Rising Pedestrian Deaths Are Not An Accident

And There Is A New Report To Prove It

By Ben Crowther

Smart Growth America Report - Pedestrians Walking on Street
Photo by William Fortunato via Pexels

Six thousand, five hundred, and twenty-nine people were struck and killed while walking in the United States in 2020. That number should shock and astound us, but too often we think of these deaths as ‘accidents’, entirely unpreventable. Smart Growth America’s 2022 Dangerous by Design report, released today, reveals that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Dangerous by Design sheds light on the choices that underpin the epidemic of pedestrian deaths. Not the choice made by someone who needed to cross the street or a person behind the wheel, but the systematic decisions made by transportation agencies to value speed over life. All across the country, these agencies have built streets and roads intentionally designed for fast (i.e. dangerous) driving, even in settings where large numbers of people rely on walking as a form of transportation. That’s one of the main reasons why pedestrian deaths have increased by 62% since 2009.

Smart Growth America - Fatalities Graph 2010-2019
Photo via Smart Growth America

Dispelling The Myth That Pedestrian Deaths Are Caused By More Driving

This peak in pedestrian deaths comes during a year when Americans drove less because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This fact dispels the oft-told myth that rising traffic deaths are simply the result of people driving more. In reality, congested streets were the only thing holding drivers back from driving at the high speed roadways were designed for. With fewer cars on the road, it became more dangerous. 

However, this danger is not borne equally but skewed along the lines of race and class. Black Americans are twice as likely to be struck and killed while walking than white Americans and Native Americans over three times. Lower income neighborhoods (those with a median household income of $43,000 or less) are where more than 30 percent of all pedestrian deaths occur, despite accounting for only 17 percent of the country’s total population. Transportation agencies have made the choice that these are communities to drive through, not walk in, by building wide roads at the expense of sufficient walking infrastructure like sidewalks and protected intersections. 

Dangerous by design doesn’t only apply to our streets and roads; it’s also relevant to the design of our cars and trucks. Automakers continue to increase vehicle weight and size and lower driver visibility, which has contributed to the rising number of pedestrians killed. Trucks and SUVs are 2-3 times more likely than passenger cars to kill a pedestrian they hit. That’s why we at America Walks have been calling on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to put vehicle design safety standards in place that lessen that likelihood. Thank you to Smart Growth America for including our guest piece on unsafe vehicles in this year’s Dangerous by Design report.

What Needed At Local, State And The Federal Level

All told, the fact that thousands of people are killed on our streets each year by automobiles amounts to gross negligence. Transportation agencies at the local, state, and federal levels need to reprioritize their values and take action to create streets that are safe for everyone. Imagine if a Boeing 747 crashed roughly every 20 days for a year; that would equal the number of pedestrians killed in 2020. You would think policymakers would take action if 18 commercial airplanes crashed in a year; it’s time to demand they take similar steps to keep people on foot, on bikes, and using mobility devices safe when crossing the street.