just asking questions

Why Pedestrian Deaths Are Skyrocketing in America

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The number of people killed while driving in America has ticked up since the beginning of the pandemic, but is still in line with totals from ten years ago — and significantly down from the 1990s and earlier. But walking around on America’s streets has gotten much more dangerous over the last decade, with deaths almost doubling in that time. The bloody trend only worsened in 2022, per a new Governors Highway Safety Association report that found pedestrian deaths at a 40-plus-year high. Meanwhile, many other high-income countries significantly curbed pedestrian deaths over the same period. Why is America accelerating in the wrong direction as its peers tap the brakes? I spoke with Yonah Freemark, senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, who described a perfect storm of policy failure and cultural preference — but who remains optimistic about the road ahead.

More than 7,500 pedestrians died in the U.S. during 2022. I just want to quote from the website Streetsblog here: “If that estimate sticks, U.S. walkers will have experienced a stunning 77 percent increase in deaths since 2010, rising at a rate more than three times faster than the rest of the traveling public, for whom fatalities increased 25 percent over the same period.” I know there are a lot of theories on why this is happening. How do you explain it?
My view is that what we’re seeing in the United States is a unique combination of a few different trends. I don’t think we can point to any one explanation, but when we put all these factors together, I think we get a good sense of what’s going on.

No. 1 is that we have an infrastructure system that continues to be designed to essentially make streets very dangerous for pedestrians. That’s particularly true in what are called suburban arterials — large boulevards or streets that are built in suburban areas, often without sidewalks, often without crosswalks, but which are not interstate highways. They’re large roads that are extremely dangerous for pedestrians, and yet pedestrians are on them because they need to cross them.

And these are more common in more newly developed places like Florida and Arizona, right?
That’s exactly right. One of the things you might have noticed in the data on per capita pedestrian deaths is that they’re highest in a lot of the southern and western states, where, interestingly, there probably is actually less walking than in places like New York State, Massachusetts, or Illinois. And I think what’s going on there is the fact that so much of the development in a lot of these states has been relatively recent, and so much of that development has involved very large, automobile-dominated streets where pedestrians are off limits. So that’s one explanation. I think a second explanation that has become increasingly obvious is the rise of SUVs and generally heavy vehicles that are incredibly fatal when they hit pedestrians.

That’s one that makes a lot of sense to me — the numbers are clear on it.
Absolutely. We have seen cars rise in weight by a third since the 1980s. And not only that, but we’ve also seen, as you probably know, the hoods of these vehicles go up tremendously. The best-selling vehicle in the United States is a Ford F-150, and its hood is about 55 inches tall. That has a terrible effect on visibility, making it very difficult for people who are driving these cars to see.

But it also means that people who are struck by these vehicles are struck in a worse place, which is to say it’s much better if you have to be hit by a car to be hit in the legs than it is to be hit in the chest or the head if you want to survive. And as a result of the rise of these SUVs with large hoods, we’re just seeing a lot more people getting hit in a bad way and a lot more fatalities as a result of that.

European pedestrian deaths have been declining for years, but aren’t a lot of people also driving big cars there, even if they don’t have the American obsession with trucks and SUVs?
Two things are worth keeping in mind. One is that the average vehicle for sale in the European Union is one-quarter less heavy than the weight of new American cars. Significantly less heavy. The second is that there has been a rise in what Europeans refer to as SUVs. But I want to be really clear about the difference between their SUVs and our SUVs, or our trucks. The best-selling SUV in France is a car called the Peugeot 2008. And the total height of that car is 61 inches — so just six inches taller than the hood of the F-150.

So the scale of the vehicles in the United States is just massively different in terms of their hood heights than what you see in European countries. The design of European cars also has to go through more rigorous pedestrian safety rules than in the U.S., where we have no rules about pedestrian safety at all. So you have new cars in Europe that have hoods that are designed not to kill pedestrians, but to essentially save the pedestrians’ lives when they’re hit by them. And we have no such requirements in the United States.

