Are 80 percent of pedestrian deaths really their own fault?

© Baltimore County

Trolling twitter on Boxing Day when I was supposed to be doing a digital detox, I saw this crazy poster from Baltimore County, Maryland that claimed that “most crashes are the pedestrian’s fault. I thought this could not possibly be true, so I visited their website where yes, it claims that “80 percent of pedestrian crashes are the fault of the pedestrian.”

It then lists all the rules that pedestrians must follow (a selection from 9 rules:)

  • At an intersection, a pedestrian is subject to all traffic control signals.
  • If a pedestrian crosses a roadway at any point other than in a marked crosswalk or in an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, the pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching on the roadway.
  • If a pedestrian crosses a roadway at a point where a pedestrian tunnel or overhead pedestrian crossing is provided, the pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching on the roadway.
  • Between adjacent intersections at which a traffic control signal is in operation, a pedestrian may cross a roadway only in a marked crosswalk
  • .

Following that it lists the far shorter list of four requirements for motorists around pedestrians:

  • The driver of a vehicle must stop for a pedestrian at crosswalks and intersections without signals when the pedestrian is on the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling OR the pedestrian is approaching within one lane of the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling.
  • The driver of a vehicle must stop for a pedestrian at intersections with signals.
  • When proceeding on a green signal, drivers turning right or left shall yield the right of way to pedestrians lawfully within the crosswalk.
  • When turning right on red after stopping, drivers shall yield the right of way to pedestrians lawfully within the crosswalk.

The way these rules for motorists are written says a lot. Nothing about following the speed limit or paying attention, (as they do for pedestrians), nothing about even slowing down if a pedestrian is in the intersection but not in the driver's lane and almost sounding like if there is a pedestrian in the road who does not have right of way, they are fair game.

Then there is the question of the 80 percent. Surely this can’t be correct. Looking for other sources, I found the Center for Problem oriented Policing site, which claims:

Unsafe pedestrian behaviour is a major factor in pedestrian injuries and fatalities. In a recent study of 7,000 pedestrian-vehicle crashes in Florida, researchers discovered that pedestrians were at fault in 80 percent of these incidents. Similarly, in a U.K. study, pedestrian behaviour accounted for 90 percent of crashes where vehicle struck a pedestrian.

Again, I thought, REALLY? And everywhere I looked, wherever blame was apportioned (with one exception) the statistics came up the same, blaming the pedestrian in the great majority of cases.

However when you dig deeper, you find out why people are in the road getting killed, who they are and where, and much of it comes back to the way roads are designed, the kind of communities people are walking in. For instance, in Manhattan, 60 percent of the pedestrian deaths are caused by driver inattention or driver failure to yield. In Toronto, 67 percent are due to driver error. What’s the difference?

In Citylab, Sarah Goodyear looks at the situation in Dallas, where 24 of the 32 fatal crashes were attributed to “pedestrian failure to yield.” She talks to a city councillor who thinks other factors are at work.

Many residents in those less affluent neighbourhoods don’t own cars, and must travel on foot to get to work and run errands. But the streets they live near—many of them six-lane arterials—aren’t designed for people outside of cars. “The really tragic part about it is that the two areas where we’ve had the most pedestrian fatalities, these are disinvested, depopulated areas,” he says. “Those big arterials are completely unnecessary. It’s so overbuilt. The infrastructure is built for a bygone era that simply doesn’t match what’s there now.”

On Strong Towns, Charles Marohn has been discussing the issue for years- it’s all about how we design our roads to favour cars instead of people. He talks about Stroads, street/road hybrids that are deathtraps, and the general tendency to design for cars, not people.

This and the thousands of similar tragedies that happen every year on America’s streets are the statistically inevitable outcome of designing for fast-moving traffic within a complex urban environment. This is what will always happen when we mash together simple and powerful with random and vulnerable. Our street designs do not account for the randomness of humanity. To be safe, they must.

It is no longer acceptable to design our urban streets to forgive the mistakes of drivers. Our designs must forgive the mistakes of the most vulnerable: those outside of a vehicle.

A more accurate representation of the situation in Baltimore County would be this modification of the sign by another activist on Twitter who gets it right: It’s the Department of Transportation’s fault. Because it’s all about design.

Tags: Cities | Urban Planning | Walking


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