Pedestrian Safety: Preventable Deaths?

Thousands of pedestrians are killed in America each year. Are we doing enough about it?

Matt Yglesias asks “How Big a Deal Is Pedestrian Safety?” He offers the following chart as a conversation starter:

While acknowledging “this is hardly the biggest public health problem the nation faces,” he observes that “pedestrian accidents absolutely dwarf such newsworthy occurrences as plane crashes and hurricanes. These kind of drip drip drip problems are exactly the sort of thing we under-invest in dealing with.”

My first reaction was that newsworthiness is a poor indicator, in that things make the news precisely because they’re novel. “Random 87-year-old Dies”  is unlikely to survive the pitch meeting for the front page, after all.  Additionally, the victims of airliner crashes and hurricanes are much more powerless than the average pedestrian, who can take such precautions as  using crosswalks and looking where the hell they’re going.

But I actually took a peek at the Transportation for America report that Matt links and think he’s got a valid point on under-investment.

[I]t’s shockingly easy to pick out the busy arterial roads where fatalities are strung out in a tidy little line following the path of the road. Nationally speaking, the majority of these deaths occurred along these “arterial” roadways that are dangerous by design — streets engineered for speeding traffic with little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs or on bicycles.

Our federal tax dollars actually go to build these streets that are designed to be perilous to children, older adults and everyone else. And yet, right now, some in Congress are considering the total elimination of funding for projects to make it safer to walk and bicycle.

The highways-only lobby insists that pedestrian safety is a “frill” and a local responsibility. But 67 percent of these fatalities over the last 10 years occurred on federal-aid roads — roads eligible to receive federal funding or with federal guidelines or oversight for their design.

That’s right: Federal programs have encouraged state departments of transportation to prioritize speeding traffic over the safety of people in our neighborhoods and shopping districts. Shouldn’t our tax dollars be used to build streets that are safe for all users, and not deadly for those on foot?

The irony is that fixing these conditions is relatively cheap: Existing funds for that purpose — now targeted for elimination — amount to less than 1.5 percent of the current federal transportation outlay. A policy of giving federal support only to “complete streets” that are designed for the safety of people on foot or bicycle as well as in cars would cost next to nothing.

I happen to live just off such a road, Route 1 or Richmond Highway in Alexandria, Virginia.  Poor people who live in nearby apartments are constantly getting killed crossing the road. Partly, it’s because they seem to have an aversion to crossing at lights, often seeming to go out of their way to cross in the middle of the street even when there’s an intersection governed by a traffic light within 100 feet. But the fact of the matter is that the Route 1 corridor simply isn’t designed for pedestrians and bikers; it’s just assumed that you have a car.

So, what do they have in mind at T4America?

Traffic calming and street design. Traffic calming includes a host of engineering techniques used to physically alter road design for the purpose of slowing traffic and improving safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. Beyond simply installing sidewalks, these improvements enhance safety through a focus on intersections with features such as pedestrian refuge medians, better road geometry, and signals that give pedestrians a “head start” when crossing roads. Depending on the type of measure implemented and speed reductions achieved, traffic calming has reduced collisions by 20 to 70 percent.

Complete streets. Where traffic calming seeks to improve safety by reducing traffic speeds, Complete Streets policies ensure that future road projects consistently take into account the needs of all users, of all ages and abilities, particularly pedestrians and bicyclists. Complete Streets designs vary from place to place, but they might feature sidewalks, bicycle paths, comfortable bus stops, median islands, frequent crosswalks and pedestrian signals. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently endorsed the adoption of local and statewide Complete Streets policies as a strategy for improving safety and increasing physical activity among children and adults.

Safe Routes to School programs. Safe Routes to School programs take a comprehensive approach to improving safety around schools for children walking and bicycling. The program funds engineering upgrades like sidewalks and crosswalks, improved traffic enforcement and bicycle and pedestrian safety education. The intent is to address parental concerns about traffic dangers and get more children walking and bicycling to school, which improves their physical fitness and health. From a handful of pilot efforts across the country, Safe Routes to School has grown into a federally-funded program providing more than $600 million over five years for thousands of projects nationwide.

