By Changez Ali
COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Walking across the street is becoming more dangerous.
Last year was the deadliest year for pedestrians in the United States since 1996, according to a report by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, which collects and analyzes data from state highway safety offices.
Preliminary data show that 5,997 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents, an 11 percent increase from 2015, the report says.
The increase is part of a longer-term upward trend: Pedestrian fatalities increased 12 percent between 2006 and 2015 from 4,795 to 5,376, even while the total number of traffic fatalities decreased by 18 percent from 42,708 to 35,092 during that period. Pedestrians now account for 15 percent of all traffic fatalities.
“Survivability is greatly improved in cars but the human body has not changed, so humans are as susceptible as before,” said association spokeswoman Kara Macek.
Driver and pedestrian error are a factor in many accidents. But recent research also blames a lack of engineering for safe walking environments — and two studies published in the past year say that’s particularly true in low-income and immigrant neighborhoods.
A 2016 white paper by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, found that low-income, minority and immigrant communities are “less likely to live near or travel along roads with safe, accessible, and high-quality pedestrian and bicycle facilities.”
“We prioritize the mobility and speed of motor vehicles over safety,” said Krista Nordback, senior researcher at the center, which is funded by the Federal Highway Administration.
Those findings were echoed in “Dangerous by Design” a report released in January by Smart Growth America, a Washington-based nonprofit that works with communities to design safer and more habitable urban living spaces.
“Streets without sidewalks or pedestrian crossings, with wide lanes that encourage people to drive fast are simply designed to be dangerous for people walking,” the report said. “This is not user error. Rather, it is a sign that these streets are failing to adequately meet the needs of everyone in a community.”
Smart Growth found that minorities had a much higher rate of pedestrian fatalities than whites. The rate was 50 percent higher for Hispanics. For African-Americans, the rate was nearly double that of whites.
Low-income urban communities overall were more dangerous to pedestrians than affluent ones, the report said.
Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said some of the problems are tied to aging infrastructure.
“There are a number of these urban boulevards that were designed in the ‘50s and things were different then. Everyone was in a car,” said Hecox. “Over the last 30 years there has been a change in that, with more people walking and running.”
But safety improvements are costly, he said. “There are a number of states that are doing well just to fill potholes. And that’s what Congress and the president are debating right now, a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, but who’s going to pay for it?”
Disadvantaged communities wind up paying the price, said Alex Dodds, communications director at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit urban planning organization.
“Budgets are tight at nearly every department of transportation, and there are usually far more projects than time or money allow,” she said. “So DOT staff have to make tough choices about what to prioritize, and it’s not surprising that communities without political clout don’t rise to the top of the list.”