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Walk This Way! The Right Steps For Pedestrian Safety On Walk To Work Day

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On Friday, as part of national Walk To Work day, tens of thousands of Americans will hit the road on foot. Many may not know the danger they face. Amid a coast-to-coast push for walkability, pedestrian deaths are spiking.

Crossing The Street

Pedestrian deaths are rising faster than motorist fatalities, reaching nearly 6,000 deaths last year.

This is the highest number of casualties in more than two decades, according to figures from the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.

The statistics are alarming considering developers' focus on walkability in urban metros. Nearly every project and neighborhood has its own Walk Score, though many of the metrics only account for proximity to amenities, and fail to factor in safety. RateMyStreet and the WALKability apps are changing that by including metrics for safety, crime, road safety, trip hazards and other obstructions.

Drivers Can't Take All The Blame

Cell phone stock

One cause for the rise in pedestrian deaths may be that humans are becoming worse walkers. Though that may sound like a strange assessment, texting and the use of wireless devices has exploded, endangering both drivers and pedestrians. 

“It’s the only factor that seems to indicate a dramatic change in how people behave,” said Richard Retting, safety director for Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants and the author of the report. “This is the second year in a row that we have seen unprecedented increases in pedestrian fatalities, which is both sad and alarming.”

Pedestrian deaths as a share of total motor vehicle crash deaths increased from 11% in 2006 to 15% in 2015. Traffic fatalities overall jumped 6% last year, pushing deaths on U.S. roads to their highest levels in nearly a decade. The growth rate of pedestrian deaths is sharply outpacing fatalities overall, climbing 25% from 2010 to 2015.

“We cannot look at distracted driving solely as an in-vehicle issue,” National Safety Council spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. “That discounts the impact distraction could have on pedestrians.”

The issue goes both ways.

“Walking is working," Nantel said. "Just as we need drivers to be alert, pedestrians have to be, too.”

Two Groups Most Likely To Suffer

Senior Citizen Walking

A new report from Smart Growth America, a DC-headquartered advocacy group, ranked the nation’s most dangerous metros. Eight of the top 10 are in Florida, which has a long history of being unfriendly to cyclist and pedestrians.

The report also shines light on the demographics of traffic fatalities, with two key groups standing out the most — people of color and senior citizens. While people of color account for about 35% of Florida's population, they make up more than 46% of pedestrian deaths. The authors attribute this to the fact that people of color are less likely to own a car. Dependence on public transportation forces these groups to walk along roads that do not always have safe pedestrian infrastructure.

Citizens over the age of 65 are 50% more likely than younger individuals to be struck and killed by a car while walking. Older Americans are at greater risk due to difficulty seeing and hearing, and because the pedestrian infrastructure is often not well-designed for walkers and wheelchairs.

Improving Pedestrian Safety

City crossing crossroad walking

What can drivers, pedestrians, developers and city planners do to keep citizens safe as they walk the city? It starts with each individual.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends crossing the street only at designated crosswalks, wearing a flashlight or reflective clothing at night, always walking on the sidewalk, and of course, avoiding distractions such as electronic devices. 

For drivers, the recommended guidelines resemble those required to pass standard driving tests, such as yielding to pedestrians in a crosswalk and staying off cellular devices while driving. Drivers are urged to pay special attention when entering or exiting driveways. 

Developers and city planners are also doing their part to lower fatalities. Car-centric cities like Atlanta and Houston have both implemented wide-ranging plans. With the help of a $250M transportation bond approved in 2015, Atlanta is working to more than double its mileage of bike lanes. In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council are implementing their own ambitious bike plan. 

Proper Lighting And Sidewalk Space

Streetlights

Texas Transportation Institute associate research engineer Marcus Brewer said paying special attention to sidewalks and lighting is of great importance.

"It's interesting how many neighborhoods and new developments don't have sidewalks. Providing sidewalks for people to use is fairly basic," Brewer said. "The connection between their use and the effect on safety is obvious, but they're not always used. Likewise with lighting."

Brewer also advised developers in urban environments to pay special attention to the width of a sidewalk, particularly when it comes to mixed-use developments where density is high. 

Midway Cos. executive vice president of development David Hightower, who is a big believer in wide sidewalks, said the mixed-use developer has taken to using changing pavement colors to help prevent fatalities and has incorporated traffic calming devices, like managing parking and using security to help ease traffic.

When a mixed-use project has private streets, they can be easily closed off during special events and peak times to enhance pedestrian safety. Many mixed-use developments incorporate pedestrian corridors, closed off to cars altogether. 

Still, all of the design and infrastructure in the world cannot help pedestrians or drivers who are not paying attention.

"If pedestrians use infrastructure as designed [it helps], but if either the driver or pedestrian is distracted they lose a lot of their effectiveness," Brewer said.