We Asked NHTSA to Rewrite the Pedestrian Safety Playbook

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) declared October to be Pedestrian Safety Month – which was a laudable first for them. But the “Pedestrian Safety Playbook” they put out to support local public education efforts badly missed the mark.

Put simply, NHTSA focused on behavior change, and particularly pedestrian behavior, rather than on the systemic changes needed to save lives. During the last 10 years we have seen pedestrian deaths climb about 50 percent.  And the death and injury toll falls most heavily on the vulnerable and marginalized — elderly, Black, Native, Hispanic/Latino, low-income, and disabled. With the Pedestrian Playbook, NHTSA was putting the blame on the victims  – and avoiding their own responsibility to ensure safe streets and safer vehicles.
America Walks immediately wrote to NHTSA pointing out where they went wrong:

  • Falsely claiming that pedestrians and drivers share equal responsibility. In fact, they don’t. Almost every state law puts the responsibility on drivers to exercise “due care” even in the presence of pedestrians – for the obvious reason that a driver is piloting a large and dangerous vehicle.
  • Supporting the myth that pedestrian distraction by cell phones is a serious problem.  Studies to date find little concrete evidence that device-induced distracted walking contributes significantly to pedestrian fatalities and injuries.
  • Drawing a false equivalence between walking and driving while drunk, based on dubious data.
  • Suggesting that one check on the cognitive abilities of your senior family members before letting them walk.
  • And the perennial favorite – urging pedestrians to wear high visibility clothing and carry a flashlight as if every trip is on a dark country road.

The tone and tenor of their public education efforts is that walking is a highly risky activity to be done after only the most rigorous precautions. It’s the exact opposite that is true. Every day there are millions upon millions of every day trips, to schools, stores, transit and parks. Of course pedestrians need to take reasonable precautions, but we should be encouraging walking for its profoundly beneficial effects on health and the community as a whole, not generating fear.

At America Walks we believe it isn’t enough for NHTSA to stop the fear-mongering. NHTSA and its umbrella agency, the United States Department of Transportation, need to use their legal and regulatory authority to step up and protect people from harm.  NHTSA has the authority to regulate cars; it is the agency that mandated seatbelts and airbags and does crash testing. USDOT is a major funder of state and local road maintenance and construction. Consider what they could do to increase safety:

  • Move towards automated pedestrian detection in cars. It is an evolving technology, but it has already been shown to reduce pedestrian deaths by as much as 35 percent in conjunction with other technologies.
  • Test impacts on people outside of cars, not just inside cars. There is an Obama era proposed rule to do just that – now is the time to revive it. Particularly considering that popular SUV’s are two-and-a-half to three-times more likely than sedans to kill pedestrians when they strike them.
  • Require speed limiters on cars. We do it with scooters and e-bikes, it’s time to consider it for vehicles in busy pedestrian places. Europe will require new cars to include GPS enabled speed limiters by 2022
  • Leverage federal funding for safety. The federal government once used federal funds to leverage lower highway speeds and a higher drinking ages from states.  They could do the same now by only releasing funds to states that genuinely prioritize safety in their infrastructure investments. 
Bright blue square with a yellow lightbulb in the corner with the words, " Increase your awareness: Drivers: Pedestrians are everywhere. Slow down and be on the lookout for them, particularly during low-light situations, near intersections, and in high pedestrian-traffic zones, including commercial districts, nears schools and in neighborhoods. Always stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, even unmarked ones. Remember your car can be lethal."
Bright blue background with an icon of a yellow hand in an octagon in the corner with these words overlayed, " Distraction:  Distraction is a two-way street, but drivers carry an extra burden and responsibilty for keeping our streets safe in light of teh massively disproportionate imapct they have in any pedestrian-vehicle crash. Expect people to act erratically. Slow down. Pay attention. Stop at crosswalks. Put your phone down. "

The truth is that we know what it takes to save lives and blaming pedestrians isn’t it. We’re going to keep pushing USDOT and NHTSA to use their authority to make it safe for those walking and moving on our streets. It’s time for a new pedestrian playbook with real action, not victim blaming.

We took the liberty of rebutting some of NHTSA’s graphics from their Playbook. Feel free to use and share:

Bright blue background with gray stripe at the top with the words "older pedestrians". Below are teh words " It's your elders crossing the street. Older pedestrians tend to be more vulnerable to pedestrian crashes because of inadequate infrastructure and policies that make it far too difficult to walk. Simultaneously, the oldest and youngest peopel in our communities are those least likely to be able to drive safely. We need to plan our cities and our streets with the full spectrum of humanity in mind so that people of all ages and abilities can navigate them safely."
Bright blue background with small yellow icon in the right corner with an image of a school crossing. It has the title "Walk to School Safe" and beneath " I want to be able to walk to school...safely. There has been a dramatic drop off in walking to school over the decades, based in part in teh inaccessibility of these institutions by foot, and other odd policies like schools not allowing people to arrive on foot. It's time we invest in safe routes to school, change cultural norms at schools, and create more walking school buses. This will also enhance mental performance and daily physical activity among our youth."