Explaining why traffic deaths are up 46% since 2009

In 2016, 5,987 American pedestrians were killed. Why so many?

Distraction behind the wheel, texting while walking and even marijuana legalization have all been tagged as potential culprits in past research.

In addition, a new study released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows an 81% increase in single-vehicle pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs between 2009 and 2016, based on federal records…

The USA Today Network is investigating the phenomenon of rising pedestrian fatalities, an urban problem primarily plaguing either cities with high poverty rates or warm-weather spots such as Florida and Arizona. Our analysis so far has found that African Americans are killed at a disproportionate rate compared with their population nationwide.

Nationally, more pedestrians die in collisions when they are jaywalking along busy arterial roads. More of those fatalities also occur at night and involve males. Many of these crashes also involve alcohol, though federal safety researchers say that does not explain the increase. In 2016, pedestrians accounted for 16% of traffic deaths; in 2007, that figure was just 11%, according to NHTSA.

I am a little surprised to see that increased driving is not cited here. While driving dipped during the economic crisis, it is up to record levels in recent years.

While the emphasis here is on the upward trend in recent years, the numbers overall are a reminder of the consequences of such a strong emphasis on driving in American society. Roadways are built primarily for cars. Even when there is infrastructure for pedestrians and other non motor vehicles, it can be daunting to not be a car. Countering this could require extensive marketing campaigns; this article discusses efforts in several large cities. But, a significant change in favor of non-vehicles would truly require not just publicity but redesign and the reshaping of lifestyles.

 

When sidewalks and paths are in bad shape

I was reminded by seeing Blair Kamin’s complaints about a path at Northerly Island in Chicago that the condition of sidewalks and paths can matter a lot for those who want to use them. A few thoughts about my experiences with local sidewalks and paths:

  1. On one hand, I grew up near and am still located near a tremendous bike path system: the Prairie Path. Originally an electric interurban line that closed for good in the late 1950s, local residents and officials started converting it into a recreational asset in the 1960s. The path is generally wide, covers dozens of miles with connections of other trails, and offers access to a number of communities and parks. On the other hand, riding a bike on the path can be frustrating at times, particularly in sections with more roads and tracks that need to be crossed (and there are other parts where one can ride much longer without interruption) as well as more pedestrians who are less speedy and often take up more of the path. Additionally, the path offers access between communities but one can often be stuck with limited options with roadways and sidewalks as soon as they leave the path.
  2. Nearly all suburban roads are built for cars. People like to drive fast. Not all roads, particularly in older parts of town, offer adequate space for pedestrians or bikes. Many drivers do not look for bikes or pedestrians.
  3. Sidewalks are sometimes present and sometimes not. I know this is often dependent on the regulations when the road was built but it can be confusing how sidewalks suddenly appear and disappear.
  4. Sidewalks that do exist are often in various states of repair. Some are really narrow. Cracks are common as are different angles and difficult ramps on and off streets. This may be something I am more aware of because I have a road bike that can be harmed by these imperfections as well as young children who can more easily trip on uneven surfaces. Hence, I would almost always rather ride in the road because the condition of the street is usually much better than the sidewalk.

In other words, life for non-vehicles in the suburbs can be difficult, particularly when the infrastructure provided for them is less than ideal. I get it; the suburbs are about cars. At the same time, without adequate opportunities for walking and biking, people will likely simply not try them as much. And this likely continues to fuel a car-driving, suburban society.

(If one wanted to go further, the New Urbanists place a lot of emphasis on street life and allowing residents to get to important places within a reasonable walk. They are usually referring to mixed-use neighborhoods where people are consistently on the sidewalks. Some newer subdivisions are full of walking and bike paths, though these may have few connections to anything outside the neighborhood. In other words, there are some people arguing sidewalks and paths are important – particularly those interested in vibrant street life or interested in boosting property values – but this has not trickled down to all suburban places.)

What social level should help better protect Illinois pedestrians in crosswalks?

The Daily Herald did an “informal study” of using crosswalks in the suburbs and the results were not good for pedestrians:

Daily Herald journalists conducted 49 tests of crosswalks not connected with stop signs or traffic lights in Cook, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties in November and December. Among the findings in the informal study:

• In 20 percent of tests, drivers whizzed through crosswalks despite a reporter either standing or walking within the striped area.

