Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
There’s no simple solution, but the Sunshine State is trying to tackle its astonishing rates of pedestrian deaths.
Florida cities consistently top SmartGrowth America’s ranking of the nation’s most dangerous places to walk. The explanation isn’t as simple as you might think.
Since 2011, SGA’s biannual “Dangerous by Design” report crunches the numbers on their “pedestrian death index”—the rate of pedestrian fatalities relative to the number of people who walk to work—across the country’s largest metro area. This year, it looked at 104 cities, and eight of top ten most dangerous metros are in the Sunshine State. The national average is 52.5; the top metro, Cape Coral-Fort Myers, clocked in at 283.1.
Why Florida? Trenda McPherson, the bicycle/pedestrian safety program manager at the Florida Department of Transportation’s Traffic Safety Office, says a lot of locals assume that the state’s large percentage of older residents has something to do with it. Frailer bodies, slowed-down reaction times, and failing vision make older adults one of the most vulnerable groups when it comes to pedestrian deaths across the U.S. The Sunshine State’s trove of tipsy tourists might also seem to skew their statistics, since fatalities within the state don’t necessarily reflect where the victims are from.
But this turns out to be a much more complicated story. As of 2014, Florida’s older pedestrian fatality rate was just slightly higher than the national average, with 3.92 deaths per 100,000. And you can’t blame the tourists either. “We’ve found that it’s the locals that are the ones in the cars hitting people—people who also live here,” says Amanda Day, executive director of Bike/Walk Central Florida, a transportation advocacy and research group. “A lot of people don’t want to believe it, because it’s easier to say it’s someone else’s fault.”
McPherson says the average age of pedestrians struck and killed by cars is 50, and that one of the leading causes of their deaths is their own unsafe behavior, like crossing streets in the middle of traffic. “These aren’t little kids who haven’t learned to look both ways,” she says. “It’s adults. We need to help shift their mentality. Like, why not walk an extra block to the crosswalk?”
Distracted driving, thought to be the trigger for the recent uptick in traffic-related fatalities, also plays a part, and Florida has its own cultural divides in play. The state has a diverse mix of immigrant populations, with a similarly diverse mix of pedestrian behaviors, McPherson says, which don’t always align with local safety expectations.
Since 2011, the year of Smart Growth America’s first “Dangerous by Design” ranking—and the first time Florida found itself at the top—FDOT has launched a host of initiatives tackling the problem. It’s led targeted outreach programs in Florida cities with high pedestrian fatalities (including Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and Palm Beach), distributing fliers, buying radio and TV ads, and running on-the-street police officer interventions to spread safer driving and walking behaviors—all in multiple languages. A partnership with the road safety organization Safe Mobility For Life also targeted aging drivers across the state by offering safety checks for their vehicles, which included cleaning headlights and adjusting side-mirrors for maximum visibility.
But others say Florida’s traffic deaths are mostly a product of infrastructure, not behavior. “We’ve always had this culture of driving. We built these sprawling cities with lots of broad avenues for speeding traffic and not much thought for pedestrians,” Marsha Jenakovich, director of planning and special projects at South Florida’s Alliance for Aging, told the Miami Herald in 2015.
Change may be coming: In 2014, FDOT officially adopted a “Complete Streets” policy, with the intent to emphasize safety for all road users—including pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders—in designing new roads. In 2015, the state partnered with SGA to run a series of workshops with local regional governments, business groups, and safety advocates to start developing a statewide Complete Streets Handbook to guide future designs.
At the local level, a few Florida cities have also responded to high fatality rates with major road safety initiatives. Fort Lauderdale was the first city in the Southeast U.S. to hop on the Vision Zero bandwagon in 2015, pledging to end all road deaths by 2035. Orlando hasn’t officially signed on to the VZ platform, but since 2012 it’s also taken strides to protect peds through a partnership with the Central Florida safety coalition Best Foot Forward, which helps implement community education, ramped up enforcement techniques, and “low-cost engineering” like improved road stripes, lighting, and signage.
Something seems to be working there: The Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford metro saw a 10-point drop between 2014 and 2016—the biggest in the nation—in this year’s SGA report. (Fort Lauderdale’s improvement was marginal.) Other high-ranking cities are beginning to tackle their jarring death rates.
State-level efforts, while laudable, have produced few noticeable improvements so far. Pedestrian fatalities—along with road fatalities on the whole—are rising overall in Florida and nationwide. There’s no simple explanation or solution for these tragedies; the nascent Vision Zero movement has not yet reversed the tide of pedestrian and cyclist deaths, even in the city where it began. It would take years for “Complete Streets” initiatives like Florida’s to take effect, let alone have an effect, on these numbers. And autonomous vehicles—the promised remedy for road accidents caused by human error—remain years away. If cities and states don’t crack down even harder on reckless driving behaviors in the meantime, we might be in for a bloody road ahead.