Walkable neighborhoods. Walkable communities are safe and inviting for walking and bicycling, while also featuring compact development and a variety of destinations, such as parks and public space and nearby schools, workplaces and other amenities like restaurants and retail facilities. The tools to increase community livability by improving walkability go beyond investing in pedestrian infrastructure, giving residents and visitors convenient destinations they can walk to.

Now, much of this would be unworkable in the case of the Route 1 corridor, which is a major artery and packed to the gills with traffic. But, certainly, they could paint crosswalks and incorporate pedestrian lights at the existing intersections.

The other thing I seldom see domestically that was commonplace in Germany–including on American military bases–when I was a kid is overhead walkways that allow pedestrians to cross above and thus segregated from automobile traffic. Presumably, they’re expensive. But they make make sense in places where apartment complexes are across a major arterial road from bus stops, strip malls, and other place where high concentrations of pedestrians are likely to travel.

At the same time, pedestrians themselves have primary responsibility for their own safety. I’m constantly shocked by how reckless the most vulnerable people on the road, bicyclists and pedestrians, are in the face of multi-ton vehicles traveling at high speed. T4America uses this horror story to illustrate their case:

Altamesa Walker led her four young children across a major five-lane thoroughfare in suburban Atlanta early morning on November 17. The family had missed its bus and was attempting to reach the bus stop on the opposite side in hopes of catching an alternate route. There was no crosswalk between the two bus stops, and both are located several hundred feet from the nearest intersection with crosswalks. They stopped midway across the road, in a turning lane they hoped would offer the protection of a (nonexistent) median. Resuming their crossing, and assuming safety, Walker’s four-year-old daughter was fatally struck by a car.

Should there have been a light and crosswalk connecting these bus stops? Quite possibly. But there wasn’t. I’m sorry but “several hundred feet” isn’t that far to walk to avoid dragging four small children across five lanes of vehicular traffic. Drivers are trained to expect pedestrians, bicyclists, and other slow movers at intersections and to keep moving otherwise. When we’re not at an intersection, we’re looking to see whether there’s space to change lanes, not whether someone’s bringing their kids across the highway. Walker took a stupid risk that cost her daughter her life and herself a life of grief and guilt. Indeed, Walker was charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct; I’ve not been able to find the disposition of the case.*

The driver was not cited. But he’ll have to live with this child’s death the rest of his life.

UPDATE: T4America’s Steve Davis points me to this interesting video about a portion of Route 1 a few miles south of me in Woodbridge, Virginia and the problem of “Careless Interference With Traffic.”

In many cases, the narrator rightly points out, it’s simply unrealistic to expect people to walk to the nearest crosswalk because of how inconvenient we’ve made it in these sorts of places.


*Yes, this seems heartless under the circumstances.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Wow, Matt Yglesias comes up with another way the government can help us by spending money we don’t have.

  2. There’s an old saying about tough cases making bad law. Well that and imagining that the government can and should address every defect in life. Wasn’t it some local, state or federal government that paved the roads to begin that created these heinous problems?

    Slow news day?

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Increase prison times for jaywalking.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    Looking at the metro statistics I can’t believe Boston is the safest. Boston streets have the organizational logic of a bowl of spaghetti and anyone who has ever lived in or near Boston knows they only issue drivers licenses to mental patients.

    I wonder how much of this is tourists and old people — Orlando tops the list and Vegas isn’t far behind.

  5. Steve Davis says:

    Good story, James. I’d say the Walker story is an outlier but also a good indicator of the problems that we face. How far is too far to walk when your destination is right across the street? 200 feet? 500 feet? Half a mile? This picture is pretty typical in many places. No one here is going to walk to the nearest crosswalk, and we shouldn’t expect them to:

    Charles, I’d suggest that this is indeed money we do have. It requires very little money on the front end to design and build a street safe for all users — far less than the costs to re-do it later or the costs imposed on all of us by these injuries and fatalities.

