When a pedestrian death happens, multiple factors come into play. Too often, themes such as distracted or drunk driving rise to the top of our arguments while the built environment and prevailing car-centric culture are pushed to the side. Historically it seems that interventions to reduce pedestrian fatalities place the burden on the pedestrian themselves. Now, pedestrians can take the opportunity to participate and provide real feedback and show, from a pedestrians point of view, what’s really taking place throughout Arlington County. What a better time for a call to action, rather than simply spreading a message, than during Pedestrian Safety Month.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has deemed October “Pedestrian Safety Month.” Raising awareness of steps that drivers and pedestrians can take to ensure everyone’s safety in theory is a commendable idea. Education, in fact, is one of the key pillars of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) work. The only problem with NHTSA’s campaign is that they forgot that safety is not solely a burden on pedestrians. This is an issue which has been called out in recent years by the Columbia Journalism Review, and will most likely continue in a car-dominated culture. I’m not going to go into detail about the specific case here- but Streetsblog went on an NHTSA mythbusting spree and I encourage you to check it out.
The Math is Simple: More People + More Cars = More Pedestrian Deaths
In a 2019 Crash fact sheet, NHTSA states that:
- More people are moving to Cities- urban population increased by 13% from 2008 to 2017, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.
- More cars are on the road- urban Vehicle Miles Traveled increased by 14% since 2009.
- More pedestrians are dying- pedestrian fatalities have increased in urban areas by 69% since 2009.
The trend is staggering, and while a tremendous number of factors are in play during each crash, Public Service Announcements tend to pick statistics to make an easy and relatable point. For instance the CDC notes that 2,841 people were killed in 2018 by distracted drivers and in 2017, 47% of pedestrians killed were the result of drunk drivers. While the stats are real, the problem with centering messages around these issues is that they ignore the simple dangers of our built environment. We’re living in a car-centric world that makes it extremely dangerous for those not inside a 4,000-pound vehicle.
While education and outreach is a small yet crucial step in reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries, awareness campaigns must be supplemented by infrastructure changes and action if the numbers are ever going to decrease.
Public Service Announcements Didn’t Protect Me
The problem with being a pedestrian is you can do everything right and still suffer the consequences of a car-dominated world. I’ve been told to look both ways when I cross the street since I was a child, and guess what, I still do. But like many others, I’ve personally experienced the trauma of pedestrian traffic violence first-hand. Just one year ago on a weekend trip to New York City, my girlfriend and I were walking along the street on our way to grab some world-famous bagels before heading back to D.C. We never got to eat those bagels because a driver decided to make a left turn on red while the pedestrian crosswalk was on, tossing my girlfriend into the air before speeding away. Just another hit-and-run in NYC.
Miraculously, my girlfriend got up without any serious injuries, but that’s not the case for the 6,590 pedestrians who lost their lives in 2019. Ironically the hit-and-run occurred just one month after New York City Mayor de Blasio released his city’s 2019 “Borough Pedestrian Safety Plan.” We were told at the hospital that the cops would surely take this seriously since the city was really trying to “crack down” on these crashes. Well, the police never caught the driver, but they did however find the car, abandoned mere hours later.
The reason I bring up this story is not for the incident itself, terrifying and bizarre as it was, but for the behavior change it sparked since the crash. Experiencing an event such as this opens your eyes to the world around you, I now am not only a more cautious driver around areas I know to be frequented by pedestrians, I am a more observant pedestrian. No number of Public Service Announcements or traffic safety awareness campaigns would have affected this much change in my behavior instantaneously.
Sure enough, this mental shift seems to ring true for others. In a recent survey conducted in part by the National Safety Council, 61% of respondents claimed that “being involved in an automobile accident with injuries” would ultimately be the factor that would dissuade them from using their phones while driving. Waiting for tragedy should not be the factor that shifts behavior.
Building upon these lived experiences and learning from people who may spot unique issues in their community is one tactic that planners can use to implement real and lasting change. The great news is that right now, Arlington’s Vision Zero team is doing just that.
Giving Pedestrians a Voice in Arlington
Between 2017 and 2019 there was a total of 178 serious or fatal crashes in Arlington County, according to County data. Of those crashes reported, pedestrian crashes comprised over half (54%) of all fatal crashes. As part of Arlington’s Vision Zero planning efforts to combat this growing problem, and to build upon the crash dataset, community engagement is currently taking place to learn more about everyday experiences while walking, biking, and driving around Arlington. As the County states “staff have completed analysis of crash reports, and we’ve learned a lot about where and how these collisions occur. But we know it is not the whole story. To take action on safety issues before crashes occur, we need to hear from the people who use our transportation network every day.” After the feedback period has ended, a Draft Action Plan is anticipated to be complete by January 2021, with a fully public Final Action Plan by Summer 2021.
Everyday people like myself who’ve perhaps experienced a close call, witnessed a crash, or generally kept a keen eye out for safety issues, have made their voices heard already. After taking a short survey, the user gains access to the interactive map, pictured below, where they can pinpoint problem areas.
Just by glancing at the color breakdown you can see trends appearing. On North Pershing Drive, excessive speeding has been noted along the entirety of the street. Just a few years ago a new stop sign, and later a full traffic light were placed here to mitigate speeding, but through every day lived experience, local residents still believe there is a major problem.
In South Arlington, a heavily trafficked area where bikes, cars and pedestrians cross paths multiple times has also drawn criticism for speeding, a lack of stopping in crosswalks, and obstructed views for pedestrians and cars alike.
I know what it’s like to experience a violent traffic event first-hand, and to see this amount of community input at so many intersections across the County not only makes me hurt for others who may have been a part of similar events and now get to witness our world through a hyper-aware lens, but also gives me hope that the community recognizes these problem areas and is actively asking for help.
Crash statistics and data can only tell us so much, it is the lived and human experience on each and every street that’s important to study if we want a world where there are zero pedestrian deaths. Traffic calming measures and new infrastructure have a better chance of being put in place if the community speaks up and adds experience to data. The interactive portal is open until October 30th – please use your voice, be an active part of the public and ask for service.