What’s behind Virginia’s increasing pedestrian death toll and how to reverse the trend

By: - October 27, 2020 12:03 am

A pedestrian crosses Broad Street in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

On Thursday evening, friends and family were at the intersection of Jahnke and German School roads on Richmond’s Southside to mourn the loss of 16-year-old Aajah Rosemond, who was killed by a driver while walking to the store.

According to police, a collision with a GMC Yukon sent a roughly 6,000 pound Nissan Titan spiraling up and onto the sidewalk, fatally striking the teenager. The evening news tells such tales with disturbing regularity, a product of Virginia’s rapidly rising pedestrian death rate. However, what’s behind the spike and how to fix it are questions without simple answers.

A terrible trend

Over the past half century, Virginia and the rest of the country have generally enjoyed a steady decline in traffic deaths. While fatalities have reached record lows for drivers, starting 10 years ago, however, that trend began to reverse for people outside of a vehicle. “During the 10-year period from 2009 to 2018, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 53 percent (from 4,109 deaths in 2009 to 6,283 deaths in 2018),” stated a recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. “By comparison, the combined number of all other traffic deaths increased by 2 percent.”

According to Mark Cole, a highway safety engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation, pedestrian deaths truly began to shoot up in the state four years ago. “Prior to 2016 Virginia was seeing about 80-100 pedestrian deaths per year. Then in 2016 we saw a big jump to over 120,” he said. In 2018, there were 123 pedestrian fatalities, an increase of nearly 8 percent from the year before, according to the DMV.

Last year, 126 pedestrians and 13 bicyclists were killed on Virginia’s roads, the nonprofit Drive Smart Virginia reported. Nationwide, the number of people killed while walking hit a  30-year high and roads have only gotten more dangerous as some driving during the pandemic took empty streets as a chance to speed. Although some initially blamed the proliferation of smartphones, the past decade of data has shown the roots of the rising fatalities run far deeper.

Bigger, deadlier vehicles

One of the most obvious answers behind the jump in pedestrian deaths are the types of vehicles hitting people. “It is hard to overemphasize just how suddenly and completely [SUV] crossovers have come to dominate the auto market in recent years,” wrote Angie Schmitt, a planning consultant with 3MPH, in her recent book: Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. “When the economy was still recovering from a recession, in 2012, 83 percent of vehicles sold in the United States were sedans.”

As wages rose and gas prices dropped, however, Americans increasingly began purchasing SUVs and heavy-duty trucks. “Now almost no sedans are being sold, and the whole market is trucks and SUVs,” she said in an interview. “That means cars are getting bigger, taller and deadlier.”

From his work mapping and analyzing crash data with VDOT, Cole agrees with the diagnosis: “The vehicle fleet has been changing over time with SUVs and trucks becoming the greater proportion of the fleet that’s on the road. We’ve seen an increased number of those types of vehicles involved in crashes too. SUVs and pickups which have a higher center of gravity and higher weight result in more serious crashes.”

When drivers in a sedan run into someone, that person is more likely to fly up onto the hood, an occurrence with a far higher survival rate than when someone is run over. With many SUV and truck grills now reaching as high as five feet, it’s nearly impossible for pedestrians not to be pushed under the vehicle. The data bear this out: “One hundred percent of pedestrians in SUV collisions at speeds of 40 mph or greater died, versus 54 percent who were struck by cars.”

Melicent Miller, a project manager with the state Department of Health’s Virginia Walkability Action Institute, acknowledges the increased danger posed by this bigger fleet: “There are some really monstrous vehicles on the streets. The odds of someone surviving contact with an SUV or a truck is much lower than when someone gets hit by a sedan.”

Pushing poverty to the suburbs

Who pedestrians are and where they’re walking are also driving pedestrian fatalities to record highs. According to the Department of Motor Vehicles the number of individuals 65 and older killed while walking is up 95 percent over 2018 alone. Seniors have always made up one of the highest risk groups to be run over by drivers, and as the Baby Boomer generation ages, the number of those most vulnerable has multiplied.

The other factor influencing the rising pedestrian death rate is the displacement of the urban poor to the suburbs. As wealthier Whites return to city centers, Black and brown communities with lower rates of vehicle ownership are being pushed into suburban sprawl often characterized by 45 mile-per-hour speed limits, lack of sidewalks and eight-lane arterial roads.