    We’re simply suggesting that our own tax money that goes to build these roads shouldn’t result in high-speed death traps for pedestrians (peds are drivers and drivers are peds too!) They need to be safe for everyone. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. This isn’t some tiny fringe interest group asking for a handout — almost all of us walk everyday, and our streets need to be safe for walking and crossing.

    Oh, and James, you might like this video about Route 1, well south of Alexandria though.

  6. CB says:

    Boston streets have the organizational logic of a bowl of spaghetti


    im certain ive thought the same exact thing on more than one occassion. try getting lost in that city without a map. you will never be heard from again. otherwise though, a great city.

  7. Steve Davis says:

    Michael, anecdotally, we found no connection between deaths in the heavy tourist areas (DW) of Orlando and others. Take a look at the interactive map and see if you can spot a pattern. We couldn’t really, other than there are a ton in Orlando on some really nasty arterial roads.

    And it’s not old folks either. Florida’s share of deaths that are seniors are right in line with national average.

  8. jwest says:

    Why don’t liberals believe in Darwin, evolution and natural selection?

    Aren’t pedestrian deaths just nature’s way of weeding out the slow and stupid? Don’t the idiots blathering away on their cell phones while crossing streets deserve becoming hood ornaments? And who hasn’t deliberately aimed their car at obnoxious joggers?

    Life comes with risks and unless we bubble-wrap everyone prior to their leaving the house each day, some will get hurt. It is reasonably easy to avoid being hit by a car – millions of people do it, year in, year out. Using excessive tax dollars to preserve those who can’t seem to get the hang of staying out of the way of 2 ton moving objects seems like perpetuating the wrong segment of the species.

  9. bandit says:

    Looking at the metro statistics I can’t believe Boston is the safest.

    Count that as one more thing you know absolutely nothing about. Low car ownership rates, a lot of public transit, congested slow traffic, a lot of pedestrian presence, sidewalks everywhere. There is almost no traffic enforcement in Boston because there just aren’t that many places where you have enough road without traffic to speed. About the only places where you have to worry about traffic enforcement are a handful of parkways that the staties patrol where they can generate revenue.

  10. george says:

    Why don’t liberals believe in Darwin, evolution and natural selection?

    Same reason conservatives don’t with respect to the war on drugs? Both are into plastic wrapping people, just on different issues. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

  11. mantis says:

    Aren’t pedestrian deaths just nature’s way of weeding out the slow and stupid?

    No, because nature didn’t invent roads or cars, but the best evidence is that you haven’t been killed by a car yet.

    Don’t the idiots blathering away on their cell phones while crossing streets deserve becoming hood ornaments?


    And who hasn’t deliberately aimed their car at obnoxious joggers?

    Me, and most other non-psychotics. You obviously don’t qualify.

  12. CB says:

    And who hasn’t deliberately aimed their car at obnoxious joggers

    people who arent sociopathic assholes.

    way to use a fairly innocuous post on traffic deaths to attack liberals, jackass.

  13. Franklin says:

    Thank God that list of solutions didn’t include pedestrian-safe bumpers and hoods on cars, which is the single most stupid idea on the face of the planet. Not only would it add signficant extra expense and gas-guzzling weight to each car for the relatively rare case where one of them hits a pedestrian, but it would only make a difference in a very narrow window of cases where the car is traveling between 5 and 15 mph.

    Personally, I want to live in a country where it’s possible to walk or bike to nearby places, so I’m okay with the other solutions. Save the money by killing the sugar monopoly or something easy.

  14. mattt says:

    The link doesn’t work for me, but they charged the mother with manslaughter? Really?

    T4America is a little too anti-car. Truth is most thoroughfares are designed for most efficient use by automobiles, rather than “designed to be perilous to children, older adults and everyone else.” But there’s much that the federal gov’t could do to improve safety for non-drivers, such as the pedestrian bridges you mention over high-speed arterials at key points, and more emphasis on “complete Streets.” Not exclusive funding for “complete streets” – there are many miles of road where bike and pedestrian use is so unusual as to not merit the investment.