• Walkers were temporarily stranded in the middle of crosswalks 12 percent of the time as traffic continued without allowing them to reach the other side.

• One reporter on a busy stretch of Central Road in Mount Prospect waited more than 10 minutes while at least 99 vehicles surged through the crosswalk at Emerson Street until a vehicle stopped. It took more than 99 vehicles until it was safe for the reporter to proceed.

• Ninety percent of the time, traffic continued through crosswalks without heeding people on the curb.

Illinois’ nuanced law saying cars can continue through crosswalks until a pedestrian has both feet in the crosswalk is pure “Catch-22,” widower Eric Jakubowski of Mount Prospect thinks.

There are various levels that could be blamed for these issues:

  1. Local government. Why not put more stop signs or traffic lights in that would give pedestrians more help? (Easy answer: drivers do not want the flow of traffic impeded.) My own anecdotal evidence also suggests these traffic devices are also not guarantees for the safety of walkers, joggers, and bicyclists.
  2. Local law enforcement. Why is this law not enforced more? It reminds me of the cell phone laws in Illinois that are rarely enforced (and some communities have basically said as much).
  3. Pedestrians. Are they aggressive enough in stepping out into the street? Of course, one could hardly blame them as you often have to step out into traffic and catch the eye of drivers.
  4. State officials. Why not clarify the law so that pedestrians come first and also impose steeper penalties for lack of compliance?
  5. American society. Why must we privilege driving so much? And the suburbs are particularly designed around cars where people often have to go several miles to reach basic needs. Pedestrians slow down traffic and suburbanites dislike traffic. Different approaches to community life and urban design could help address these issues.

All of this is the case when many would suggest Americans should walk more for their own health as well as for building community.

Finding more room for people in streets with autonomous vehicles

A new urban planning guide considers how driverless vehicles could transform streets:

To that end, on Monday, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an international, 60-city organization of very serious transportation planners and engineers, published its own vision of the Promised Land, a 50-page blueprint outlining how to account for our autonomous future and build in flexible options that could result in less traffic for everyone, not just those riding on four wheels. “We don’t just need new software running on our streets—we need to update the hardware of the streets themselves,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, a former transportation head in New York City during the Bloomberg administration who now serves on the board for NACTO. “That’s why we need a new roadmap that puts humans first.”…

So what does transit heaven look like? In the future, the transportation planners suggest, vehicle lanes can be a lot thinner. Machines, after all, should be better at driving straight—and less distracted by Snapchat—than their human counterparts. That means more room in major boulevards for walking, biking, even loitering. Tiny parks might exist where parking meters once lived—no need to park self-driving taxis owned by companies, not individual drivers. In fact, vehicles might not even have their own dedicated spaces at all. “Flex zones” could be turned over to different services and vehicles for different times of day. During rush hour, there could be more lanes open to vehicles. During heavy delivery hours, there could be curb space dedicated to Amazon delivery vans (or landing delivery drones). At night, street space next to bars could be dedicated to picking up and dropping off carousers from driverless taxicabs…

“The blueprint is for building the safer future streets that cities need, where speeding is no longer an option, where cars are designed to yield and stop for pedestrians and bicyclists by default, and where people are free to cross the streets where it makes sense, rather than trek a mile to the nearest stoplight,” says Mollie Pelon, who oversees NACTO’s technology and city transportation program. Ignore the naysayers, these optimistic planners say. Autonomous vehicles don’t have to destroy the American city—they’re a shiny opportunity to rebuild it for the better.

I could imagine a number of interesting tweaks to free up more space for pedestrians, particularly since traffic can be more predictable (or at least known). At the same time, I wonder if autonomous vehicles could lead to dramatic changes in roads and cities. Imagine a community where main streets were dedicated to pedestrians and bicycles while vehicles were relegated to side streets or alleys.

Doing urban planning with driverless cars in mind

If and when driverless cars become the norm, how might places change?

