The Cold Equations of Roadway Safety

The City of St. Paul is currently putting together a new Transportation Safety Action Plan, in preparation for applying for Federal Safe Streets and Roadways for All funding for projects to increase roadway safety in the city. There’s still time (just barely!) to fill out their survey and add to their comment map by 4 p.m. today: Friday, April 14.

I’ve spent the past few weeks researching an article about this new Safety Action Plan, but I’ve found it really difficult. I kept trying to look at graphs of yearly pedestrian deaths or sift through Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) data to count how many children were killed in car crashes (12 children under age 15 in 2021, by the way), only to be distracted by news about school shootings, climate change and people spending a lot of time and money fighting against safer bike lanes on Summit Avenue.

Examining all of these issues, and looking at crash data, the difficulty has been in trying to wrap my head around the vast differences in scale involved:

  • Hundreds of people dying vs. tens of thousands of crashes.
  • Single trees vs. global climate.
  • City planning on the scale of specific intersections vs. billions of dollars of federal money.
  • Opinions and anecdotes vs research and data.
  • The value of one person’s life vs. the priorities of a transportation system.

Minnesota crashes by the numbers

When looking at crash data, it’s easy to start seeing it all as just numbers — columns in a spreadsheet, this line going up or down, that rate per capita or per thousand vehicle miles traveled. 

It’s easy to end up abstracting away the real people the numbers represent. And what doesn’t make it into the data is all of the close calls that make people afraid to bike or walk in their neighborhood, or all the other people — families, friends, neighbors — whose lives are changed when someone is injured or killed in a crash.

That said, here are some numbers: Over the course of 26 years, from 1995 to 2021, more than 2 million total car crashes were recorded in Minnesota, with almost 1 million injuries and over 13,000 deaths.

Imagine some made-up events that would be newsworthy tragedies:

  • An entire school full of kids are seriously injured, and a classroom full of kids die. 
  • A tornado hits the city of Inver Grove Heights, and every resident is injured.
  • Two or three passenger jets crash, and most people aboard die.

On average, this is what’s happening on our roads every year, just in Minnesota. Between 350 and 650 people were killed in crashes each year in Minnesota since 1995. An average of 35,000 people were injured. That adds up to tens of thousands of our neighbors, parents, children and friends whose lives are ended or changed irrevocably every year.

Graph of vehicle crashes, injuries, and fatalities in Minnesota from 1995 to 2021.
This is a graph of 1 million injuries and over 13,000 deaths

Since 1994, a total of 744 children under 16 have died in crashes — an average of 26 children every year.

Graph showing crash fatalities for children under 16 in Minnesota, from 1994 to 2020. Data is separated by age group for pedestrian crashes and all other crashes.
This is a graph of 744 children dying, including 126 who were killed by vehicles while walking

But at least the lines on those graphs are going down, right?

Total vehicle crashes and fatalities have generally been going down since the 1990s (and even more so if you take into account increases in vehicle miles traveled). Crash fatalities among children have been going down. Crashes involving pedestrians have also been getting significantly less frequent.

Looking at the data in relation to a starting point of 1995 you see the outlier: pedestrian fatalities. While crashes and other fatalities have gone down compared with 1995, pedestrian fatalities started moving in the opposite direction, back toward 1995 levels, beginning around 2004.

Graph showing crashes and fatalities in Minnesota from 1995 to 2021, separated between pedestrian and all other crashes. Data is graphed comparing to 1995 as a baseline.
This is a graph of more than 2 million crashes and over 13,000 deaths including 1174 people killed while walking in Minnesota since 1995

Using 2004 as the starting point, you can see that pedestrian fatalities have fluctuated and ultimately increased even as overall fatalities decreased or remained flat.

Graph showing crashes and fatalities in Minnesota from 2004 to 2021, separated between pedestrian and all other crashes. Data is graphed comparing to 2004 as a baseline.
This is a graph of more than 1 million crashes and over 7,716 crash deaths, including 725 people killed while walking in Minnesota since 2004.

Pedestrian crashes have consistently been about 1.5% of total crashes each year in Minnesota, but pedestrians account for between 5% and 15% of the total roadway fatalities. In 1995, about 8% of people who died on Minnesota roadways were pedestrians. In 2016 and 2019, over 15% of the people who died in roadway crashes were pedestrians.

This is a graph of more than 2 million crashes and over 13,000 deaths in Minnesota

While crashes have been getting slightly less fatal overall, the fatality rate for pedestrian crashes has been increasing. In 2021, over 7% of pedestrian crashes involved a fatality, compared with 2.4% of car crashes with injuries, 1.6% of bicycle crashes and 0.7% of total crashes.

Graph showing bicycle and pedestrian crash fatality rates, per crash, compared to all other crashes.
During this time period there were about 27,000 pedestrian crashes, 25,000 bicycle crashes. Since 1999 there have been more than 500,000 total crashes with injuries in Minnesota.

