Dangerously Designed US Roads Claimed a 'Jaw-Dropping' Number of Lives

The latest report from Smart Growth America says the crisis will get worse.

Senior safety zone
This does. not look safe for seniors.

Sean Marshall

One might think a pandemic that kept people home and reduced commuting would cause a drop in the number of people killed by cars, but ... not quite. The latest Dangerous by Design report prepared by nonprofit Smart Growth America showed a shocking increase in the number of deaths in 2020—the latest year they have full data for.

It found that "more than 6,500 people—nearly 18 per day—were struck and killed while walking in 2020, a 4.7% increase over 2019, even as driving decreased overall because of the pandemic’s unprecedented disruptions to travel behavior." It's also a 62% increase since 2009, the first year that the number of deaths started increasing after years of decline.


Smart Cities / Dangerous by Design

The report describes the data for 2021 as "jaw-dropping," with the preliminary data from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) showing an increase of between 11 and 13% over 2020. We have also shown data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, all showing the same thing.

Here at Treehugger, we think it is important to get people out of cars to have safer streets and build better communities. But it's hard when the cars turn into SUVs and pickup trucks, and the roads are designed in ways that it is actually difficult not to speed.

As the Dangerous by Design report noted:

"Roadway design has a strong impact on how people drive, often more influential on driver behavior than the posted speed limit. While speed limit signs may only be posted every few blocks or miles, the road’s design is ever-present, continually providing guidance and visual cues. While there are myriad factors involved in these deaths, our streets are dangerous by design, designed to move many cars quickly at the expense of safety for everyone who uses them."

As the video notes, you can't prioritize safety and keep cars moving quickly. And as everyone knows, the job of most engineers and politicians is to keep the cars moving. And if engineers get out of line and try and change those priorities, they are ignored or can even lose their license; just ask Charles Marohn.

Rate of death by income of area

Smart Cities / Dangerous by Design

So why do drivers get priority? Probably because they have the money and the votes. They're also usually not people of color, who are killed at two to three times the rate as white people. People walking in low-income areas are killed at three times the rate of those living in wealthy areas. This makes sense since more people walk in low-income areas, which also have worse roads and lighting, and fewer safe places to cross.

Smart Growth America concluded:

"Too many agencies and decision makers with a hand in building our transportation system have been asleep at the switch, believing (or just hoping) that safety will improve while only making incremental changes to a deadly status quo. The result will continue to be ever-increasing and record deaths of people walking and rolling, and we’ll continue in this Groundhog Day loop until those with the power to do so take an active role in making safety for all people the top priority of every dollar spent. To do so, they will have to unwind the deeply embedded, invisible yet powerful emphasis on speed, which is completely incompatible with safety."

Smart Growth is looking primarily at road design, which does have a huge impact. All those things that make it easier for cars to go faster make the roads deadlier for people walking. It could be the big curve radii at corners that let people zip around quickly—as in this death of a pedestrian that I wrote about earlier in "It's Time to Get Serious About Dealing With Cars and Trucks in the City." But there are many other things going on: the population is aging, and walking while old is killing more pedestrians than walking while distracted. Then there is my particular obsession, vehicle design; turning pickup trucks are 4 times as likely to kill pedestrians.

Apple display


There are so many reasons that more people might be dying on the roads. It could be distraction by all those touchscreen displays—studies show that vehicle information systems are a major source of driver distraction. And now we have Apple CarPlay taking over the entire dashboard and turning the car into a giant rolling phone.

There is also the question of police enforcement—in many cities there is none. In Toronto where I live, the police have admitted they don't bother. The politicians say the problems are caused by "mid-block crossings by people chasing the bus" and the Chief of Police blames AirPods. As Jessie Singer wrote in her book "There Are No Accidents," it is baked into the system. It's not a bug, it's a feature.

"Accidents are not a design problem—we know how to design the built environment to prevent death and injury in accidents. And accidents are not a regulatory problem—we know the regulations that will reduce the accidental death toll. Rather, accidents are a political and social problem. To prevent them, we only need the will to redesign our systems, the courage to confront our worst inclinations, and the strength to rein in the powerful who allow accidents to happen."
Red states

Smart Growth America

It's all about money, power, and politics. We know how to design safer cars that won't kill so many pedestrians; they do it in Europe. We know how to slow cars down; they are starting to do that in Europe too. Smart Growth America is focused on design and, being an architect, I always think everything is a design problem, But as Singer noted, it's bigger than that.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

Safe streets and walkable communities are key to reducing our carbon emissions from driving. Treehugger prioritizes pedestrian safety and advocates for making roads more sustainable and less deadly.

View Article Sources
  1. "Dangerous By Design 2022." Smart Growth America.

  2. Liang, Ou Stella, and Christopher C. Yang. "How Are Different Sources of Distraction Associated with At-Fault Crashes Among Drivers of Different Age Gender Groups?Accident Analysis & Prevention, vol. 165, 2021, p. 106505., doi:10.1016/j.aap.2021.106505