Do you see any progress on that — any sign that government regulations might tighten up here? I know the big infrastructure bill that passed in 2021 had some incentives to improve pedestrian safety. 
Yes, we’ve seen some indications from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the last few weeks that they want to start involving pedestrian safety in their requirements. And we have also seen the administration get some agreements from automakers that it’ll expand the amount of automated braking required as part of new cars in the coming years. However, I’m still very much concerned that because we have been selling such enormous and heavy vehicles over the last few decades, it’s going to be very difficult to counter that in the future. I don’t think we’re going to see the United States start banning F-150s. It’s just not likely to happen.

And even minor changes to safety regulations tend to run into opposition from state and local governments here in a way they may not in a place like the E.U.
Yes. One thing that I think is worth pointing out is that in the United States, we have essentially chosen to subsidize the purchase of heavy cars in two clear ways. One is that we have fuel-efficiency requirements that vary based on whether something is called a light truck or not. And that means essentially automakers are allowed to have less efficient cars if they use a light-truck platform to build those cars. And so essentially, customers are buying less efficient trucks and SUVs because the U.S. government has given them a free ride on it. There’s this idea that for some reason, SUVs should be able to get away with worse fuel efficiency. And then the second thing is that we’re providing enormous subsidies for electric vehicles, which is great as a shift to environmentally sustainable power trends, but electric vehicles are significantly heavier than gas-powered vehicles. So if we’re concerned about heavy cars, this is a major issue.

Have you seen any particularly promising initiatives at the state or local level? Because I know some places are actually paying attention to this stuff and building roundabouts and doing other traffic-easing measures.
The good news is that a lot of localities throughout the country have been talking about Vision Zero as a goal, which is to say their goal is to reduce the number of traffic fatalities on the street by 100 percent in the next decade. But I think it will be extremely difficult to reach that goal. And in some places, we seem to be going in the wrong direction.

But I would say that the basic elements of effective street design for pedestrians have gone from being a relatively niche knowledge type to one that is standard practice in local Departments of Transportation. I can tell you that from working in this field for 15 years — the mentality in local and state DOTs about what it means to plan for pedestrians has changed dramatically over that period. And the idea of reducing crossing distances, adding more crosswalks, ensuring that in some cases there’s a bulb-out for the crosswalk — these are ideas that ten years ago we’re at the margins of local government planning. And I think we are starting to see it become increasingly mainstream and I think that that’s a positive sign. Now, we’ve also seen some examples of cities, especially in northern New Jersey, Jersey City, and Hoboken, they’ve done a great job.

Who would’ve predicted that?
I’m sure that their local governments would have.

Fair. I’m just saying I didn’t expect the car-safety revolution to begin in New Jersey.
It’s an interesting situation where over the past decade or so, those communities have been totally transformed by new development in a similar way to Brooklyn — but like the whole city, not just a borough or a portion of a borough. And they had the opportunity of leveraging that new development to invest in really improved streetscapes all over those cities. They lowered speed limits and put in pedestrian zones that they have kept since the pandemic. And when you put those things together, I think it makes sense that they’ve been able to actually reduce traffic crashes to a large degree.

How important are speed limits in this equation?
The speed at which you’re hit is pretty much the No. 1 determinant of whether or not you die in a traffic collision when you’re a pedestrian. Being hit at 45 miles per hour puts you at terrible risk of death. And that is absolutely not the case if you’re hit at 20 miles per hour. I would also add, by the way, that we have 2.7 million injuries on our roadways every year. We’re talking about fatalities here; there are so many injuries as well.

Speed limits do not determine the speed of cars directly, and that’s worth keeping in mind here, which is to say just because you post the speed limit doesn’t mean people will actually follow the speed limit.

Yeah, they usually go a few above. The grace speed limit.
I think there are a few things worth keeping in mind. One is that evidence from research suggests that just lowering the speed limit by itself does have a measurable impact on reducing speeds. So there is some impact on people following the law. However, speed-limit reduction is more likely to be effective if you combine it with actual enforcement in the ways that we described, with speed cameras or with police stops, and if you have streets that are designed to encourage people to go slower. The thing about many of these large arterial suburban streets is that you could reduce the speed limit to 25 miles per hour, but they’re designed for people going 50. And that, essentially, is an enabling action.