In 2020, during the pandemic, pedestrian crashes reached their lowest point in 30 years — about half as many pedestrian crashes as in 1995. But at the same time, the number of pedestrians who were killed was higher than Minnesota had seen since the late ’90s.

A pedestrian safety epidemic

It turns out that Minnesota, along with the rest of the United States, is in the midst of a decade-plus-long pedestrian safety epidemic. Pedestrian fatalities in the United States increased from 4,100 in 2009, to an estimated 7,200 deaths in 2021. According to the 2022 Dangerous by Design report, “The number of people struck and killed while walking has been steadily increasing since 2009, reaching another new high in 2020 and likely a historic one in 2021.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, “During 2021 the COVID-19 pandemic kept many people at home. […] While there were fewer total number of crashes, the number of fatal crashes increased,” largely due to an increase in speeding.

The pattern seen in overall crashes in Minnesota — fewer crashes but more deaths  in 2020 and 2021 — can also be seen in crash data from Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The same general pattern holds true for pedestrian crashes.

A disturbing trend appears in the 2022 data for St. Paul: the numbers of both bicycle and pedestrian crashes increased significantly, and were higher than they had been before the pandemic started.

The dangerous driving that began during the pandemic has lingered, especially in its effects on people who are struck while walking or biking.

According to the Dangerous by Design report, Minnesota is one of 45 states in the nation with a long-term trend of increasing pedestrian fatalities.

Crashes, crashes everywhere

Most of these crashes are happening on busy streets, or at a few dangerous intersections, right? Not quite. While there are higher concentrations of crashes along busy roads and at busy intersections, crashes happen all over.

St. Paul currently has location data available online for bicycle and pedestrian crashes only from 2019 to 2022, but even looking at a map of crashes from those three years you can see that in many parts of the city it would be difficult to plan a route anywhere without passing the site of a recent bike or pedestrian crash.

Zooming in on where I live in St. Paul, every route I regularly use to bike or walk goes via the location of at least one recent bicyclist or pedestrian crash. And remember, this is only three years of crashes. It doesn’t include the fact that every time I take my son to preschool, I ride by the intersection of Summit and Snelling avenues, where both Virginia Heuer and Alan Grahn were killed while riding their bikes.

Minnesota vs. other states and other countries

Believe it or not, the Twin Cities and Minnesota in general are actually doing well compared with the rest of the country when it comes to pedestrian safety. In the “Dangerous by Design 2022” report, based on data from 2016 to 2020 only Madison, Wisconsin; Provo, Utah; and the state of Iowa have fewer pedestrian deaths per capita. The worst state, New Mexico, had a pedestrian fatality rate more than 4.5 times higher than Minnesota’s.

But even a relatively safe state like Minnesota is doing worse than most European countries.

Why are things so bad?

Part of the problem is that many streets, even in busy areas with a lot of pedestrians, have a high “design speed” — they feel like you should be able to drive fast. And historically, speed limits have been set based on how fast drivers are already driving. But when it comes to pedestrian crashes, higher speeds directly translate to more deaths and serious injuries.

Based on data from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22935347/ At 55 miles per hour, the risk of fatality for a pedestrian is about 90%.

The faster the car is going, the higher the risk of pedestrian injury and death in the event of an accident. The difference between 20 mph and 40 mph — the range of speeds commonly seen on city streets — can be a matter of life and death.

Another factor: the increasing size and weight of vehicles on our streets. According to the New York Times, “sport utility vehicles outsold sedans two to one in 2019, just four years after surpassing them for the first time.”

These larger vehicles are safer for drivers. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), “a bigger, heavier vehicle provides better crash protection than a smaller, lighter one” and driver deaths decrease as vehicle size increases. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, safety testing and standards have led to fewer fatalities, but their data only considers vehicle occupants. Advocates are working to get car safety ratings changed to include safety for pedestrians.

Unfortunately, when someone walking or biking is hit by one of these larger and heavier SUVs and trucks they are more likely to be seriously injured or killed. According to an IIHS report, from 2009 to 2016, single vehicle crashes in which an SUV struck and killed a person walking increased 81%, the largest increase of any vehicle type.

Another factor is lack of sufficient safe pedestrian and bike infrastructure. Lack of sidewalks or bike lanes force people to move into spaces designed for cars. Insufficient lighting makes it difficult for drivers to see vulnerable road users. Lack of stoplights, stop signs or painted crosswalks can make it harder for drivers to know where to look for people walking.

Who really pays the price for our dangerous roads?

