Pedestrian Fatalities on the Rise: What Do We Do?

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) recently released 2018 data on pedestrian traffic fatalities by state, and the numbers were sobering. Since reaching a low of 4,109 fatalities in 2009, the national total has climbed back up to 6,227. The report notes that 2018 is projected to see the highest number of pedestrian fatalities since 1990.

In Missouri, that translated to 44 pedestrian fatalities, a 5% increase from the same period in 2017. In Kansas, 16 people were killed, which represents a 33% increase.

In an interview with Streetsblog, GHSA spokesman Jonathan Adkins said, “The report is an urgent wake up call that pedestrian safety needs to be a top priority. Significant infrastructural improvements are needed as is focused-enforcement of traffic laws.”

What’s going on? In addition to the general data, GHSA examined the fatalities through the lens of numerous crash factors, including:

  • Population – GHSA evaluated fatalities by state per 100,000 population. Kansas (1.17) and Missouri (1.65) fall in the middle in terms of the rate of fatalities. For reference, New Mexico (3.53) had the highest fatality rate, while Minnesota (0.75) had the lowest.
  • Light Level – GHSA also examined the amount of light when a crash took place. Overwhelmingly, the vast majority (75%) of crashes that took a pedestrian’s life took place at night. This is evidenced locally by a crash on Saturday, February 9 that killed an unidentified man on Bannister Road and Parkwood Avenue.
  • Location – The report also noted that “the largest category of roads on which pedestrian fatalities occurred in 2017 was local streets followed by state highways.” On local streets, the vast majority of those crashes (72%) happened away from the intersection. We have seen this recently with the death of a three-year-old boy on Wednesday, March 20.
  • Alcohol and Other Drugs – The report notes that alcohol impairment, “for drivers or pedestrians, was reported in about half of traffic crashes that resulted in fatalities in 2017.” We find this analysis problematic because it opens the door to blaming pedestrians for their own demise, and that shouldn’t be the case.
  • Vehicle Type – The report notes that while passenger vehicles account for a larger number of pedestrian deaths, “the number of pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs increased at a greater rate”, 50%. Locally, this occurred last year when Haley Hackett was struck and killed by an SUV at the intersection of 43rd and Main.

While the factors and data may seem a world away, the truth is that many of them are the same reasons we continue to see death and destruction on our own streets.

All of this brings us to the obvious question: what do we do?

  • Analyze – The data produced by this report is valuable, but policymakers in the city and throughout the region need better, more localized data to have a clearer picture of where this is happening. Analyzing crash locations can help us to see what streets and what intersections are the most dangerous and can allow us to concentrate our resources in a more effective way. This has been a pillar of other cities that adopt policies such as Vision Zero.
  • Invest – Beyond the data itself, elected officials throughout the metro need to invest in projects and plans that will guide development of the built environment in a way that prioritizes safety, not efficiency. One way we can do this in Kansas City is by investing in an update of our walkability plan, which hasn’t been updated since 2003.
  • Change – Pedestrians should never be blamed for their own deaths. The City of KCMO recently updated some of its own traffic definitions to change their wording of these incidents from “accidents” to “crashes”. Policies and projects are important; how we think about and discuss these crashes are important as well.

BikeWalkKC wants to make this clear: the narrative that crashes like these are unpredictable and unavoidable is false. How we design and build our streets determines how people of all transportation modes use them. We have the tools and knowledge to make them safer, but we currently lack the will and focus to act on it. It is convenient to dismiss these incidents as “accidents”, but we must acknowledge that our policy and infrastructure choices create the conditions that allow these tragedies to occur. We owe it to each other, who are all pedestrians at one time or another, to devote the tools, support, and leadership necessary to make our streets safer for everyone.

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