The tragedy of pedestrian deaths is disproportionately falling upon people of color, people from lower-income communities and older adults, according to a new report released by urban planning nonprofit Smart Growth America.
The Dangerous by Design 2021 report, released in March, found that from 2010 to 2019 the number of people struck and killed while walking in the U.S. increased by an astounding 45 percent and that the latter four years (2016-2019) were the deadliest years for pedestrian deaths since 1990.
All told, 53,435 people were hit and killed by drivers this past decade, according to the report. Pennsylvania accounted for 1,575 of the fatalities, and New Jersey accounted for 1,598. That translates to an annual average of 1.2 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people in Pennsylvania, and 1.8 fatalities per 100,000 people in New Jersey. The national average was 1.6 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people, according to the report.
Most recently, in 2019, 6,237 pedestrians died nationwide, which is the equivalent of more than 17 people dying per day, according to the report. The previous year was even deadlier, with 6,283 pedestrian fatalities in 2018. There were 6,075 pedestrian fatalities in 2017 and 6,080 in 2016, according to the report.
But beyond the shocking death toll, the report lays bare socioeconomic inequities as to who is most likely to fall victim to a fatal accident while simply out for a walk.
The report found that from 2010 to 2019, Black people were struck and killed by drivers at an 82 percent higher rate than white, non-Hispanic Americans. For American Indian and Alaska Native people, that disparity skyrocketed to 221 percent.
The report blamed structural racism in policy and funding decisions as having perpetuated these disparities. It also noted that implicit bias may play a role, citing to research by the University of Nevada which found that drivers are significantly more likely to yield to a white pedestrian in a crosswalk than to a Black pedestrian.
According to the report, low-income communities bear the brunt of pedestrian fatalities, as they are significantly less likely to have sidewalks, marked crosswalks and street design to support safer, slower speeds.
The report states that in the past decade communities with median household income between $2,500 and $41,000, saw close to three pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people, significantly above the national average of 1.6. Communities with median household income between $41,000 and $53,000 also ranked above the national average with just under two pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people. But circumstances improved when median household income increased to the $53,000 to $66,500 range, as pedestrian fatalities dropped under the national average, but were still above one fatality per 100,000 people. When median household income further increased to the $66,500 to $90,000 range, fatalities dropped even lower, but again remained above one fatality per 100,000 people. Wealthier communities with a median household income between $90,000 and $250,000 were by far the safest to walk in, with less than one pedestrian fatality per 100,000 people.
Older adults ― who may experience challenges seeing, hearing or moving ― are disproportionately killed while walking, according to the report. The most vulnerable seniors were people between ages 50 and 65, and people over age 75, with both groups ranking between two and three pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people. (Again, the national average is 1.6 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people.) The report noted that the U.S. Census Bureau projects that one in five Americans will be over age 65 in 2030 and stressed that greater attention needs to be paid to older adults when designing streets.
Persons under age 19 were the only age group to fall below the national average for pedestrian fatalities, with less than one fatality per 100,000 people. The groups for ages 20 to 49 and ages 65 to 74 both experienced pedestrian fatalities at a rate slightly above the national average.
The report recommends six design elements that can improve roadway safety for pedestrians. They are:
Feldman Shepherd attorneys John M. Dodig and Jason A. Daria recommend contacting a motor vehicle accident attorney as soon as possible in all cases where a pedestrian accident results in serious injury or death so that a full investigation can be promptly commenced.
“The success of a motor vehicle accident lawsuit often hinges upon diligent investigation and preparation, and there is a limited window of opportunity to gather and assess evidence at the accident site and interview witnesses before memories fade,” Daria said.
Dodig and Daria said there are a number of parties who could potentially bear legal liability for pedestrian accidents. They include all drivers, as well as parties responsible the evaluation, design, construction, maintenance and repairs of the roadway.
Legal claims may be based upon:
Also, legal claims may arise from failure to fix dangerous roadway conditions and to implement safety improvements following repeated, fully preventable tragedies.
“Regardless of their socioeconomic status, pedestrians have an absolute right to expect that roadway conditions in areas where they might foreseeably be expected to walk do not cause or contribute to a crash. There is simply no excuse for dangerously designed roadways,” Dodig said.
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