By David Lightman / McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The nation’s pedestrian death toll keeps climbing unforgivingly. The number reached its highest level since 1990 last year, and state after state is projected to see more carnage increase in 2019.
Washington spends big money year after year to promote, research and improve pedestrian safety. Four years ago, it added a special program that states could use to find ways to make streets safer.
But the government also spends far more to build, improve and repair bigger, faster roads even as the pedestrian numbers remain grim. Experts and members of Congress lament that far more needs to be done.
Ten years ago, 4,109 pedestrians died. The number has risen virtually every year since, and last year, the death toll was up 3.4% to 6,283. Pedestrian fatalities in urban areas are up 69% over the last 10 years.
Nighttime fatalities were up 4.6% from 2017 to 2018. Pedestrian deaths in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes increased by 2.2%.
Projections in 25 states are that the carnage will get worse this year than the targets they set for last year, according to data compiled by nonpartisan advocacy groups Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition.
“In fact,” their study found, “we are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people. Furthermore, federal and state policies, standards, and funding mechanisms still produce roads that prioritize high speeds for cars over safety.”
While there is no single agreed-upon reason for the rise in pedestrian deaths, experts routinely cite a number of factors, including distracted drivers, larger vehicles and more people walking and bicycling in urban areas.
“It’s a combination of people getting out more, having healthier lifestyles and moving more into urban areas,” said Shaun Kildare, director for research at the nonpartisan Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
“There is no single reason or solution to the growing number of pedestrian deaths in California and across the country. We wish it were that simple to address and reverse the trend,” added Timothy Weisberg, spokesman for California’s Office of Traffic Safety.
Key congressional lawmakers agreed with those assessments and said government policy needs adjusting, and fast.
“We’re going by all measures in the wrong direction, and corrective action is needed. Obviously what we’ve been doing hasn’t been adequate,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
While the government has long spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote safety — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a budget of nearly $1 billion — Congress created a new “national priority” program in December 2015 to direct money to states specifically to promote pedestrian and bicycle safety.
But critics charge that the program and others aimed at making roads, intersections and driver behavior safer for pedestrians are underfunded, while most of the transportation-related money goes to road and bridge construction and repair.
Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, a nonpartisan advocacy group, calls the zeal for road building a “culture that’s so strong, so deep … it’s hard to overcome.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which administers key safety programs, would not respond to multiple requests for comment.
House leaders are crafting legislation now that DeFazio said would revamp the safety initiatives. “I think we pretty much know what we need to do,” he said.
DeFazio cited efforts that have proven effective, such as “bike boxes,” special areas at the head of a traffic lane that allow motorists to see the bicycles ahead of them.
Kildare cited European strategies, which include pedestrian impact protection systems that would provide more bumper insulation or more space under the hood and pedestrian collision avoidance systems that could stop or slow a vehicle before impact.
Such systems are designed to soften the blows pedestrians get when a vehicle hits them or prevent the collision entirely.
Kildare noted that such systems would provide help regardless of the road design. “While we believe roadway improvements are necessary,” he said, “the vehicle based technology would be a great start to addressing the problem.”
In the meantime, pedestrian and bicycle death tolls show few signs of significant decline in state after state.
The government has a wide range of programs aimed at making roads safer. The four-year-old special pedestrian and bicycle safety promotion program is authorized to spend $70 million over a five year period that ends in the next fiscal year. So far it’s spent $42 million.
“$70 million nationally is a pretty insignificant amount of funding, in fact I’d say a very insignificant amount of funding,” DeFazio said. “A major city could easily spend a heck of a lot more than that reconfiguring bike lanes, pedestrian crossings, signalization and all that.”
Osborne agreed, saying of the budget for all safety programs, “These programs are pitifully underfunded.”
The budget approved this week by the Senate Appropriations Committee would provide $49 billion in highway aid during the current fiscal year. Its House counterpart approved roughly the same amount, as well as $1 billion for the safety administration. The overall transportation budget also includes other safety-related funding.
Yet the pedestrian death toll remains stubbornly, historically high.
Florida is regarded as the most dangerous state for pedestrians, according to a study by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition.
It tops the study’s 2019 “pedestrian danger index,” while eight of the nine most perilous cities in the country for pedestrians are in Florida. Next are Alabama, Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia. Texas is eighth and California ranks 14th.
The 2015 pedestrian and bicycle program was designed to allow states to focus on the growing problem, but safety advocates see it as too limited in what it can do. States can only use the money for a certain number of activities, such as training law enforcement officials about pedestrian and bicycle laws and public education programs.
Kara Macek, senior director of communications and programs at the Governors Highway Safety Association said not every state has a full slate of strong bicycle and pedestrian laws.
“And a lot of bicycle and pedestrian safety programs need to go beyond what is in the law,” she said.
States are trying.
California pedestrians involved in fatal crashes were on an upward trend, from 653 in 2012 to 940 in 2017 before dipping to 893 last year.
The state transportation department’s safety programs include monitoring 129 locations throughout California with a history of pedestrian danger. Safety traffic teams studied the locations for nine months in 2016 and 2017.
They looked at sidewalk and walkway design, signs, signals, crosswalks, interchange design and alternatives, roundabouts designed for pedestrians and strategies for easing traffic congestion.
Recommendations were made for 89 of the sites, and work was completed at 54 last year.
Among the improvements: Pedestrian warning signs, high-visibility crosswalk markings, imposing parking restrictions to improve visibility and adjusting traffic signals at certain intersections to give pedestrians a head start before a vehicle turns. Work at other sites is continuing.
Florida has a six-part plan that includes driver education, including adding questions about pedestrian and bicycle safety to the state driver’s license exam, and adjustments in highway engineering — including more roundabouts and better lighting.
Florida also established a Crash Data Academy to conduct webinars that focus on engineering, education and other initiatives.
Yet the increase in actual and projected deaths in Florida and many other states keeps rising, and the precise reasons are difficult to “difficult to pinpoint,” said Lisandra Garay-Vega, transportation safety specialist at the National Transportation Safety Board Office of Highway Safety.
They know of several different causes: Bigger, faster highways. More drivers are distracted by phone use and their car’s gadgets. More pedestrians and bicyclists are on the road, particularly in urban areas. And more big vehicles.
The National Transportation Safety Board conducted a pedestrian safety investigation last year involving 15 different crashes.
It described “a widespread belief by many drivers they can multitask and still operate a vehicle safely. But multitasking is a myth; humans can only focus cognitive attention on one task at a time. That’s why executing any task other than driving is dangerous and risks a crash.”
Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat and House transportation committee member, sees distracted pedestrians as a particular problem.
“They’re listening to loud music and they’re not paying attention,” he said. “If I’m driving and I go through 20 blocks in the morning to go to work or wherever, 10 of those blocks there’ll be somebody stepping onto the street without awareness.”