A recent blogpost by the Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research charts out some recent trends in crash statistics. In general, US roads have been getting safer. But at the same time, as more cities encourage walking and biking, pedestrian and bicyclist crashes, injuries, and deaths have become a greater share of the whole than they used to be.
Here’s the chart:
Kinder’s Leah Binkovitz wrote about the findings, taken from Government Accountability Office (GAO) data. Here’s the punchline:
From 2004 to 2013, the number of total traffic fatalities in the U.S. actually declined. But according to the report, “this was not matched by a similar decline in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.” So, for example, pedestrian fatalities were 10.9 percent of all traffic deaths in 2004. By 2013, they represented 14.5 percent of traffic deaths. The proportion of cyclists’ deaths rose from 1.7 percent to 2.3 percent during that time. The percentage of injuries for both groups also increased.
Various transportation organizations have been updating design standards in recent years to prioritize pedestrian and bicyclist safety. Smart Growth America notes in its report, for example, that the Institute of Transportation Engineers created a guide to “walkable urban thoroughfares.” And the Federal Highway Administration added safer street crossing designs in its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The federal Department of Transportation has made safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities part of its policy. “Almost every transportation improvement is an opportunity to enhance the safety and convenience of walking and bicycling,” reads the policy.
Funding, however remains a persistent problem. Most pedestrian fatalities, some 68 percent between 2003 and 2012, occurred on roads funded at least in part by the federal government, according to Smart Growth America’s findings, and these roads followed federal design guidelines. At the same time, however, the report found that “less than one-half of one percent of all available federal safety related funds was obligated to projects that improve safety for people walking,” between 2009 and 2013.
The takeaway for me is that cities, and especially county and state DOTs, should put a lot more energy into thinking about non-motorized safety. That’s often a challenge for institutions that have spent to much time thinking primarily about traffic safety. And it’s particularly challenging because the solutions for these problems are often at odds. Automobile safety often depends on simplifying roads by making them wider, but non-motorized safety has to take the opposite approach.
The article doesn’t mention it, but another factor might be the increasingly troubling “distracted driving problem.”
I am not going to minimize the trend, but I do hope to add some context. We can start by converting percent of traffic fatalities to number of bicycle fatalities.
Year – Total traffic deaths – Bicycle % – Bicycle fatalities
2004 – 42,800 – 1.70% – 728
2005 – 43,500 – 1.81% – 787
2006 – 42,700 – 1.81% – 773
2007 – 41,300 – 1.70% – 702
2008 – 37,400 – 1.92% – 718
2009 – 33,900 – 1.85% – 627
2010 – 33,000 – 1.89% – 624
2011 – 32,500 – 2.10% – 683
2012 – 33,800 – 2.17% – 733
2013 – 32,700 – 2.26% – 742
I see two things happening – a simultaneous plunge in the number of traffic fatalities and number of bicycle fatalities, coinciding with the Great Recession, and a return of bicycle fatalities to baseline while traffic fatalities remained below their historic peak.
What are some possible explanatory factors? VMTs peaked in 2005 and by 2012 had fallen 9%. That should explain about half of the decline in total traffic fatalities.
What happened to BMTs over the same time period? As it turns out, bicycle miles are really hard to estimate. The League of American Cyclists estimates that bicycle commuting rates increased 62% from 2000 to 2013. Streetsblog also has a post (goo.gl/yHgJmc) with data (the provenance of which is unknown) showing a roughly 33% increase in cycle trips from 2001 to 2009. To my knowledge, all available data point to an increasing share of trips taken by bicycle during the time period in question.
Most likely you are absolutely right that distracted driving plays some role in the increase in cycling deaths. But the relative proportion of drivers and bicyclists on the road also carries explanatory weight. I don’t disagree with either of your conclusions, but it is very hard to decipher what the precise time trend in bicyclist injuries and fatalities is without additional information.
Ah, the data on bike trips per year from Streetsblog is from the National Household Travel Survey/National Personal Travel Survey.
We still have many more fatalities per mile travelled than other developed nations though. We are over three times as likely to be killed in a car per mile driven as someone in the UK, NL, NO, SE, and many others. We are about ten times as likely to be killed per mile ridden on a bicycle as someone in northern Europe. Why are our roads so much more dangerous?
Yes, absolutely. I would never argue that 750 bicycle fatalities per year is the “correct” number of deaths for our society. Just that it would be somewhat surprising if the number of bicycle trips increased, the number of auto trips decreased, and bicyclists didn’t increase as a share of traffic injuries and fatalities.
