Danger on the Streets

January/February 2020

Danger on the Streets


If you ask any doctor, they’ll tell you that daily walking is a good, simple exercise to stay healthy. There are cities and towns across this country that are developing more walkable neighborhoods and downtown areas to build community and reduce the number of vehicles on roads and highways amid concerns over the environment. While all of this sounds positive, being a pedestrian has grown increasingly risky, even deadly.

From 2017 to 2018, the number of people killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the US dropped by more than 2%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, fatalities in crashes involving pedestrians increased—a decade long trend that has traffic safety professionals alarmed.

Further, pedestrian fatalities jumped by 35% between 2008 (4,414) and 2017 (5,977), according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Based on data from state highway safety offices, a GHSA report shows an estimate of nationwide pedestrian deaths from motor vehicle crashes at 6,227 in 2018—a 4% increase from 2017—making it the largest annual number of pedestrian fatalities in the US since 1990.

Professional engineers and traffic safety consultants are resolved to take on this public safety issue. They are laser focused on developing practical solutions to reverse this deadly trend and improve the quality of life for pedestrians.

“We’ve seen a 50% increase in pedestrian deaths in 10 years. It’s the most shocking and disturbing trend in highway safety that I’ve seen in my lifetime. And I’ve been doing this research professionally for almost 40 years,” says Richard Retting, the director of safety and research at Sam Schwartz, a traffic and transportation planning and engineering firm.

Many state DOTs and traffic engineering consultants are developing risk reduction strategies based on crash-data analysis. They are also implementing the mobility and safety policies of the Complete Streets and Vision Zero campaigns.

Several factors contribute to the increase in pedestrian fatalities. For instance, there are larger, heavier vehicles on roadways and more distracted driving. “Distraction, in my opinion, is the most obvious metric that tracks in the same direction and magnitude as increases in pedestrian deaths,” says Retting, author of the GHSA report.

Retting points to increased use of smartphones by drivers and pedestrians as contributing to both driver and pedestrian inattentiveness. Active smartphone use in the US quintupled from 2010 to 2017 while wireless data usage during the same period jumped about 4,000%, according to the research. “This is not to blame people who are on foot for their demise, but the fact is that walking across the street, while a routine thing, means that you’re potentially stepping in front of multithousand pound objects that are coming at you at speeds fast enough to kill you.”

There are state DOT programs and best practices aimed at boosting safety and saving lives. For example, the Florida Department of Transportation has invested $100 million for street lighting improvements to increase the visibility of pedestrians at night. According to the GHSA report, from 2008 to 2017 the number of nighttime pedestrian fatalities increased by 45% (compared to an 11% increase in daytime fatalities).

Being out at night is dangerous for pedestrians, says Retting. He also notes that there is an almost 50% drop in crashes involving pedestrians where street lighting is installed or enhanced. “Over 70% of pedestrian deaths occur in the dark. The Florida DOT connected those dots that street lighting is effective and allocated the funding to this project. That’s the kind of engineering response that’s needed.”

While professional engineers can’t shoulder the burden for behaviors and choices that put people at risk, says Retting, there are design opportunities to enhance safety and even cut in half the risk of crashes involving pedestrians.

Professional engineers can also bring a commitment to the ethical canon of “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” he adds. “That means sometimes making decisions that improve safety, even at the cost of mobility. Maybe there will be fewer traffic lanes on some streets and resulting traffic delays.”

Pedestrian-Vehicle Conflicts

Traffic engineers can have a major positive impact on pedestrian safety, says NSPE member Jeff Smithline, P.E., who is certified as a professional traffic operations engineer. It starts by asking a simple question: Have I done all I can within all the project constraints to make this roadway safer? “It’s about infusing safety into the roadway project design—whether it’s lower speeds or better visibility and taking that beyond what the standards require. It’s what we try to do as [professional] engineers,” says the national director of traffic engineering at Sam Schwartz.

One of the best ways to improve safety is to eliminate or minimize the vehicle-pedestrian conflict. Smithline’s team often works on corridor studies to examine a road or highway with hot spots for crashes and determine the best engineering remedies. This could mean narrowing an intersection, reducing speeds, or changing traffic signal phasing.

In the suburbs, vehicle-pedestrian conflicts may be addressed with traffic-calming projects that aim to balance safety with traffic flow. Eliminating travel lanes to reduce risks for pedestrians or bike riders will affect drivers, so there must be public education about short and long-term effects. “Sometimes we frame it as, ‘Yes, there’s going to be congestion for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, but for 22 hours you won’t have the congestion, and you’ll have a safer roadway for 24 hours of the day.’”

Smithline adds: “Community outreach is really important. It’s important to be able to justify the reasoning behind certain tradeoffs, show them where it’s worked before and the benefits. It makes acceptance of the project go much more smoothly.”

