Despite dozens of cities proclaiming a goal of zero pedestrian deaths in recent years, the death toll continues to skyrocket on America’s streets. According to a new study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pedestrian deaths have shot up 46 percent since 2009, far outpacing the also rising number of car crash related deaths.
So what caused this dramatic spike? The blame has been put on everything from marijuana legalization, to smartphones to the rise of SUVs and our absolute obsession with them as a country. A study released earlier this week from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found a staggering 81 percent increase in pedestrian deaths involving SUVs from 2009 to 2016.
In 2014, SUVs surpassed sedans as the number one killer of walkers on American roads, which makes sense. There are now more SUVs on the road, and as bigger, heavier vehicles, they can be more dangerous to a pedestrian than a sedan.
USA Today’s own investigation found that the problem is most pronounced in cities with poorer populations and cities in warmer climates—places where people are more likely to be on the street. Ironically, it’s the Motor City—Detroit—that tops the list of most deadly cities for pedestrians. A quarter of those killed by cars in Detroit last year were walking.
As a Detroiter, I can give you a few reasons why: crumbling infrastructure, poorly designed public spaces and poverty. Detroit is a poor city built with multilane surface streets cutting through it, even in the heart of downtown, with barely any crosswalks. Jaywalking across five lanes of traffic on streets with little to no illumination is something of a pastime here.
And for being one of the least friendly cities to pedestrians, it’s also prohibitively expensive to own a car here, considering the extremely low average income and the country’s highest insurance rates. Newark, New Jersey and St. Louis also top the list, and I’m guessing for very similar reasons.
So far 34 cities have joined Vision Zero, a country-wide program devoted to eliminating pedestrian deaths. The program counts New York, Miami and Los Angeles as official participants, but even cities that are not in Vision Zero are aiming for cutting down on pedestrian deaths. Some cities, like New York, have seen their efforts result in significant drops in deaths. In 2017, New York saw 101 pedestrian fatalities. The last time the Big Apple saw such low numbers was in 1910, when mass adoption of the car was just ramping up.
What’s interesting about New York’s solution is it wasn’t to crack down on phone use or drug test every driver. Rather the city redesigned problematic intersections and lower speeds in areas where pedestrians congregated. Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, and other cities are striving to redesign streets to be more pedestrian friendly as well.
Clearly the answer to why more pedestrians are dying is complex, and no single answer can address every death. Some cities are even putting the onus on pedestrians, making it illegal to use your phone while also using a crosswalk. It seems like self-driving tech won’t be helping bring this number down any time soon either. It’s on us, the drivers of the cars, to keep those poor, unfortunate, bi-pedal souls safe.