“Between 2010 and 2015, about half the growth in poverty took place in U.S. suburbs, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison,” wrote Schmitt. “In the United States today, more than three million more people are living in poverty in suburbs than in cities. These places and their streets, almost without exception, were not designed to accommodate people walking or relying on transit.”

94 percent human error

America’s changing vehicle fleet and shifting demographics aren’t responsible for the entirety of the tragic trend. “It’s not always easy to put your finger on what causes a crash because they reflect a lot of structural issues like land use and how a road is designed but they also bring in human behavior,” Cole said. “The majority of crashes we’ve seen involve human error.”

DOTs and traffic safety campaigns often note that 94 percent of all crashes are due to human error; however, a growing coterie of city planners and urbanists are increasingly pushing back on that claim as an out for engineers to place the blame on victims of traffic collisions rather than fixing the infrastructure and design failures that cause crashes to be so deadly.

In a recent interview, Leah Shahum — director of the Vision Zero Network, which is pushing to eliminate traffic fatalities — said, “We need to debunk the 94 percent myth because it detracts focus from the actual risk factors that are most deadly, such as poorly designed roads and dangerously high speed limits. This myth keeps communities from implementing effective policy and design solutions, which is literally killing people, especially our most vulnerable road users, including children, seniors, people with vision impairments and those walking and biking.”

When explaining the growing disparities in death rates, Schmitt points to the different attention paid to making roads safe for drivers versus ensuring that people on foot can safely get where they need to go. “If you’re on a highway you can count on everything you need to be safe like guardrails and good lighting to be there. On our local and arterial roads a lot of the things needed to keep pedestrians safe like guard rails and curb ramps are missing.”

The engagement of public health officials has helped to strengthen this approach to the problem. “One of the central tenets of Vision Zero is that humans are fallible and are going to make mistakes, but we can use that information to plan for human error,” said Sarah Shaughnessy, the built environment & health specialist for the Richmond City Health District. “We are smart enough that we should be able to put policies and infrastructure in place to account for that.”

A long to-do list

The skyrocketing pedestrian death rate over the last four years doesn’t mean Virginia officials have been sitting on their hands. “There are certain ways VDOT impacts this trend like our construction and maintenance programs, and there are certain ways we don’t,” said John Bolecek, VDOT’s bicycle and pedestrian program manager. “Every way in which we interact with this issue something has changed to improve it.”

A new LED lighting policy has made it cheaper to keep streets well-lit — a critical enhancement since 75 percent of all pedestrian deaths occur at night. A crash-mapping project begun several years ago has also borne fruit: “We learned that the majority of deaths almost always occur when a pedestrian is crossing the road, but we don’t do a good job as a state, as VDOT, and as a society in providing safe crossing infrastructure for pedestrians,” Cole said.

Although Virginia hasn’t fully embraced Vision Zero and its goal of zero traffic fatalities as the guiding principle of its transportation planning, VDOT’s most recent Strategic Highway Safety Plan — Arrive Alive —comes close. The two year old Pedestrian Safety Action Plan is another VDOT tool meant to guide the commonwealth’s cities and counties to invest more in pedestrian safety.

When localities take pedestrian deaths seriously and apply for VDOT funding to fix bad infrastructure, Bolecek has seen dramatic results: “In Northern Virginia alone over the past five years they’ve built out over 200 miles of bike lanes, often via road diets which have also turned center lanes into pedestrian refuges. That’s added a lot of crosswalks and moved bus stops to better locations.”

Recent pushes to lower speed limits and implement handsfree bans may help, but lacking infrastructure is such a localized problem that Schmitt advises communities to conduct pedestrian safety audits to identify and address unsafe streets. Shaughnessy’s office often helps Richmond residents invite key stakeholders like city council members, police officers and public works officials to walk with residents and then packages that information for grants to fix the problems found.

With so much of the problem beyond the power of local and even state governments, Schmitt hopes that a new presidential administration next year could begin to tackle the epidemic of pedestrian deaths at the federal level too by dedicating more dollars to pedestrian safety and by introducing stricter vehicle safety guidelines. 

“Pedestrian detection and automatic braking have reduced insurance claims for pedestrian crashes by 35 percent, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration currently doesn’t require car companies to install those technologies, which limits how effective and widespread those are,” Schmitt said. “The U.S. government regulates vehicles for all kinds of safety issues like air bags and auto-lock brakes, but none of those things protect folks outside of the vehicle; they only protect drivers.”

CORRECTION: Mark Cole works for the Virginia Department of Transportation. This story has been update to reflect that correction. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.