Thousands of pedestrians die each year. It doesn’t have to be that way

Remember when you were a kid and were taught how to safely cross a busy street? A lot of adults seem to have forgotten.

We talk a lot about driver behavior around here. Earlier this month, an AAA survey of drivers confirmed what we could’ve assumed: Virtually everyone knows that activities like driving aggressively or texting are dangerous, but many admit to doing these things anyway. We’re always looking for insights into why U.S. traffic fatalities have increased and are expected to get even worse.

But we don’t talk nearly as much about pedestrian behavior — and one in six of those traffic deaths is a pedestrian.

The behavior I’ve witnessed just in the past week:

  • I was leaving a parking lot at night, waiting to turn left onto a four-lane street. Just as a break in traffic opened up, a gray-haired woman in her 60s or 70s emerged from the darkness and inexplicably decided to run, literally run, in front of the car. She was wearing a black coat. At least she was fast: Two seconds slower and we’d both have had a bad evening.
  • There’s a young man who walks up and down the steep hill into my neighborhood at night. He’s there often, so I’m on the lookout for him. The road is narrow, has switchbacks and guardrails, no streetlights, and a ditch but no shoulder. He wears dark clothes, always with a hood pulled over his head. As cars approach, he steps up the muddy embankment to avoid them.
  • On literally the bright side, a family in the neighborhood takes regular nighttime strolls. Four of them, all in reflective vests. Their togetherness is cute, and they give off an impressive glow.

Pedestrian fatalities have been trending upward a long time — since 2009. Pedestrian fatalities in 2021 were up 13% over the year before, outpacing the 10.5% overall increase in traffic fatalities. Pedestrian deaths last year (7,432 souls) surpassed motorcyclist deaths (6,101), and to a surprising degree, bicyclist deaths (985).

Three-quarters of pedestrian deaths occur in a location other than an intersection – where a driver is at higher speeds and would least expect to encounter someone walking. Similarly, three-quarters of fatal accidents occur at night. In 32% of fatal crashes, the pedestrian had a blood-alcohol level exceeding 0.08% — too impaired to drive, or to make coherent decisions on foot, evidently. In 10% of pedestrian fatalities, the driver was drunk.

People cross streets while staring at phones, or wearing earbuds, or otherwise distracted. You may have seen our post a couple of months back showing this scary near-miss in a California crosswalk. The driver in the video is likely to blame in the eyes of the law for blowing through the intersection – but that’s not to say the distracted father herding the kids is blameless. 

It may be a cultural thing here in the Pacific Northwest where people are indirect in their dealings with each other, but pedestrians entering a crosswalk here often don’t make eye contact with drivers. (How are pedestrians where you live? Let us know in the comments.) It’s as if they themselves have never driven a car. They’ll just step on out, expecting cars will stop.

Sure, a pedestrian has right-of-way. But if you’re a pedestrian who’s dead, it’s a pyrrhic victory.

Flag on the play

Downtown Kirkland, Wash., is lined with shops and restaurants where two arterials intersect. It’s filled with crosswalks along the lakeshore and, particularly in summer, foot traffic. After a couple of fatalities in the early 1990s, the city set up a simple system — dispensers containing brightly colored flags pedestrians can carry in a crosswalk to increase visibility. You may have seen these in other towns. They’re now installed at 90 crosswalks throughout Kirkland.

I’ve lived in or near Kirkland for decades, and I love the flags. They’re a simple, low-cost, voluntary public safety solution. (Their only downside: People swipe the flags. Who knows why.) Kids are taught in school to use the flags, and it’s always fun to watch them enthusiastically waving the things in a crosswalk. A Norman Rockwell moment.

But what’s puzzling is how many adults don’t bother to grab a flag (as in the photo up top). In an attempt to quantify that, I headed downtown one afternoon to lurk by crosswalks, and the results were shocking: More than 100 pedestrians crossed without grabbing a flag. There were a half-dozen jaywalkers. Nobody was on their phone, but few were making eye contact with drivers. Mostly their eyes were downcast – ah, that Christmas spirit.

The flag dispensers used to have signs (shown in this photo from the EPA) that tallied how many accidents had occurred without flags (many) vs. when the flags were in use (zero). An employee in the city’s engineering department told me it had been years since they compiled fresh data, so the signs came down. Too bad, they made a compelling argument. But it’s a no-brainer: More visibility means less risk.

This commentary on Bloomberg a few years ago from someone who lives in New York was critical of the flag programs in little old Kirkland and elsewhere, saying a flag “only increases the sense that being a person on foot is somehow weird or embarrassing.” Really? People don’t use the flags because they don’t want to look weird or embarrassed? You’d feel a lot more embarrassed getting run over.

Changes are coming

If a simple flag on a stick is too horrible to contemplate, then maybe you’d like to rely on complex engineered solutions instead. You’re probably already aware that tall pickups and SUVs have made it harder for a driver to see pedestrians. it’s why Sen. Richard Blumenthal is spearheading a call for forward-facing cameras; why automakers have developed pedestrian crash avoidance systems; and why the insurance industry now tests the new tech’s efficacy. And late-model vehicles have thick A-pillars, a safety enhancement in a rollover but a big blind spot. (Toyota and JLR were working on “see-through” A-pillars years ago; that’s tech we’d love to see … or not see.)

These visibility limitations are among the reasons the safety flags are so helpful to drivers.

Hoboken, N.J., was highlighted on National Public Radio awhile back for increasing pedestrian safety – for example, using bollards to block parking near the margins of a crosswalk and improve sight lines. Hoboken, Kirkland, and other cities nationwide are creating roadway changes in accordance with the Vision Zero Network and the Safe System approach being implemented by the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of the Biden administration’s infrastructure package. These programs are modeled on successful safety programs in Sweden and the Netherlands. The “zero” in Vision Zero stands for zero traffic deaths, and Hoboken hasn’t had any in four years.

One tenet of these programs is to build infrastructure that better separates road users and makes allowances for human error – if you make a mistake, it doesn’t have to be fatal. But implementing them will take years, and meanwhile mistakes can be deadly. So, to review what we learned as children:

  • Make yourself visible. Don’t wear dark clothes, especially at night.
  • Don’t jaywalk or otherwise be in the road when not at a crosswalk.
  • Don’t cross against the light. If you think you’re running late now, imagine how late you’ll be when dead.
  • Drunk driving is bad, and the stats show drunk walking has its own risks.
  • Take children or the elderly by the hand as you cross.
  • And of course: Look both ways. Before entering a crosswalk, make eye contact and even exchange a wave with drivers to confirm they see you. Both you and the driver will be glad you did.

Back to my flag-counting outing: As I was driving away, a woman approached a flag holder. Finally! I stopped the car, we made eye contact and exchanged nods, and she carried the flag across and placed it in the holder on the other side. Perfectly executed. She looked smart, not weird or embarrassed at all.