safer, with one caveat: ever descreasing greenhouses mean worse visibility.

        Even though the problem started a while ago, it takes time for the older cars without visibility issues to go out of service.

        • 0 avatar

          “it takes time for the older cars without visibility issues to go out of service.”

          True, and an ever-growing number of people are financially unable to purchase a new or newer car, so a number of them just keep fixing the old cars.

          If the number of borrowers late making payments or in default on their car loan is any indication of what is trending, a lot of old cars will remain on the road for a while longer.

          • 0 avatar

            Older vehicles going out of service????
            The A pillars on our newer cars are so wide that you have to wobble your head around when turning right in the city to avoid pedestrians. I realize that its related to preventing roof crush, but they REALLY need to thin out those A pillars. No super high strength steel available?

          • 0 avatar

            gasser, you make an excellent point and in newer cars it is a problem.

            Members of our family have voiced the same complaint about their newer cars.

            For my wife and I it was a non-issues since we drove a 2016 Tundra and a 2016 Sequoia with a height advantage and a huge greenhouse.

        • 0 avatar

          Last week I saw an 80s BMW 318i – the visibility and amount of glass was amazing. Sure it’s not a safe car compared to today but the visibility must have been amazing.

    • 0 avatar

      The cellphone thing is 100% the cause. Everytime I have the misfortune of driving on one of Seattle’s side streets, and sometimes even arterials, I have someone jaywalk across the street in front of me.

      • 0 avatar

        Cellphones aren’t 100% the cause. Other variables are:
        – Infotainment systems, though I think we could put those under the same umbrella as cell phones
        – Poorer visibility, especially because of thicker A pillars (as noted in comments above).
        – Training of drivers, law enforcement, and pedestrians which, anecdotally, seems weaker than it was two or three generations ago. (Yes, I’m counting teaching a toddler how to cross the street as training.)
        – Increasing selfishness and incivility in US society.

        The latter two factors are apparent in various ways:
        – 30 years ago, virtually everyone treated right on red as a stop sign. In the ensuing years, it became “treat it as yield sign” to many people. Now, it’s “treat it as a green light; I have the right of way” to a lot of drivers.
        – Non-distracted drivers’ bumping non-distracted pedestrians (who are in the crosswalk and have the signal) intentionally. Yes, I’ve seen this.
        – Jaywalkers used to show hustle. Frequency of “Yes, I’m jaywalking, but I’m hustling so no one has to swerve or hit the brakes” is down. Frequency of “I’m a fat, selfish jerk who’s going to step in front of a car” is up.

        I have faith that the median American still is a decent person (even if he or she isn’t necessarily too bright), but we now have a significant percentage of selfish a-holes who too often make life miserable for the rest of us.

  • avatar

    “Dangerous by Design” – exaggerate much?

  • avatar

    2008 to 2017: the decade in which smartphones went from nerd-tech to ubiquitous.

    I’m not saying there’s causation necessarily, but there’s certainly correlation. I’m also not saying phones should be disabled in cars (however that would happen). No one in the last post about this was able to answer how that would work for passengers in a car.

    Distracted driving needs to be punished more severely and vilified more, I guess. Keep your eyes on the road and your phone down, it’s pretty simple really.

    Also gotta mention these damn touchscreen interfaces that I’ve still never quite gotten used to. It used to be easy to rest your finger on the “seek” button and flip through radio channels or tracks on a CD. Changing volume luckily still remains on a knob mostly. Scion learned this quickly with the 2005 tC- the first model year and it had volume control by two buttons. Next model year had a knob.

    • 0 avatar

      You say nothing about distracted pedestrians. You see them all the time, walking down sidewalks, barely looking up before crossing, head right back down as soon as they start to cross.

      I’d like to see statistics on how many of these dead and injured pedestrians were staring at their phone.

  • avatar

    Technology will not save us from human stupidity. At best, it’ll be a temporary crutch that ultimately makes the problem worse, turning drivers from enthusiastic users of their Incompetence Compensators to passive occupants totally reliant on same. The progression from “this Automatic Pedestrian Detector really helps me see them at night!” to the Uber Arizona incident is baked into this paradigm of thinking, and is itself dangerous by design.