The possibilities are dazzling. If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen…

At IIT, such efforts crystallized in the “The Driverless City,” a 168-page book by Brown and fellow faculty members Lili Du, Laura Forlano, Ron Henderson and Jack Guthman, an adjunct professor and well-known Chicago zoning lawyer. The book serves up visions of the future that read like an update of Verne’s Victorian-era novels, which foresaw the advent of inventions such as submarines. Take this description of future commuting patterns, which is rendered in the past tense:

“On heavily trafficked arterial roads in Chicago and cities throughout the country, human driving faded away as driverless cars become more affordable and widely available. … Collisions and fender benders became rare events. … The clutter of omnipresent traffic lights gave way to smaller furnishings with embedded infrastructure that helped control the flow of vehicles.”

The book also offers a vision of how driverless cars might break down traditional barriers between street and sidewalk, nature and technology. Focusing on a proposed transformation of the South Side’s King Drive, the authors see parking spaces disappearing and vegetation sprouting in their place:

This sounds what like a number of urban planners (such as Jeff Speck in Walkable City) have been suggesting for years: the streetscape could be organized around pedestrians and social life on the street rather than on moving as many cars as efficiently as possible. Americans like their cars and many don’t seem to mind the required changes that must go with it – but this could force their hand regarding urban planning. While American communities are clearly designed with the car in mind, it is interesting that it would take a major technological advance – vehicles that can safely operate themselves – to finally tip the scales toward other street users.

More broadly, driverless cars will likely be sold to the public because of their safety but they could transform all sorts of areas.

Reducing trespassing on railroad tracks

Experts from several areas are working to limit the number of people on railroad tracks:

Trespassing numbers have remained fairly steady over the years and now account for about 72 percent of all railroad-related deaths, with 761 fatalities in 2015, including 296 suicides.

Safety experts are now focused on finding ways to cut trespassing through education, intervention and barriers such as fencing at popular trespassing spots. But advocates concede it won’t be easy — there are 140,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, and it is impossible to contain it all.

“Trespassing has been more of a stubborn problem for us,” said Bonnie Murphy, president and CEO of Operation Lifesaver, a national train safety organization, who spoke along with other safety experts at the biennial DuPage Railroad Safety Council conference last week. “There’s a disturbing, ongoing trend of people walking along the tracks.”

This is an important safety issue. But, it raises a larger question: while the lines are technically private property, how do you realistically keep people off of them when they crisscross all parts of America at ground level? Railroads rejected the idea long ago that fences should be built along the thousands of miles of lines. There is no mention in this article of enforcing trespassing but I assume this would require a significant amount of resources. Cameras at important locations? Warning signs at regular intervals along the lines? Trains using a more effective warning signal of their arrival (think of a targeted rumbling option from a longer distance)? More effort at moving rail traffic away from major population centers (such as going around major metropolitan regions when possible)?

Railroads can be incredible at moving freight and people long distances. However, they don’t interact well with pedestrians.

Better ways to signal pedestrian crosswalks

The death of a cyclist recently in Mount Prospect has led to an examination of how to stop drivers for walkers and bicyclists:

Using data from studies of 16,716 vehicles at crosswalks equipped with amber beacons in seven states, including Illinois, researchers found on average 72 percent of drivers yielded to pedestrians. Interestingly, only 33 percent out of 1,402 vehicles yielded in Illinois.

Drivers tended to stop more frequently if the amber beacons were located overhead instead of alongside the road, near a school or transit stop, and on roads with fewer lanes, the study stated.

A different Federal Highway Administration report found a huge gap in drivers obeying amber beacons at crosswalks that ranged from 19 percent at one site in Illinois to 98 percent at a Colorado location…

Meanwhile, another type of crosswalk signal with a red light offers a promising track record. Known as a pedestrian hybrid beacon, the device typically hangs over an intersection and is dark until someone presses a button activating a yellow warning light, then a red beacon for drivers.

Studies of 3,504 drivers in Texas and Arizona showed 96 percent on average stopped.

All the road signs and traffic lights in the world will not lead to 100% compliance from drivers. Of course, some solutions are more effective than others. Later in the article, an expert explains:

“Traffic engineering is harder than drivers may think,” Fitzpatrick said.

Another problem that could be solved with self-driving cars. Until then, cyclists and pedestrians have to be really careful with cars driven by humans who can have all sorts of reactions to people crossing the road.