In 2021, according to projections by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as many as 7,845 pedestrians lost their lives in car crashes, the greatest number of fatalities since 1982. A new analysis by Streetsblogexamines why pedestrian fatalities reached a “40-year high” last year, concluding that the problem lies in street design and other structural factors.
One reason identified by the report: insufficient sidewalk space. Approximately 67.1% of 2020’s pedestrian fatalities occurred on roads without sidewalks, per GHSA data, which Streetsblog notes does not specify the functionality of sidewalks in fatalities where they were indeed present. This problem is so prevalent, the report argues, because sidewalk upkeep in the US is generally the responsibility of property owners, and as a result “countless U.S. communities” are not compliant with accessibility standards that would make their sidewalks (and therefore their roads) safer for those dependent on well-maintained, accessible sidewalk space.
Another reason is unsafe roads—or as Streetsblog describes them, “ultra-dangerous” roads. The GHSA’s analysis revealed that the majority of pedestrian fatalities, 73%, occurred in “high-speed, high-capacity” streets whose design heightens the likelihood that crashes would prove deadly for pedestrians. While only a small percentage of fatalities identified by the GHSA (6% to 10%) involved drivers going over the speed limit, the report argues, “that doesn’t really matter when the speed limits are so high that drivers are all but certain to kill any pedestrians they might strike.”
A third reason is the structural racism of US roadways, which statistically make car crashes more fatal for “Black Indigenous, and Hispanic walkers,” per Streetsblog. The GHSA found that between 2015 and 2019, non-Hispanic Black individuals comprised 21% of pedestrian deaths even as they comprised only 12% of the US population, while Hispanic people comprised 21% and 19%, respectively. “[M]ost astonishingly,” the GHSA stated, “American Indians represented 0.7 percent of the population but accounted for 2.4 percent of deaths.” Were fatalities equally distributed across races and ethnicities, according to the GHSA, the latter percentage would be one-third its current size. As Streetsblog notes, the structural racism of US streets manifests in the concentration of “communities of color and low income” people around the riskiest roadways, where residents generally must travel outside their neighborhoods for work.
The fourth and final reason identified by Streetsblog is the prevalence of massive vehicles like pickup trucks and SUVs, which are known to be especially dangerous for pedestrians. In 2020, the GHSA found, these vehicles were connected to 39.5% of traffic fatalities.