    When will we wake up and smell the elephant in the room, that we need a much higher standard for driver licensing? A driver’s license should represent one thing, one thing only, and much more strictly and meaningfully that thing: trained and demonstrably competent in the physical and psychological aspects of driving, full stop. Allowing masses of people to operate deadly machinery based on little more than the presence of a pulse, legal immigration status, and responsibility in paying child support (don’t get me wrong, it’s important, just not relevant)… is dangerous by design.

    That said, I agree that pedestrian accessibility in much of modern American infrastructure (seems less of a problem in Europe, for historical as well as cultural reasons) is a major contribution to the problem, and does need to be addressed. But woe unto those who be content to make more better crosswalks and assume that alone will save all these lives.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      Ridiculously astute.

      Education and promoting personal responsibility behind the wheel is likely a cheaper solution too. However, it always seems to be the least important aspect of everyone’s proposed safety strategy.

      • 0 avatar

        Pretty astute…and major points for hero-class metaphor-mixing – “When will we wake up and smell the elephant in the room.”

        I think I’d have a hard time even getting to sleep with an elephant in the room, but I know for sure one would wake me up, if it walked in while I was asleep. And I can’t imagine smelling one in the room would be much of a problem for most folks, so the anxiety over this is misplaced.

  • avatar

    Planned Pedestrianhood.

    Just say No to vehicle traffic.

  • avatar

    In areas of suburban sprawl, “dangerous by design” is correct. Traffic engineers aren’t designing city streets, they’re designing high-speed expressways thinly disguised by stoplights… with near-zero acknowledgment of pedestrian existence, let alone pedestrian safety.

    Recently I was staying in Vegas a couple blocks off the Strip. I tried to walk across the street from my hotel to a shopping center. Should be the simplest thing in the world, yet it was like crossing a damn battlefield. I’ve had similar experiences in a dozen states, everyplace that’s neither a dense urban core or a sparse small town. No crosswalks, no sidewalks, short crossing lights, incorrectly synched turn arrows, poor pedestrian visibility, insane traffic speeds. That is: BAD DESIGN.

    Blame drivers if it makes you feel better about yourself, but they’re responding logically to the infrastructure. If it looks like a freeway and acts like a freeway, they’re going to drive it like a freeway.

    Some cities have tried to address the problem after the fact with physical infrastructure retrofits known as “traffic calming measures”—inaptly named given how much road rage they generate from some drivers. The most controversial measures are “road diets” where one or more lanes of traffic is eliminated, or lanes are narrowed, to reallocate that space to something else—any or all of a menu that might include a center turn lane, parking on the sides, sidewalks, bike lanes, or bike lanes. Basically all the stuff that would be present to begin with if the engineer’s brief had taken into consideration the needs of the people living and working IN the place, not just the needs of the people speeding THROUGH the place.

    Other measures shouldn’t be controversial but are, because people suck. These include bulb-outs at the corners of intersections: these make pedestrians more visible to traffic, and require a tighter steering angle to get around, thereby preventing drivers from hauling ass the corner without slowing down and looking to see if anyone’s stepping off the curb first. Pedestrian islands in the middle of the street keep people from getting mowed down at six-lane crossings when the WALK light inevitably changes to DON’T WALK when they’re halfway across the street. Stand-up reflectors separating bike lanes stop drivers heedlessly swerving in to use them as turn lanes. Replacing 4-way stops with micro-roundabouts in residential areas often saves folks from having to stop completely, but does require them to slow down and look where they’re going to negotiate the turn.

    It’s not a choice between driver training, better road design, and wider adoption of low-speed collision avoidance sensors. We can do all of them, and we should. But honestly the one that will make the biggest difference in the shortest time is probably physical retrofits to traffic infrastructure, targeted to where pedestrian fatalities have already been identified as an issue.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the closest to a comprehensive take on the problem. Lots of people here saying that the solution is 100% this or 100% that. Yeah, right…the silver bullet. How many of us have ever actually seen a silver bullet?