    Another point to keep in mind. A large number of pedestrian casualties – I don’t have the figure in front of me but want to say 50% – are people who don’t have drivers’ licenses. Usually the young and old, many (in my town) recent immigrants. So when you say how shocked you are by pedestrian recklessness, a lot of it comes from people who just have no understanding of operating a motor vehicle. No appreciation that if they step out 30 feet in front of you while you’re at a leisurely 30mph, you have no chance to stop. They just don’t get it. Something to keep in mind in the design of streets and intersections, and in how we drivers conduct ourselves on the road.

    snark/ This may be a good topic to revisit under the next Congress. In 2011, any federal spending on infrastructure is apparently socialism. And even thought the nearly 5000 who die every year in these accidents exceeds the human toll of 9/11, don’t bother asking for any funds from the Pentagon, CIA or Homeland Security, either. /snark

  15. michael reynolds says:


    Actually I used to live on the Cape, so I know Boston conditions fairly well. It was a joke.

  16. mattt says:

    Since I come to OTB for diverse opinions, I’m glad JWest is here to represent the Sociopathic wing of the Right. It’s good to know that people like you are out there!

  17. Wayne says:

    @ goerge
    I never heard of jaywalking leading to violent crimes or people stealing to support their Jaywalking habits.

    @ mantis
    Being stupid and\or reckless is being stupid and\or reckless. Playing with a Cobra or playing with a moving car is pretty much the same to nature natural selection process.

    As for news coverage, it is a matter of frequency to. A heart attack will not be covered as much as a plane crash because a plane crash is unusual. A heart attack is not.

    I for one don’t believe in these constant and often expensive attempts to protect people from themselves. Only thing it does is it take away peoples freedom and lead them to not take responsibility for their own actions. If people don’t want to go 100 yards to cross at a light, so be it. It is their choice to take the risk and it is their fault when they come up on the short end.

    Making roadways less efficient isn’t the way to go. Looking at high risk areas with high foot traffic where maybe a walkway would work is another story.

  18. pdshaw, but, um, not in California.

  19. PD Shaw says:

    This is apparently why Walker was charged:

    Police Lt. Robert Harvey said that in the Walker case, “It is important to know that the mother walked past a completely marked intersection, South Cobb and King Springs, and chose to cross hundreds of feet north of the intersection in order to get to a bus stop where there was no crosswalk or traffic signals.”

    “The intersection of South Cobb and King Springs has traffic signals, pedestrian signals and pedestrian crosswalks,” Harvey said. “The timing of these crosswalks allows pedestrians sufficient time to cross safely.”


    It doesn’t appear the case has gone to trial yet, and has been rescheduled a couple of times.

  20. PD Shaw says:

    charles, if they arrest all of the jaywalkers in California, then it will be easy to find 50,000 to release that won’t come back and bite the judge’s in the @$$.

  21. Rock says:

    We’re gonna need a new Czar for this problem. Oh, and a congressional investigation.

  22. I have no problems with planning for safety. England was rather safer as I recall for pedestrian traffic, and concurrently more friendly for moving traffic with roundabouts instead of stop signs, but I can’t point to any relevant statistics for pedestrians injured per mile driven. But I digress.

  23. James Joyner says:

    @charles austin: I don’t know if roundabouts–which we in the Colonies refer to as “traffic circles”–would be viable on major arteries but they make a lot more sense than a stoplight every block in downtown areas.

  24. mattt says:

    @PD Shaw. Thanks for the quote, and link. I had guessed that the mother might have been intoxicated, or exhibited a history of negligence, or some other factor led the DA to charge her here. Reading the story, I’m even more at a loss to see how charging her serves the interests of justice. Does the DA believe that he must prosecute to deter future jaywalkers, that the loss of the child wasn’t enough?

    I looked up the intersection in Google Earth. It’s 944 feet from the nearest crosswalk to the bus shelter that the family was apparently making for. About 1900 feet, round trip. The road in question is not a freeway, it’s a 4-laner with a 40mph limit. Risky? Sure. Foolish to run it with kids – I’m not defending her choice for a minute. But a manslaughter charge? Will she lose the other kids to foster care now, too ?

