Pedestrian fatalities in the United States rose by 25 percent over the past 5 years, according to a 2017 report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). As pedestrian fatalities have increased, some populations are more at risk than others.
Dangerous by Design 2016, an analysis by Smart Growth America (SGA) of pedestrian fatalities over a 10-year period (2005–2014), looked at data from the 104 largest metro areas in the United States and for each state, by income and by race. This analysis found that the poorer a metro area is, the more likely that pedestrians are to be hit and killed by a motor vehicle. There are a number of contributing factors to this finding. For one, poorer communities and neighborhoods typically have less road infrastructure to support pedestrian safety than more affluent places, including fewer safe, well-maintained sidewalks with adequate night lighting, fewer safe mid-block and intersection crosswalks, and fewer traffic calming measures such as narrow roads and speed humps. Additionally, residents in poorer communities and neighborhoods, especially in urban areas, have lower levels of car ownership and more dependence on walking and transit. This leads them to walk more frequently and makes them more likely to walk to destinations that are not considered pedestrian friendly, such as big shopping centers and along high traffic volume roadways with little pedestrian infrastructure.
Source: Transportation for America.
SGA’s research found connections between pedestrian deaths and median household income and also between pedestrian deaths and race. People of color were overrepresented among pedestrian families in 42 of 49 states and the District of Columbia, and for the United States as a whole. Overall, people of color comprised just over one-third of the U.S. population but almost half of the pedestrian deaths. The greatest proportional risks were for African Americans, with 12 percent of the population and 19 percent of pedestrian deaths, and for Native Americans, with 0.7 percent of the population and close to 3 percent of the deaths. The racial disparities were especially dramatic in some states. In Louisiana, people of color were nine times more likely to be killed than white people, and in Texas, the risk was almost three times as great. In Massachusetts, the risk was only slightly elevated; people of color comprised 22 percent of the state population and 24 percent of the pedestrian fatalities.
Source: Smart Growth America, Dangerous by Design 2016.
As with the income-based findings on pedestrian fatalities, the race-related findings reflect the fact that, as with low-income communities, communities comprising mainly people of color have more residents without car access who walk for transportation and they walk more often and for longer distances. However, SGA found that even after controlling for their residents’ amount of walking, these communities still had higher rates of pedestrian deaths. This suggests that these communities have disproportionately unsafe conditions for pedestrians
To date, only a few experimental studies have been conducted on-road to measure the likelihood of drivers’ responses yielding to pedestrians of different races. The first such study took place at a midblock marked crosswalk in downtown Portland, Oregon, and was conducted by Tara Goddard and Kimberly Barsamian Kahn, both from Portland State University, and Arlie Adkins from the University of Arizona (2016). For this research, individual male pedestrian participants, who were all clearly identifiable as either African American or white, stood at the edge of the crosswalk, looking as though they’d like to cross. The researchers measured the number of cars that passed each pedestrian before a driver stopped at the crosswalk for them, and the amount of time each pedestrian had to wait to cross. Each of the six pedestrian participants—three white and three African American—were of similar build, wore similar clothing, and were instructed to behave similarly. The researchers observed a total of 173 driver-pedestrian interactions. On average, the African American pedestrians waited 32 percent longer and were passed by twice as many cars before crossing, as compared to the white pedestrians.
University of Nevada researcher Courtney Coughenour and colleagues conducted a similar study in Las Vegas. As she described in a discussion earlier this year with National Public Radio correspondent Shankar Vedantam, for their study, the researchers included two different midblock crosswalks, one in a low-income neighborhood and one in a high-income neighborhood, and two female pedestrian participants, one white and one African American. The pedestrians were both of similar build, wore identical outfits, and acted similarly while they waited at the edge of the crosswalk for drivers to stop for them. The midblock crosswalks were on multilane roads. The researchers measured both the number of cars that passed in the nearest lane before stopping for the pedestrian and the number of cars that drove around the pedestrian while they were crossing the street. In total, 124 pedestrian crossings were observed for the two crosswalks. Overall, drivers were less likely to stop for the pedestrians waiting to cross at the high-income crosswalk than the low-income one, regardless of race. At the high-income crosswalk, once the pedestrian was in the roadway, drivers were statistically more likely to pass through the crosswalk and not yield to the African American pedestrian than they were with the white pedestrian. Drivers were also less likely to yield to the African American pedestrian at the high-income crosswalk than at the low-income crosswalk. One contributing factor to these results could be that the high-income crosswalk was on a street with more travel lanes and a higher posted speed limit, 45 mph, than the street with the low-income crosswalk, 35 mph.
In both crosswalk-pedestrian race studies, no information was collected on any of the drivers, such as their race, income, or how they made their decision on whether or not to stop for pedestrians at the crosswalks. Nonetheless, it appears that some drivers could have some race or class-related conscious or unconscious biases in this regard. Of most concern from a safety perspective is drivers’ failure to yield to African American pedestrians already crossing the street in the high-income neighborhood in the Las Vegas study. The failure of drivers to yield at multilane midblock crosswalks is a known cause of many pedestrian fatalities and injuries, and the results here suggest driver biases could put some pedestrians more at risk than others.
Written By: Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow