Poor Road Design Contributes to U.S. Pedestrian Fatalities: Safety Advocates Call for New Approach

Kim Krisberg


Nations Health. 2009;39(10) 

Abstract and Introduction


A decade ago, St. Petersburg, Fla., was a fairly dangerous place for residents on foot, topping the nation's metro areas for pedestrian deaths. But with commitment from local officials, community support and simple design and safety changes, the city has cut its pedestrian death rate by more than half and turned itself into a community that welcomes all modes of transportation.

St. Petersburg's success is one of many highlighted in "Dangerous by Design," a new report on the country's ongoing problem of preventable pedestrian death and the common factor that ties many so-called "accidents" together: poorly designed streets and roadways built with little accommodation for pedestrians, bicyclists and those in wheelchairs. Released in November by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the report finds that the "most dangerous places to walk are those that fail to make smart infrastructure investments that make roads safer for everyone." In the last 15 years, the report noted, more than 76,000 Americans have been killed in pedestrian accidents.

"Over the last several decades, most of the business of daily life has shifted from Main Streets to state highways that have grown wider and wider over time," the report stated. "The pressure to move as many cars through these areas as quickly as possible has led transportation departments to squeeze in as many lanes as they can, while designing out sidewalks, crosswalks and crossing signals, on-street parking and even street trees in order to remove impediments to speeding traffic."

The report ranked four Florida metro areas as the nation's most dangerous for pedestrians, with the Orlando-Kissimmee area taking the top spot with almost three annual pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people. And despite St. Petersburg's progress, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area on Florida's west coast took the No. 2 spot, followed by the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area at No. 3 and Jacksonville in fourth place. Older pedestrians and ethnic and racial minorities are at higher risk of being killed while walking, the report said.

However, there are a number of effective design changes that have improved pedestrian safety, according to the report. One example is known as "traffic calming," which uses engineering techniques and features such as speed humps to force drivers to slow down, while another is known as "complete streets," a policy gaining popularity across the country in which communities build or retrofit their roads to include all types of transportation.

"We wanted to make clear the role that design is playing in safety and in promoting health," said David Goldberg, communications director at Transportation for America. "Because the same places that are more dangerous for pedestrians, by in large, also have suppressed levels of physical activity."

Fortunately, over the past few years, the momentum to build safer, more inclusive streets has continued to grow, with dozens of communities adopting complete street policies as well as a "whole shifting in consciousness and in market demand for places that are a little less car dependent," Goldberg told The Nation's Health. A shift in consciousness is a good way to describe the transformation in St. Petersburg, Fla., where officials used the city's top-ranked pedestrian death ranking as a catalyst to build miles of new bike lanes, implement bicycle and pedestrian safety education, and use technology to make the streets safe for walking, according to Joe Kubicki, director of the city's Department of Transportation and Parking.

"People love it," Kubicki told The Nation's Health. "It's amazing to go downtown and see people biking to work, more people biking on the weekends, to see the bike racks full. It's been a 180-degree change."

Since the 2003 adoption of the city's CityTrails Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, more than $20 million in bike and pedestrian safety improvements have been installed, Kubicki said, including the addition of more than 93 miles of bike lanes, 20 new miles of bike trails, a major recreation trail into the downtown area anchored via the purchase of an abandoned railroad, and a renewed focus on bike safety education and enforcement. But it is pedestrian safety for which St. Petersburg has reaped the most success, Kubicki said, with a 60 percent reduction in the pedestrian accident crash rate.

In addition to installing countdown pedestrian signals at about 300 intersections, St. Petersburg became the first U.S. community to utilize a technology known as the Enhancer. To begin, officials studied 11 intersections where drivers must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk, finding that only 2 percent of drivers were complying with the law. After installing the Enhancer, a rapid-flashing beacon that alerts drivers to oncoming pedestrians and tells the pedestrian how to cross safely in both English and Spanish, driver compliance grew to more than 85 percent, Kubicki reported. To date, the technology has been installed at more than 30 locations throughout St. Petersburg.

"There was very broad support for the (bicycle and pedestrian) program," he said. "A number of partnerships came together to make this happen, from the private sector to the public health community, hospitals, schools...up and down the line with people contributing to this program."

Advocates are hoping federal policy-makers take note of stories such as St. Petersburg as well as the wealth of positive health and safety outcomes that accompany investments in smart and inclusive transportation planning. Specifically, advocates point to the coming reauthorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, a massive federal surface transportation funding bill, as an opportunity to increase safety investments and build healthier communities. Currently, less than 1.5 percent of such funds are being spent on pedestrian and bicycle safety, despite pedestrians making up almost 12 percent of traffic-related deaths.

A group of such advocates, including a representative from APHA, met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in mid-November, delivering a copy of the "Dangerous by Design" report as well as a petition with more than 4,000 signatures urging LaHood to make pedestrian safety and complete streets a priority. Among the advocates was Barbara McCann, executive director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, who said she was "excited and optimistic" about working with the U.S. Department of Transportation on creating safer streets. McCann called for a transportation bill that includes the kind of accountability requirements that measure safety and health outcomes, noting that the "(DOT) can only do so much. It's Congress that really has to act."

"The great thing about really addressing our need for safer roads is that we get multiple benefits," McCann told The Nation's Health. "We're saving lives by preventing crashes, but we're also saving lives by helping people be more physically active."

For a copy of the "Dangerous by Design" report or to learn more about the transportation coalition, of which APHA is a member, visit www.t4america.org. For more news from The Nation's Health, visit www.thenationshealth.org.


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