It’s like a visual cue for you. This is what you’re meant to be doing.
A visual cue. And state DOTs, following federal practice, have for the last 70 years been doing as much as possible to clear the vision field in front of cars, with the idea that if you make the field of vision the drivers have in front of them as clear as possible, that will make the roadway safer. That was the concept, and that continues to be the concept. The problem with this is that by clearing the visual space in front of a vehicle — getting rid of trees along the side of a road, increasing lane width, reducing the tightness of curves — all those things are actually associated with drivers going more quickly. If drivers don’t see trees in front of them, have straight curves in front of them, have generous space along the side of streets, what they see is a faster roadway, and they’ll drive more quickly. So you can reduce the speed limit all you want, but in those circumstances, you really need to redesign the street as well to encourage slower speeds.

That makes me wonder about some of these newly developed places, because I’m assuming a lot of the arterial roads you mentioned were pretty recently designed. I wonder if there’s political will to do a redesign so soon after they were built.
I think there is absolutely no political will for significant suburban street retrofits in areas that have been newly developed. What we need is a lot of investment in suburban roadways that were built in the postwar period up to the 1970s or so. The people who live in those areas are more likely to be lower income, more likely to be people of color. They’re older suburban communities that are not on the up-and-up anymore. And those are the communities where people are experiencing high rates of traffic fatalities, where they lack access to sidewalks, don’t have access to crosswalks, and where I think we can make meaningful changes because they need to be redesigned anyway, whether for economic-development purposes or safety purposes.

Going back to hypotheses on what’s causing this: There’s also the rise of smartphones, though I’ve seen convincing pushback against the idea that they’re responsible for this, and of course smartphones aren’t limited to America. Neither are all the touchscreens in cars now. 
There’s a question of whether there are specifics about these information-system designs that may be different between countries. I’d say it’s a connected cause that would aggravate other factors.

Are there any other leading theories as to what’s happening? 
There’s reckless driving, which increased dramatically during the pandemic. We saw a lot more very high speeding occur during that period. And that’s connected to poor enforcement by police. Just to give you an example of that, I looked up Ohio as an example, and speed citations by police declined by 32 percent between 2019 and 2020.

I understood the spike in reckless driving in 2020, when the streets were emptier and people drove more recklessly because they could. But what I don’t really understand is the hangover into 2021 and 2022, when the roads went back to being just as crowded as they were before, and people were still driving in this messed-up way. That’s more of a psychological question, but it’s fascinating to me.
Exactly. I’m not a sociologist or a psychologist, so I don’t want to speak to that.

What I do know is that for some very reasonable reasons, we had the Black Lives Matter movement, which questioned the role of policing in traffic stops. And I can’t help but think that contributed to a decline in police citations. I know a lot about France because that’s where I do a lot of my research, and in France, there were 8 percent more traffic citations in 2021 compared to 2019. So this is not an international phenomenon. The lack of speed enforcement in the United States appears to be a United States issue that was a combination of BLM, the pandemic, and police just not caring or something, in general. So that to me seems huge.

And then the last area that I think is really key to this conversation is that automobile reliance has been exaggerated by the pandemic. If you look at rates of car use in the United States, they came back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021. We are still far below the use of public transportation in the United States compared to pre-pandemic. And so I think to some degree, we’re just seeing more people in vulnerable positions because they’re on the street either walking or in cars.

And the places that people have flocked to the most during this time — Texas, Florida, the Southwest, etc. — are the places that have these precarious roadway designs built into them.
Yes, it’s definitely worth pointing out that again, those same states with the highest pedestrian fatalities are the states that have had the highest growth rates over the past few years.

Europe’s pedestrian-death rates were similar, if not worse, to ours in the ’90s, and then they got serious about preventing them. Would it be fair to say that we’re experiencing the kind of mind-set change they did 20 years ago? Or is that too optimistic? 
I am heartened by the availability of data that makes the outlier nature of conditions in the United States extremely clear. The pedestrian-fatality crisis might not be common knowledge, but it’s in the policy discussion.

One statistic that I think is just really worth keeping in mind, that I’m not really sure people are aware of, is just the number of lives we could be saving if we had better pedestrian safety. If we had the pedestrian-fatality rate of a country like France, we could save 5,000 lives a year. That is an incredible opportunity to improve our country and ensure that more people are able to keep on living. And so I’m hopeful that that message can be made more popular. And I think the message is getting out there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why Pedestrian Deaths Are Skyrocketing in America