Some Perspective on Pedestrians

A recent report on traffic crashes, issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), set off alarm bells in our area. The Washington Post expressed its alarm in an article, Half of D.C. traffic fatalities were pedestrians, and an editorial, Pedestrian deaths show need to curb distracted walking.

We agree that pedestrian safety is an issue that deserves widespread attention and should continue to be the focus of engineering, enforcement and education efforts like the regional Street Smart Campaign. However, we also would like to offer a little perspective on the numbers.

The Post pointed out that the NHTSA report shows that of the 24 traffic fatalities in the District in 2010, 54% were pedestrians. That is an unusually high proportion, the highest in the nation apparently.

But are the streets of the District really getting more dangerous for pedestrians? What wasn’t highlighted in the coverage by the Post and other media outlets was that in 2010 the District had the lowest total number of traffic fatalities in history. The number of pedestrian deaths was also below the 5 year average (16 per year).

In reality, the number of fatal crashes involving pedestrians in the District is not going up, it’s going down. In 2011, there were 11 pedestrian fatalities in DC, the third lowest total ever recorded in the city, and this year, as of July 1, there have been only 3 pedestrian fatalities and a total of 8 traffic fatalities. Those are remarkable numbers and if our luck holds, we could see record lows in both categories in 2012.

These trends are very encouraging and we hope they show DDOT’s partnership with MPD to make our streets safer through improvements in the pedestrian environment, education, and enforcement is paying off. But we also know the pitfalls of gloating about statistics – they can always turn against you down the road. As we expand transportation options and have more people walking in biking, the number of collisions involving pedestrians can increase, even as the overall rate declines. And in the last three years, that’s exactly what we’ve seen: even though traffic fatalities are on the decline, total non-fatal crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists have increased.

We’ve still got work to do, and everyone has to do their part. Many people suspect that walking while distracted has contributed to the increase in collisions involving pedestrians, and common sense dictates you should pay full attention when you’re crossing the street. While “text walkers” have become a symbol of the multi-tasking age we live in, they can be a danger, particularly to themselves. Earlier this year a truck backed over a pedestrian who was wearing earphones and could not hear the vehicle’s warning beeps.

The largest category of pedestrian crashes in DC occurs when a pedestrian is in the crosswalk with the walk signal and is struck by a vehicle turning right or left. The driver has the legal responsibility to yield right of way to pedestrians, and more patience and caution behind the wheel could prevent many of these collisions. It’s also good practice for pedestrians to be “defensive” and not distracted by phones or music when crossing the street.

The bottom line is many pedestrian crashes are preventable, and while we’re encouraged to see the number of fatalities decline, what we really hope to celebrate in the not too distant future is a year without a single traffic fatality.

Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT Associate Director for Policy, Planning and Sustainability
George Branyan, DDOT Pedestrian Program Coordinator

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3 Responses to Some Perspective on Pedestrians

  1. Jack McKay says:

    The Post, as it does too often, published a scare-the-public article, implying a crisis when there is none. The ratio of pedestrian deaths to traffic deaths is increasing, yes, but only because occupants of cars are made increasingly safe due to automobile improvements, e.g., air bags, which protect the people in cars, but do nothing for pedestrians. Only the Post could take a safety improvement and make it sound fearful.

    As for the ratio here being higher than in any state — should we have to point out that DC, unlike any state, is totally urbanized? Comparing the statistics of this city to those of any state is nonsensical. Guess what, the pedestrian-to-total ratio is higher in the urbanized states — Massachusetts, New York — than in rural states, such as South Dakota. DC being totally urban, of course the ratio is high. What a revelation!

  2. If the ‘largest category’ of pedestrian crashes is caused by aggressive yielding by automobile drivers, this article should lead with that, rather than telling pedestrians to be defensive. Pedestrians should not tolerate aggressive, dangerous driving that goes unpoliced by the DC government, and you shouldn’t tell them to.

    • DDOT Blogger says:

      We certainly didn’t say or imply anyone should tolerate aggressive, dangerous driving. Encouraging pedestrians to be defensive for their own safety is entirely different.

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