    Consider this all happened at 6:15AM. She was probably on her way to work, taking the kids to school or a caregiver on the way. If she’d made the 1900′ walk, missed another bus and been late to work and lost her job, some people would probably be villifying her for being on the dole.

  25. Roundabouts or traffic circles make a lot more sense than not just stoplights but an awful lot of 2-way and 4-way stop signs. Of course, putting them in would probably make accident rates go up for a while as everyone adjusted to them.

    For fun, look up the magic roundabout in Swindon (a roundabout of roundabouts). Pretty awesome the first time you drive through it.

  26. george says:

    @ goerge
    I never heard of jaywalking leading to violent crimes or people stealing to support their Jaywalking habits.

    Poverty leads to violent crimes as well, is it now the conservative position to get rid of poverty as well? Curiously enough, unlike the war on drugs, that one might even have some small successes.

  27. sam says:


    “Looking at the metro statistics I can’t believe Boston is the safest. Boston streets have the organizational logic of a bowl of spaghetti and anyone who has ever lived in or near Boston knows they only issue drivers licenses to mental patients.”

    Actually, the poor layout of Boston’s streets and their narrowness are probably a safety factor. Folks just cannot get their vehicles up to killing speed on those, tight, narrow, twisty streets. I lived there for 40 years, and except for the occassional fenderbender, I don’t recall any major accidents on the city streets. (The expressway, well, that’s different. But even then, I don’t recall all that many accidents.) And then I moved to the southwest, where the city streets are new and wide and faaaast — and you can believe me, it is anxiety-provoking to drive here. Whenever I go back east, I’m always relieved that I don’t have to continually look over my shoulder to make sure some speeding maniac is not running up my ass. The posted speed limit hereabouts is treated as the minimum speed limit in most cases.

  28. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Looking both ways before one crosses a street is pretty darn effective and it costs taxpayers absolutely nothing. For obvious reasons, however, liberal idiots on the Internet and on university campuses never could be satisified with doing absolutely nothing on this particular “issue.”

  29. george says:

    Looking both ways before one crosses a street is pretty darn effective and it costs taxpayers absolutely nothing. For obvious reasons, however, liberal idiots on the Internet and on university campuses never could be satisified with doing absolutely nothing on this particular “issue.”

    Not injecting drugs in yourself is similarly effective …

  30. Franklin says:

    For fun, look up the magic roundabout in Swindon (a roundabout of roundabouts).

    Nice, that would be a blast.

    And we usually call them roundabouts in my neck of the woods (southeast Michigan).

  31. matt says:

    Personally I’m tired of idiots walking right out in front of my car in the middle of the street and then acting all upset because I almost hit them as a result. From Chicago to my current residence pedestrians generally act like morons and I personally think it’s because they know if they get hit it’s not their fault. They know they don’t have to bother using crosswalks or waiting for cars to pass before walking out because they know that the people driving the car don’t want prosecuted. I grew up in a trailer off a major high traffic roadway (+50mph) and my sister and I NEVER had a close call. Why? Because our mother made it patently clear she’d kill us herself if we didn’t respect the road or those driving on it. Even my small home town is full of kids who don’t even bother looking before walking out into a street. This is a recipe for disaster and no amount of regulating or redesigning will solve the problem that people are stupid.

    Personally I’d start with getting people to actually bother with looking both ways before crossing. That simple act alone would lower the rate of deaths tremendously..

  32. michael reynolds says:

    Come to think of it, if we’re going to spend money, why not an awareness program? Because I agree that pedestrians are blithering idiots a lot of the time. It would cost a whole lot less to run some public service announcements with useful messages like, “A car weighs 4000 pounds and goes 60 miles an hour so don’t walk in front of it.”

  33. matt says:

    If there are proven methods to lower accident rates among cars AND pedestrians without causing issues with traffic I’d be all for it. It’s just everyone here has been focusing the cars and the streets while ignoring the general stupidity of people. I’ve stood in downtown Chicago and watched people consistently walk out in front of cars in the middle of the street. The hoodrats are probably the worst at it because they walk in a pack of stupid.

