Our Roads and Our Vehicles Aren't Designed With Pedestrians in Mind

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death rates
Death race 40 MPH. (Photo: via NextSTL)
Dangerous by Design report
Between 2005 and 2014, Americans were 7.2 times more likely to die as a pedestrian than from a natural disaster. The Dangerous by Design report takes a deeper look at some startling statistics. (Photo: Smart Growth America)

Florida is a strange place. As water laps around the bases of buildings in Miami, the governor bans the use of the words “sea level rise.”

And as Florida takes eight of the top 10 spots on the Dangerous by Design list of the most dangerous cities for people to walk in, the police blame the victims for not looking where they're going.

florida cities
Killer cities in Florida. (Photo: Dangerous By Design)

As one state trooper told the Orlando Sentinel:

Pedestrians are at fault for a vast majority of the accidents, [FHP Trooper Steven] Montiero said. Many aren’t in a crosswalk or are crossing the street in dark clothing at night. Some aren’t following common-sense lessons, such as looking both ways before stepping into the street. "We need pedestrians to really start following the law," Montiero said. "Just because you get older doesn’t mean you don’t follow that rule. I would check one more time. A small mistake is getting people killed."

There are a couple of problems with this argument, particularly in a state with a very high percentage of seniors and aging boomers. Number one:

The roads are dangerous by design

Fort Myers
Main Street in Fort Myers. (Photo: Google Street View)

So many of them are like this one in Fort Myers, where I used to take my mom for a winter vacation — six lanes wide and many blocks between traffic lights. Most fatal accidents happen between intersections, where drivers travel faster and are less focused on the road. But in many cases the pedestrians have no choice but to cross, because the intersections and crossings are so far apart.

old people death
Older people are much more likely to die when walking than people of other ages. (Photo: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute)

And even when they're crossing at traffic lights, older people are at serious risk. As AARP noted:

Older adults are also at higher risk of being struck and killed by a car while walking. Older adults are often less mobile, may have greater difficulty seeing or hearing, and are more likely to use an assistive device. Pedestrian infrastructure is frequently not designed to accommodate these impairments.

Older adults are also more fragile, meaning they're significantly more likely to die when hit by vehicle.

death rates
Death race 40 MPH. (Photo: via NextSTL)

It's also well known that the rate of death vs. injury is directly proportional to the speed of the vehicle, but these roads in Florida are designed for speed. When you put a driver on a road engineered for 60 mph, it's almost impossible to get anyone to go 30 mph; it simply doesn’t feel natural. That’s why it's all about design, not regulation.

The vehicles are dangerous by design

big truck
Let's add some steel pipe to make it even more deadly!. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The report from University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), Toward designing pedestrianfriendly vehicles, demonstrates that SUVs and pickup trucks are significantly more deadly than cars — which are often designed to European standards for pedestrian safety — and more and more people are buying trucks and SUVs instead of cars.

In fact, light trucks (including SUVs and pickups) account for over 60 percent of the vehicles sold today, and this percentage will likely increase when the government loosens fuel economy rules.

death rate depending on vehicle
You're way more likely to die as a pedestrian when hit by a truck. (Photo: New Scientist)

The big American trucks have giant flat walls of front ends that have none of these features and are serious killers. As the UMTRI authors note, this is a bad mix with an aging population.

Age and vehicle type are two important factors affecting the injury risks in vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes. Interestingly, there are currently two independent trends in the world, especially in developed countries, with one being the aging of the population and the other the increasing proportion of SUVs (Figure 10). Unfortunately, both of these trends tend to increase the pedestrian-injury risk. Consequently, addressing the hazards posed by SUVs to older pedestrians is an important traffic-safety challenge.

Car interiors are dangerous by design

Tesla interior
No distractions here!. (Photo: Tesla)

This is getting worse every year as fancy new big screens take over; you cannot just adjust your radio by reaching because it's now a button on a screen instead of a knob. Car manufacturers are giving you more information that you really don’t need. The options are different from car to car, and some car interiors are basically designed to distract. Nobody understands how things actually work. Anton Yelchin of "Star Trek" fame was killed because his Jeep had a new electronic shifter that he didn't properly put in park. All of these examples are particularly a problem for older drivers. As I previously suggested in TreeHugger, it's possible to design cars to reduce distracted driving, and here's how:

Simplify and standardize or even eliminate entertainment systems. This is not your living room; it's a mode of transportation. Design should be consistent and as intuitive as shifting gears, where pretty much the same Park-Reverse-Neutral pattern is used by everyone, and we've seen what happens when manufacturers mess with it.

For that matter, stop designing cars like moving living rooms and design them more like machines, with harder seats to keep you alert, less insulation to keep out exterior noise, and perhaps even standard transmissions that require more attention. When I'm in my 28-year-old Miata, crunching those gears and looking under transport trucks, with my bum a foot off the ground and no airbags, I'm seriously concentrating on the road.

road closed
Does the pedestrian friendly index improve elsewhere in Florida? Not in Fort Lauderdale. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

There are many reasons Florida is such a dangerous place for pedestrians. In my visits I've found the cities and suburbs to be equally pedestrian-unfriendly.

Perhaps the biggest reason is that the population of drivers and pedestrians skews old, which foretells what might happen in the rest of America as it ages — that when you mix bad road design with deadly vehicle design and an older population, you get a lot of dead pedestrians. Some predict self-driving cars will save us all, but others believe this is wishful thinking.

Given the demographic trends, this is something planners and engineers should be thinking about now.