Unfortunately when it comes to roadways, the price is often paid disproportionately. Nationally, pedestrian roadway fatalities are more common in low-income neighborhoods and for people of color.

graphic showing disparities in pedestrian deaths by race
Graphics courtesy of Smart Growth America, Dangerous by Design 2022

According to the 2022 Dangerous by Design report, “Low-income communities are significantly less likely to have access to parks and other opportunities for safe recreational walking and are less likely to have sidewalks, marked crosswalks, and street design to support safer, slower speeds. Lower-income neighborhoods are also much more likely to contain major arterial roads built for high speeds and higher traffic volumes at intersections, exacerbating dangerous conditions for people walking.”

bar graph showing disparities in pedestrian fatalities by census tract income
Graphics courtesy of Smart Growth America, Dangerous by Design 2022

And in the Twin Cities, like many other places, traffic density and the negative health effects from roadway pollution are highest for the people who are most likely not to own cars and are most likely to be non-white.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area with block groups colored according to (a) the fraction non-white population, (b) traffic density, (c) vehicles per household, and (d) cancer risk from on-road sources. The color palette in all four maps increases from blue to red by decile of the metric. The seven counties in the Metro Area are shown in bold outline. Figures and caption from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25996888/ CC BY 4.0

Roadway safety is a problem we created, not a law of nature

What can we do about all the people who are injured and killed in crashes? Can a “Safety Action Plan” really make a difference in the face of the national trend of increasing pedestrian deaths?

Part of the problem is that when people talk about what to do about roads and safety, the need for fast and convenient vehicle infrastructure is often discussed as if it’s an incontrovertible fact. Any changes or safety improvements are balanced against potential loss of parking spots, vehicle level of service and driver convenience.

We need to stop treating deaths on our roadways as an inevitability. Even “Toward Zero Deaths” (TZD) campaigns don’t have a goal of zero deaths; they’re just trying to move in the general direction of zero— hence, “toward.” Minnesota established its TZD campaign in 2003, and its goal for 2025 is 225 yearly deaths, a fair bit more than zero.

Graphic from  Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths 2023 overview. This is a graph of 10,663 people dying in crashes in Minnesota since 2000.

The Twin Cities metro region is working toward 72 yearly traffic deaths.

Graphic from Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Metro Regional Summary 2022. This is a graph of 1407 people dying in crashes in the Twin Cities metro area since 2011.

But highways and roads and vehicles aren’t gravity. They aren’t inescapable laws of physics; they aren’t even natural parts of the landscape that we have no choice but to build around. Roadway fatalities and injuries aren’t some dark outside force that we have to just live with — they’re a problem of our own creation. We build the roads, we drive the cars.

In the face of all these crashes and deaths and injuries, it’s particularly upsetting to see safety and health continue to be weighed equally with convenience or speed or aesthetics.

How can a safer road configuration that would save lives be derailed by the loss of a few parking spots? How can someone look at the map of people injured or killed while biking or walking and then oppose slower streets or adding sidewalks or safer bike paths?

Maybe there’s hope in a new approach

Although spending all this time learning about crash statistics has made me pretty sad, I’m still hopeful that a new transportation safety plan for St. Paul could lead to at least some positive effects. Mostly, what we need is change: changes in enforcement, changes in infrastructure and changes in our approach to safety overall.

The U.S. Department of Transportation now recommends the Safe System Approach: taking a holistic approach to create a “system with many redundancies in place to protect everyone”. Similarly to Vision Zero, this approach begins from the starting point that “death and serious injuries are unacceptable” on our roadways.

Graphic from thespinoff, adapted from James Reason, Ian Mackay, Sketchplanations CC-BY-SA 4.0

On an infrastructure level, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the SS4A grant program particularly encourage the implementation of Proven Safety Countermeasures: things like road diets (reducing and/or narrowing car travel lanes), medians and pedestrian refuge islands, crosswalk visibility, adding sidewalks and adding bike lanes.

The St. Paul Transportation Safety Action Plan will also focus on equity, and particularly on “historically excluded communities of color to create a safer and more equitable transportation system.” This document could be an important tool in planning and prioritizing projects in St. Paul for years to come.

So if you live, walk, roll, drive, bike or use transit in St. Paul, share your transportation safety experiences, ideas and opinions with the city: Today (Friday, April 14) is the final day to fill out the survey and add to the comment map.

All images by the author unless otherwise noted.

Data sources:

https://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx

https://dps.mn.gov/divisions/ots/reports-statistics/Pages/default.aspx

https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/injury/midas/codes.html

https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/813266

https://www.iihs.org/topics/fatality-statistics/detail/state-by-state

https://www.stpaul.gov/departments/police/pedestrian-and-bike-crash-data-city-st-paul

https://lims.minneapolismn.gov/Download/RCAV2/29113/2022%20Vision%20Zero%20Crash%20Study.pdf

https://road-safety.transport.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2023-02/ff_pedestrians_20230213.pdf

https://road-safety.transport.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2022-10/fatalities_per_pop_2010-21_public.xlsx

https://road-safety.transport.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2022-05/ERSO_annual_report_20220509.pdf

Lisa Nelson

About Lisa Nelson

Lisa Nelson spends a lot of time thinking about community, streets, and art in various permutations. She lives in St. Paul, is co-chair of Union Park District Council's Transportation Committee, organizes a lot of block parties, and loves her electric cargo bike. You can see some of her paintings at lisaclarenelson.com.