Guest Op-Ed: Protecting Pedestrians, Our Most Vulnerable Road Users
February 11, 2022|David Schwebel, Ph.D, Associate Vice President for Research Facilities and Infrastructure, Office of Research, The University of Alabama at Birmingham
Our roads are filled with all kinds of users. We see trucks and cars, of course. We also see motorcycles, bicycles, and increasing numbers of e-bikes and scooters. But since the earliest days of transportation, one type of road user is oft forgotten: the pedestrian.
Most every trip starts and ends with a walk. Many of us walk from the front door to our driveway, or from parking lots to markets. Others walk from home to subway stations and bus stops. At some point in our days and weeks, nearly all of us engage with traffic as pedestrians. Pedestrians are among the roadway’s most vulnerable users. Stated bluntly, they are without the protection of a big metal vehicle. Thus, when struck by a two-ton vehicle in a crash, pedestrian injuries are serious.
Our country’s pedestrian mortality rates are rapidly increasing. CDC data reports that 6,681 American pedestrians were killed in 2019, 63 percent more than 10 years earlier. This isn’t a new problem. Over a century ago, William Phelps Eno grasped the plight of pedestrians, pioneering ideas like safety islands, crosswalks, and traffic speed enforcement. We must honor Eno’s legacy and continue to innovate in order to stop the pattern of increasing deaths.
To save our pedestrians, we must first understand who is being killed and why they are being killed. Certain types of pedestrians are especially vulnerable on the roadway. Children lack the cognitive sophistication of adults and therefore make mistakes on roadways. Disabled and elderly individuals may face diminished speed or agility, creating longer exposure when crossing the street. Drunk and drugged pedestrians suffer disproportionately also, having diminished judgment to protect themselves.
As to why pedestrians are being killed, multiple factors simultaneously contribute. First, vehicle designs have changed. Taller vehicles like SUVs, minivans, and trucks offer safety benefits to their passengers, but can be deadly to pedestrians, both because trucks and SUVs have dangerous blind spots in front of their hood and given the gruesome physics of taller vehicles striking bodies differently than traditional cars. Second, more people are walking. Public health campaigns to encourage walking and running have flourished, creating opportunities for better health outcomes but also placing more pedestrians at risk of crashes through simple numerical increases in exposure to traffic. Third, both pedestrians and drivers are distracted by omnipresent smartphones. Without eyes, ears, and brains on the road, crashes occur.
Has COVID changed this? It seems doubtful. Many sources show that driving speeds increased during the pandemic, including my own research examining the issue in Ohio. Others suggest pedestrian engagement increased in many (but not all) cases. Habits persist, and our post-COVID world seems likely to retain fast driving and community walking habits.
In the short-term, policy and practice must address the challenges of pedestrians sharing roads with vehicles. Traffic engineering and roadway designs must separate pedestrians from vehicles wherever possible, especially when the vehicles might travel quickly. Barriers segregating traffic from pedestrians, common in many Asian countries, are rarely seen in the United States. Pedestrian bridges over roadways, or tunnels under them, also safely separate vulnerable pedestrians from deadly vehicles and are much more common abroad.
Looking toward the future, we must also consider how automated vehicles interact with pedestrians. As exemplified by the 2018 fatal pedestrian crash with an autonomous vehicle in Phoenix, a long-term concern is the engineering of self-driving vehicles. Will they recognize and avert children, who are shorter, more impulsive, and less predictable near roadways compared to adults? Will they safely handle disabled pedestrians using wheelchairs, walkers, or crutches? Can they be programmed to negotiate the unpredictability of intoxicated pedestrians who may stumble, change directions, or even inexplicably stop on roadways? Legislation guiding the engineering and development of automated vehicles to negotiate the behavior of our roadways’ varied pedestrians is needed now to protect the pedestrians of our future.
I’ll conclude optimistically. The presence of pedestrians on our roadways is positive. Americans should enjoy and appreciate the outdoors. Strolls through urban landscapes to admire natural beauty, historical architecture, and the sights, sounds and smells of our neighborhoods are healthy experiences; such habits keep us healthier in body and spirit, and they build community.
But regular walking on our roadways will only emerge if pedestrians feel safe. And safety relies on the right decisions by policymakers, public health advocates, and relevant stakeholders. We must work together to reverse the disturbing trend of pedestrian mortality in our country and assure safety for all road users.
The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.