Cheryl Cort/Smart Growth America

Between 2003 and 2012, 47,025 pedestrians were killed by drivers in the United States.

You might call it an ongoing unnatural disaster.

Between 2003 and 2012, 47,025 pedestrians were killed by drivers in the United States. To put that in perspective, that’s 16 times the number of fatalities caused in the same period by the natural disasters – floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and the like – that get so much more attention. An additional 676,000 were injured, the equivalent of one person every eight minutes.

Those numbers come from a report, “Dangerous by Design 2014” [PDF], just released by the Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition. The report uses a “Pedestrian Danger Index” (PDI) to quantify where in the country a person on foot is most likely to get hit by a person driving a car. The index is calculated using the most recent data from the National Household Travel Survey on people who commute by foot (an admittedly imperfect source, but the best available) combined with the number of pedestrian fatalities over the most recent five years.

Nationally, the PDI was 52.2, and the average annual rate of pedestrian fatalities was 1.56 per 100,000 people. So, how do the nation’s 50 largest metro areas stack up?

The 10 metropolitan areas in the nation where people walking are most likely to get killed by cars or other vehicles, with their PDIs, are:

Ranking Metro Area Pedestrian Danger Index
1 Orlando-Kissimmee, Florida 244.28
2 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Florida 190.13
3 Jacksonville, Florida 182.71
4 Miami-Fort Lauderdale- Pompano Beach, Florida 145.33
5 Memphis, Tennessee (including parts of Mississippi and Arkansas) 131.26
6 Birmingham-Hoover, AL 125.60
7 Houston-Sugarland-Baytown, Texas 119.64
8 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, Georgia 119.35
9 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Arizona 118.64
10 Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, 
North Carolina-South Carolina

All of these are relatively newer, low-density cities in the Sun Belt, and all have pedestrian commute rates of under 2 percent.

The 10 safest large metropolitan areas for pedestrians are:

Ranking Metro Area Pedestrian Danger Index
1 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, Massachusetts 18.65
2 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 25.10
3 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington 26.81
4 New York City-Northern New Jersey-Long Island 26.81
5 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, California 31.44
6 Minneapolis-St.Paul-Bloomington, Minnesota 32.15
7 Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, Oregon-Washington 32.19
8 Chicago-Napierville-Joliet, Illinois (including parts of Indiana and Wisconsin) 32.94
9 Rochester, New York 33.97
10 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, Ohio 34.37

All of these are older cities, many with densely populated street grids. All have walking commuter populations of greater than 2 percent.

Other notable findings summarized in the report:

While the available data is not as detailed as the researchers would have liked – there is no reliable nationwide source for non-commuting pedestrian trips, for instance – one takeaway is clear: streets that are designed primarily for speed and traffic volume are dangerous to human life. Those are problems that are inherent in road design. Only a change in the way streets and roads are built will fix it.

The report’s sponsors are calling for the passage of the national Safe Streets Act, which would “require all states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) to adopt complete street policies for federally funded projects within two years, and consider the safety of all users when designing new roads or improving existing roads.” Making streets safer, however, means slowing down cars. A person hit by a driver traveling at 20 miles per hour has a nearly 95 percent chance of surviving. A person hit at 45 miles per hour has a 65 percent chance of being killed.

In many of the sprawling communities that top the most-dangerous list, slowing down cars is a tough sell indeed. The everyday convenience of being able to travel at high speed to and from work, school, and errands outweighs, in the popular mind, the occasional death of a pedestrian – by definition, a member of a minority, a marginalized person in an autocentric community.

What safer streets advocates are trying to achieve is an attitude shift, one that might take a generation or more to achieve. “We want to change the culture, just as we did with the increased use of seat belts,” said Billy Hattaway of the Florida Department of Transportation in a  telebriefing on the report. That kind of change takes time, often measured in generations. Meanwhile, the unnatural disaster continues.

  • People of color and other minorities are far more at risk of dying from being hit by vehicles than white non-Hispanic people. For African Americans, the age-adjusted pedestrian fatality rate was 60 percent higher than for whites. For Hispanic Americans, it was 43 percent higher.
  • Adults over age 65 are only 12.6 percent of the population, but they account for 21 percent of the pedestrian fatalities across the country in the period from 2003 to 2010.
  • More than half (52.3 percent) of the pedestrian fatalities recorded happened on arterial roadways.
  • Sixty-eight percent of the fatalities occurred on roads that were paid for at least in part by federal money and that were designed along federal guidelines.
  • Pedestrians accounted for 15 percent of total roadway fatalities in 2012, compared to less than 12 percent in 2003. The percentage has climbed steadily over the study period.
  • After declining between 2005 and 2009, the raw number of pedestrian deaths started climbing again, and in 2012 was back to essentially the same number as it was in 2003, even though overall traffic fatality rates are down.
  • Some 61.3 percent of pedestrian fatalities took place on roads with a speed limit of 40 mph or higher; only 9 percent of fatalities that occurred on roads with speed limits of less than 30 mph.


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