    I had a family friend who was hit by a car and I was an “asshole” because I thought it was her fault (it was). From that day forth she never crossed a street without looking both ways. Some people just have to learn the hard way.

  34. john personna says:

    “hoodrats” people drive in those things too. One almost took me out when I was standing where I should, with my bike, at a stop sign. Restricted peripheral vision is not a good thing.

    FWIW, roads can be improved, but in areas where there are few pedestrians (or bikers), some drivers seem to forget that there are such things. They’ll accelerate toward that freeway on-ram, even if it is spanned by a genuine cross-walk.

  35. mattt says:

    @JP: Sometimes I think crosswalks (and pedestrian right-of-way laws) may be more dangerous than anything else. They make some pedestrians too complacent, assuming that traffic’s going to stop for them if they just step into a marked crosswalk. Still, better to limit crossing to designated points, so at least drivers may know to expect foot traffic there.

    @matt: Sure lots of pedestrians, even ones who should know better, are at fault in these incidents. But if we’ve learned how to design streets and crossings that are safer for bikes and walkers, why not apply those lessons and build safer streets, even if only in the course of new construction or regular renovation/expansion? When two cars collide, one or both is always at fault there, too. But we haven’t stopped learning from those accidents and designing roads that are safer for cars than we started with back around 1920, just because we can point a finger in almost every collision.

  36. Sam says:

    Part of the problem with US 1 south of Alexandria is that it is a large mixed use road, with heavy and relatively fast moving traffic. Contrast with I-66, which is a limited access highway, with vehicle and pedestrian overpasses and underpasses to cross it, there probably are very few pedestrian incidents there. Slowing traffic on US 1 without providing additional commuting capacity along that route would probably have seriously negative impact on commuting congestion.

  37. john personna says:

    Funny you say that. I just left the car for service and walked to coffee. I was approaching a crosswalk at a stop sign. I could tell the car approaching wanted to roll it – until I stepped out and “took” the crosswalk.

    In my high pedestrian city we are expert at “faking it” and claiming posession without being fully in the street or at risk. You can fake it from the curb by putting a foot out.

    And yeah, citizens in driving mode should know right of way.

  38. matt says:

    “hoodrats” people drive in those things too. One almost took me out when I was standing where I should, with my bike, at a stop sign. Restricted peripheral vision is not a good thing.

    What are you talking about? Being a hoodrat doesn’t cause restrictions in your vision even though their behavior seems to indicate as such.

    They’ll accelerate toward that freeway on-ram, even if it is spanned by a genuine cross-walk.

    Where in god’s name do you live? Talk about stupid putting a crosswalk on a freeway on ramp is a total recipe for disaster. Down here the freeway on ramps pretty much dump directly on to the freeway with little time to actually accelerate or merge. Up in Illinois the ramps tend to have long merge lanes so is the ramp you’re talking about one that has a long merge lane?

  39. matt says:

    When I say hood rat I’m referring to a culture that exists which is commonly called “thug life” or “gankster” or whatever. I think you’re talking about a hoodie..

  40. matt says:

    Oh and trust me I know that a lot of the idiot pedestrians drive..

  41. Ben Wolf says:

    What ej doean’t get is that the swiss system isn’t working well, and what success the government had in restraining costs is due to exactly the “corporate-bashing” reforms he rejects.

    Price controls, a ten year ban on new medical procedures, mandated benefits, standardized health plans, a ban on profits and a 37% decrease in the annual salaries of swiss GP’s.

    The hybrid “market” that switzerland has institutionalized is having serious problems managing costs, because young people have incentives to underinsure and older people are incentivized to overinsure. Meanwhile swiss insurance companies try to overinsure young people with supplemental policies (which are the only ones from which they can legally earn a profit), and try to underinsure older people by denying the supplemental policies. The swiss are actively trying to make access to health care more difficult, recently passing a patient tax.

    Markets don’t work in health care.

  42. Ben Wolf says:

    Uhh, delete that last post please, I have no clue how it got on this thread.