      The major factors can be intuited by looking at where the problem is the worst – Florida is bad because people are walking all year ’round…the Southern states named here all are affected to some degree by this factor…also because there is a large retiree population that has varying degrees of situational awareness – vision, hearing, head-turning flexibility deficits – who also in many cases are transitioning from driving to pedestrian status – they’re not safe to drive, and not really safe to walk, either…have not spent a lot of time as a pedestrian while actively driving.

      The South is also affected by the Sunbelt boom – much of the transportation buildout happened after municipalities stopped taking responsibility for our transit infrastructure – they left it to developers, who figured sidewalks could be dispensed with, saving them money. In the city in which I grew up, a small one in the Northeast, in which my neighborhood was developed in the 1890s-1910s, the streets were in a grid pattern, every street had a sidewalk on both sides, and there was an alley running between residential blocks, giving garage access. Now, with the stupid suburban cul-de-sac infrastructure, even if you are OK with walking in the road, you end up walking 3 miles to get someplace that’s a mile and a half away on a grid pattern. Yes, pedestrians are lousy at being pedestrians…they’re out of practice or never got the chance to get good at it in the first place.

      And now we have pedestrian advocates pitted against personal-mobility (car) advocates. Why? I’ve been a car nut all my life, but I realize there is a whole class of drivers-by-necessity out there – they really don’t like to drive and have no real interest in doing it well or keeping their cars in good repair – but there is no other viable way to get around. Our streets and roads are becoming all but parking lots. Why would we car enthusiasts not take every opportunity to get these people out of their cars and onto mass transit, or off the roads entirely and onto sidewalks?

      • 0 avatar

        +1 to you and your hometown, Fordson. I love cars, but I also was fortunate enough to grow up in a suburb with pre-1930 infrastructure. My father had about a quarter mile walk to a commuter train, and I was able to walk to school for 10 of the 13 years of K-12 (junior high would’ve been a hassle, as the school was on the opposite side of town). It’s obviously a much nicer place to walk than cul-de-sackistan, but it’s also a nicer place to drive.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 on your analysis.
      As someone now over 70, I also remind everyone that oldsters need a bit more time to get across those WIDE streets and when the light starts to change we can’t just sprint for the curb.

  • avatar

    Entirely due to smartphones/pedestrians becoming stoopid, with an added minor reason being municipalities turning down street light intensity to save electricity cost (inadequate night lighting).

  • avatar

    I’ve personally seen two people mowed down because they were focused on their phones. It wasn’t their fault, but they weren’t paying any attention. This is a type of behavior that’s developed since the iPhone was launched twelve years ago.

  • avatar

    I hate to even mention this, I would certainly never run someone over. However; I have seen an incredible increase in the number of people who glare at me and then walk out in front of my car to cross the street. This is on a fairly major highway with a 45mph speed limit and traffic moving at least 10 MPH faster. They don’t want to walk to the nearest intersection to cross and they also don’t want to wait for traffic to stop, so they make eye contact with you and then cross to get to the plaza directly across the street. There have been cases where someone walks out in front of me and I have to brake so abruptly that I am worried I am going to cause a multi-car pileup.

    I agree that distracted walking is a huge contributing factor, I also believe that a lot of pedestrians are taking big chances, being quite confident that someone won’t run them over.

  • avatar

    I think massive A pillars are to blame.

    I nearly hit two different people last week as were completely hidden in my A pillar. In both cases I was approaching a red light, so I slowed to a stop and went to turn right. They walked/rode right in front of me! I know pedestrians have the right of way but when you are in this situation you tend to focus left at on coming traffic assuming anyone on the corner of the street will stay put. One was guy was on his bike and thus wasn’t on the corner when I pulled up. The other guy was walking, so I saw him but assumed he would stay there until I pulled away. In both cases I glanced right before moving but saw nobody – as they were hidden by the A pillar. The guy on the bike zipped by with a slight weave to miss me, while the walker took a few steps back. Both were close calls but I honestly didn’t see them due to the A pillar blocking my view. I wonder if modern SUV/CUVs are worse in this regard. This happened in my ‘Vette which is low and has decent visibility except the front quarters due to the A pillar and fender design.

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