Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A new study raises concerns about street design and city accessibility.
When it comes to traffic accidents, the data on pedestrians using wheelchairs have always been incomplete. In fatal and nonfatal incidents alike, police reports often fail to note whether the victim was using one. So it’s never been clear how the risk of getting hit by a car for wheelchair users compares to the risk for the rest of the population.
A new study out of Georgetown University has filled in part of that gap, and the results are troubling. The findings suggest that pedestrian wheelchair users are a third more likely to be killed in a road accident than the general public is. The study, published in BMJ Open, also found that in more than 75 percent of crashes that involve a wheelchair user, no “crash avoidance maneuver” by the driver—like braking or steering—was recorded.
“This gets back to basic city design: How do we design places in ways that make it safe for pedestrians to use them?” says John Kraemer, an epidemiologist and lawyer at Georgetown with a special interest in road safety for vulnerable users, and the study’s lead author. “What we really don’t want is [for] a person who's using a wheelchair or has a disability to choose between not being able to access their community or having to do it in a dangerous way.”
For this study, Kraemer and his colleague Connor Brenton gathered news reports and police records of more than 250 traffic fatalities involving pedestrian wheelchair users between 2006 and 2012 across the U.S. To adjust for incomplete data in those sources, they used a statistical method to estimate a total of 528 fatalities over those years. The data was then compared to general pedestrian fatalities recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All told the researchers report two fatalities for every 100,000 pedestrian wheelchair users per year. The mortality rate for the general population, meanwhile, was 1.5 per 100,000, which translates into a 36 percent higher fatality risk for wheelchair users. Among the most vulnerable wheelchair users were men 50 to 64 years old, who were 75 percent more likely than their counterparts in the general population to be killed in road accidents.
The data also showed that men who use wheelchairs were five times more likely than women wheelchair users to be killed in roadside collisions. While the researchers can’t say why there’s such a big disparity between genders, Kraemer says that finding isn’t surprising. “This is consistent with quite a lot of injury data, that men often [are at higher] risk of injury,” he tells CityLab. Researchers often attribute traffic-related gender gaps to differences in risk-taking.
In 21 percent of the cases, drivers failed to yield to the right-of-way of pedestrians—the most common behavioral factor for the crashes. In terms of environmental factors, half of all crashes in the study happened in an intersection. Among those, about 40 percent happened in places without traffic-control devices like a pedestrian signals or countdown clocks.
”[The data] suggest that far too often—and this is true for everybody—you have pedestrians interacting with roads that are too high of speeds to be safely navigated,” Kraemer says. Many crashes happened on arterial roadways, a type of design that “provides the highest level of service at the greatest speed for the longest uninterrupted distance,” according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Kraemer says the fact that a shockingly large share of fatal crashes involved no reported signs of braking or steering away suggests that some drivers simply fail to see people in wheelchairs crossing the street. “A person using a wheelchair is lower to the ground, or if it’s an electric wheelchair, they may be moving faster than a pedestrian might,” he says.
Under the American Disability Acts, streets, roadways, and highways are required to be more wheelchair accessible by having curb cuts and ramps. Even so, Kraemer thinks street designers and urban planners don’t focus enough on people with disabilities.
“If you really want to have zero pedestrian death we have to not only think about pedestrians as whatever our archetype is,” he says, “but also people who use wheelchairs, who are blind or deaf, who otherwise might be at greater risk because of the environment.”