Safety Action Plan

In 2016, officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) noticed an increase in pedestrian crashes. Pedestrian fatalities have increased in Virginia by 19% since 2012. Prior to 2016, there were on average about 85 per year, but in 2016 there were more than 120 crashes involving pedestrians. While the numbers may not seem significant in comparison to other statistics, pedestrians make up over 15% of traffic deaths in Virginia and the devastating impact that these deaths can have on the victims’ families can loom large. “We determined that we needed to develop an action plan to make some systemic changes and accelerate some of the remedies we were working on to reverse this trend,” says Mark Cole, P.E., an assistant state traffic engineer for VDOT’s Traffic Engineering Division.

In 2017, Cole’s safety team developed a safety action plan based on data from pedestrian-crash assessments the department had been working on for two years. The action plan was completed in May 2018 to identify and address locations with a history of pedestrian crashes and implement targeted solutions. The project also involved the development of an interactive web-based crash data tool that provides information on all reported pedestrian crashes and safety issues in Virginia over a five-year period.

The tool creates a map of Virginia populated with dots indicating the location of pedestrian-involved crashes. Clicking on a dot will provide details about the crash. The map also shows areas where pedestrian crashes are the densest and will need additional engineering analysis and pedestrian infrastructure improvements. The tool indicates “priority corridors” for safety improvements with red and blue lines, with the red lines indicating the highest priority areas and the blue, secondary. These corridors were selected using data on population density, percent of households with access to a vehicle, traffic speeds, and number of traffic lanes to determine risks to pedestrians and areas where people are more likely to walk along and across roadways. “These priority pedestrian corridors are where we are focused on making pedestrian crossing improvements with our limited safety dollars and projects,” says Cole.

Pedestrian crashes in the commonwealth are largely focused in urban and suburban areas and the Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, and Richmond metro areas. These three regions make up approximately two-thirds of all pedestrian crashes. More than 90% of pedestrian injuries and deaths occur when they are crossing the street or road. VDOT’s study showed that in 90%  of these cases, there wasn’t a marked crosswalk or pedestrian infrastructure available to help show the best places to cross, or alert motorists that there may be a crossing there.

The data analysis determined how travel speed affects the survival rates of crashes involving pedestrians. VDOT found that on roads with posted speeds of 25 miles per hour or less, 7% of pedestrians die when involved in a crash as compared to roads that are 50 miles per hour or higher, where half of the crashes resulted in the pedestrians dying.

“There are lot of misperceptions about pedestrian safety and crashes,” says Cole. “Part of our role as engineers is to dig into the data so that we can tell the story of what is actually happening on our roads and then work to make the situation better.”

Both public and stakeholder feedback about the action plan and tool have been positive. In October 2019, VDOT received a National Roadway Safety from the Federal Highway Administration and the Roadway Safety Foundation for this project. The awards program recognizes roadway safety initiatives that work toward the goal of zero highway deaths and reduce serious-injury crashes.

Cole believes his work at VDOT highlights the importance of how professional engineers protect public safety in coordination with all impacted parties to find sound solutions to help all travelers. “Our job is to help all the people who travel on Virginia’s roads. The professional engineering community plays a vital role in all of that by working to understand problems and implement improvements that make a positive difference.”

Spotlight on Pedestrian Fatalities

The Governors Highway Safety Association released its report on 2018 pedestrian fatalities estimates in February 2019, based on preliminary data from 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The research revealed that from 2008 to 2017, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 35% while pedestrian deaths as a percentage of total motor vehicle crash deaths increased from 12% in 2008 to 16% in 2017. GHSA estimated that the nationwide number of pedestrians killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2018 was 6,227—an increase of 4% from 2017.

States reported a range of changes in the number of pedestrian fatalities in the first half of 2018 compared with the same period in 2017. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia had increases in pedestrian fatalities while 23 states had decreases. Two states remained the same.

Why is this happening? Many factors outside of the control of state and local traffic safety officials contribute to annual changes in the number of pedestrian fatalities, including economic conditions, population growth, demographic changes, weather conditions, fuel prices, vehicles miles traveled, and the amount of time people spend walking. The increasing shift in US vehicle sales away from passenger cars to light trucks is also a factor because trucks generally cause more severe pedestrian impacts than cars.

States are using combinations of engineering, enforcement, and education countermeasures to address pedestrian safety. Engineering countermeasures include the following:

  • Targeting high-risk pedestrian crossing intersections and corridors;
  • Adoption of Complete Streets policies, which direct transportation planners and engineers to design and operate the entire right of way to enable safe access for all users regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation; and
  • Inclusion of pedestrian safety action items in strategic highway safety plans.

Pedestrian Fatalities and Percent of Total Traffic Fatalities, 2008–17

Pedestrian Fatalities and Percent of Total Traffic Fatalities, 2008–17

 Pedestrian Fatalities  All Other Traffic Fatalities Combined
 Total Traffic Fatalities % Pedestrian Deaths as a Percent of Total Traffic Fatalities