I think because we are such a car orientated society that as a whole we are not very skilled at being pedestrians. We are reading & texting while we wonder into traffic. Also our cities are designed for cars and not people.
Both good points Jaquelyn.
It’s hard to imagine the human species not being very skilled at being pedestrians: we have been pedestrians for 100,000 years, since we began.
Maybe it’s that we have created a car-oriented society and aren’t very good at being drivers?
I guess I’m not a fan of blaming the victim; people walking don’t kill themselves.
Point two, yes. Point one is simple victim blaming. We are not very skilled at operating dangerous heavy machinery like cars. Distracted driving is the real issue, not distracted walking.
Reality check: very few pedestrian (and certainly cyclist) deaths can be attributed to pedestrian distraction. As much as a 150 pound distracted pedestrian provokes outrage among drivers of 4000 pound automobiles, it’s mostly a red herring in terms of the actual numbers.
Usually people texting in crosswalks are doing it are in places like downtown where it’s reasonably safe, and where generally drivers see them and stop for them. You don’t see people doing it at crosswalks on busy roads (such as 58th and Portland, near my house) where it would actually be dangerous to do it.
I think drivers feel slighted when a pedestrian fails to acknowledge or even look at them, going so far as to *assume* (gasp!) that a car won’t hit them while they cross the street. Why, how dare we not bow down and acknowledge the almighty driver!
When driving down a highway at 60 mph, do we demand that a driver coming up to a stop sign thank us for not hitting them? Of course not! We have the right of way! If we’re the driver at that stop sign, and have to wait extra seconds because some cars are going by, we don’t resent them for being there and for “making us wait.”
But pedestrians are given the right of way only grudgingly – we are still expected to genuflect to the royalty of the road for allowing us to live, and of course for our taking up their precious time. BTW, I’m guilty of this myself: on foot or on wheels, I usually find myself giving a little smile and wave to any driver who waits for me to use a crosswalk. Sometimes this makes me pleased to be contributing to civility on the road – and other times it makes me ashamed for sucking up so much. It’s my right to be there!
“Automobile safety often depends on simplifying roads by making them wider,”
Is that true? I think a lot of traffic engineers think that but reality doesn’t seem to agree. We have much wider, straighter, and simplified roads as the rest of the developed world yet we have the highest fatality rates by a significant margin.
Well, it’s not like this trend is difficult to explain.
Cars are safer to be in than ever – active safety systems (first ABS, then stability control, with far more advanced systems on the way), crashworthiness, handling and even the quality of tires have all substantially improved in the last 10-15 years, each improving safety substantially. And at the same time, we’ve gone from safety being understood as the responsibility of the driver – who knew death was a significant possibility even in a moderate speed crash – to assuming the car will protect us in almost any crash.
Cutting vehicle-occupant deaths from 40,000 to 30,000 is significant, but given all the technological progress – and reducing DUI as a cause from 50% to 30% of deaths nationally – deaths of vehicle occupants *should* be under 10,000 by now. Yet they’re stuck at 30,000.
But they’re not. Increased speeds and VMT are making their contribution to the carnage, but the real devil is that driver distraction has skyrocketed. Sure, you’ve always had people fussing with their radios, reading maps, smacking their kids in the back seat and eating Big Macs while driving, but now we’ve got people staring at their smartphones all the time (a far worse problem here in MN than in OR and WA, where handheld cellphone use by drivers is illegal, but still a problem everywhere). Despite this being conclusively proven as dangerous as drunk driving, everyone seems to be doing it and with impunity.
Basically we are today where we were with drunk driving in 1970. People might tut-tut about how bad it is, and at least some people would be embarrassed to admit to it publicly, but most people are still doing it. And as in 1970, I expect it will be another 10 years before enough victims and their families organize to seriously do something about it, and another 15 before we start seeing a significant reduction in the problem.
And what does that do for people NOT in cars? Improved vehicle safety is masking a large increase in dangerous driver behavior, which can be seen in the increase of fatalities among pedestrians and cyclists.
Oops, please ignore “But they’re not” in the middle of my diatribe above. Typo.
“Funding, however remains a persistent problem. Most pedestrian fatalities, some 68 percent between 2003 and 2012, occurred on roads funded at least in part by the federal government…”
We need more reform to make our streets safer for everyone using them. We can’t do a 4 to 3 on Hennepin because this change would make the project ineligible for funding.