Over the last decade, it’s become safer to drive and more dangerous to walk. That’s the conclusion of a new report on pedestrian safety released earlier this week, which documents that from 2007 to 2016, “The number of pedestrian fatalities increased 27 percent … while at the same time, all other traffic deaths decreased by 14 percent.”
Alarmingly, this is not just a medium-term trend, reports the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). In the U.S., “pedestrians now account for a larger proportion of traffic fatalities than they have in the past 33 years.”
Why the increase in drivers killing walkers, as opposed to drivers hitting other drivers? The report fingers those dreaded accessories of the Millennials, smartphones and marijuana, suggesting that increased legalization of the latter—and widespread adoption of the former devices—is leading to more distraction, impairment, and death.
Curiously, there is little attempt by the GHSA to grapple with the very obvious and long-term problem—the conflict that occurs when one attempts to combine pedestrian accessibility with roads that support highway speeds. Even with smartphones locked away and all drivers drug free, there are bound to be incidents in which the operator of a two-ton object barrelling down the road does incredible damage to a defenseless human being of one-tenth the weight. The only sure way to protect the vulnerable party in this situation is to slow vehicles to truly safe speeds wherever pedestrians are present. And the only way to guarantee slower speeds is to create streets—not the all-to-common suburban thoroughfares that accomodate highway speeds—that do not allow drivers to travel through neighborhoods at unsafe velocities.
Such a transformation of our built environment will require more than band-aid fixes, such as “pedestrian hybrid beacons” (special button-activated lights and crosswalks placed at midblock) and demeaningly-named “refuge islands” recommended by the GHSA report. Only a dramatic paradigm shift will cause drivers to ease off the pedal when they are off the interstate. Such a new approach would call for narrower streets that are not designed for highway speeds—or even what behind the wheel may seem relatively pokey rates of travel. At even 35 miles per hour, there is a 31 percent chance a vehicle will kill you, rising to 54 percent for seniors over 70 years old. In contrast, at 20 miles per hour, the risk of pedestrian death goes down to an average of 7 percent.
To its credit, the Governors Highway Safety Association does call for “road diets that create space for other modes” of transit. But despite its commendable effort to deal with the bad press for traffic engineers generated by road deaths, ultimately it is a group that serves as the representative of state highway safety offices, many of which are located within state transportation agencies. State departments of transportation and their engineers are of course notorious for pushing for more highway miles, and for the “upgrading” of roads to allow for greater vehicle speeds.
Perhaps the oddest omission from the GHSA report is any reference to European pedestrian safety practices, an example from which the U.S. has much to learn. There was a time when the U.S. led the developed world in making roads safer, but by the turn of the millennium, our progress slowed, while Europe and Britain continued to post long-term declines in traffic fatalities—including pedestrian deaths.
Compared to these other wealthy countries, Vox reports
[W]e now have traffic fatality rates per person that are three to four times greater than those in the best-performing peer countries — including Sweden, the UK, and the Netherlands…. Much of the disparity seems to arise from how we build communities and the types of roads we design and construct. In the US, we drive more than any other developed country in the world, which goes some way toward explaining the higher traffic fatality rates. But even when we correct for vehicle miles traveled, we still have higher fatality rates. What we are learning is that the countries with the best traffic fatality records are different from the US in the following ways: a) they live more compactly, b) their road design favors more vulnerable users such as bikers and pedestrians, and c) they have enacted laws and regulations that also favor these vulnerable road users.
The American defender of the status quo might snarkily remark that the experience of older, narrower streets of Europe will never be duplicated stateside. But much of the progress in European road safety has actually been made in the last generation, and Europe once had more traffic deaths than the U.S. According to Vox, in 1970 in the Netherlands, a unprecedented increase in traffic deaths led to a public outcry that included calls to “Stop the Child Murder,” and subsequent changes in road design resulted in dramatic improvements in safety.
Such heated rhetoric may lead policy wonks to dismiss the story behind it. Yet as in so many examples of public policy debates, the language used by engineers and experts also serves to obscure the real nature of the carnage on our streets. If we dispensed with policy-speak niceties such as “pedestrian casualties” and “traffic fatalities,” and simply stated that last year nearly 6,000 people driving a car killed people who were out walking, these incidents begin to sound less like unfortunate accidents—and more like what in a civilized society should largely be preventable deaths.
A similar faith that new technology will magically reduce pedestrian deaths also distracts us from the real issue. Last year, Google engineers submitted patent documents that suggested coating the front of vehicles in a strong adhesive that might “prevent the pedestrian from bouncing off the vehicle after the pedestrian impacts the hood”—like a human-sized fly catcher. General Motors’ best and brightest similarly proposed airbags that would deploy outside the vehicle, perhaps gently pushing pedestrians away like a cowcatcher. Joe Cortright of City Observatory cheekily responded that perhaps “the next frontier is to deploy this technology on people, with personal airbags” worn on our bodies—and that perhaps subsequent designs could include “small but powerful rocket packs, again connected to self-driving cars via the Internet” that “could fire and lift the pedestrian free of the oncoming vehicle.”
True sharing of the streets between all modes of mobility—including one’s own two feet—demands, as Cortright states so well, that walking and biking are no longer treated as a “second class form of transportation.” This transition will require recovering a rather older form of techne, a craft of building human-centered places, that does not need artificial intelligence or other “smart” devices to save us from the mechanical beasts we have allowed to dominate our streets.
Some might respond that in the last century, easy and cheap automobile transportation has given us freedom that is worth trading for the lives of a few errant pedestrians. Such reasoning of course ignores the needs of tens of millions of our fellow citizens who are unable to drive—particularly adolescents and disabled senior citizens—who now must be shuttled from place to place like cattle, especially when walking has been made an unsafe option.
The idea of true freedom as realized behind the wheel also forgets the long Anglophone tradition of liberty as the lack of an ongoing threat of bodily harm—as Thomas Hobbes famously defined in his Leviathan of 1651, freedom is most essentially the “absence of … external impediments to motion.” Over the past few centuries, this might have come to seem a quaint academic notion, but the question of pedestrian safety makes it concrete once again. If safe mobility requires purchasing a two-ton vehicle to get around, are we really as free as we imagine?
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.