Why Are U.S. Drivers Killing So Many Pedestrians?

Joe Cortright is a Strong Towns member who runs the think tank and blog City Observatory. This piece is republished here with permission.

If anything else—a disease, terrorists, gun-wielding crazies—killed as many Americans as cars do, we’d regard it as a national emergency. Especially if the death rate had grown by 50 percent in less than a decade. But as new data from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (via Streetsblog) show, that’s exactly what’s happened with the pedestrian death toll in the U.S. In the nine years from 2009 to 2018, pedestrian deaths increased 51 percent from 4,109 to 6,227.

There are lots of reasons given for the increase: distracted driving due to smart phone use, a decline in gas prices that has prompted even more driving, poor road design, a culture that privileges car travel and denigrates walking, and the increasing prevalence of more lethal sport utility vehicles. Undoubtedly, all of these factors contribute.

While some may regard a pedestrian death toll as somehow unavoidable, the recent experience of European countries as a group suggests that there’s nothing about modern life (Europeans have high rates of car ownership and as many smart phones as Americans) that means the pedestrian death toll must be high and rising. In fact, at the same time pedestrian deaths have been soaring in the U.S., they’ve been dropping steadily in Europe. In the latest nine year period for which European data are available, pedestrian deaths decreased from 8,342 to 5,320, a decline of 36 percent. Here are the data from the European Road Safety Observatory:

In the past decade, Europe and the U.S. have reversed positions in pedestrian death rates. It used to be that the number of pedestrian deaths per million population was higher in Europe, but the U.S. pedestrian death rate per million population is now 75 percent higher than in Europe. The following chart compares the change in pedestrian death rates over the last nine years for which data are available for both Europe and the U.S.


It’s worth noting that this trend is occurring even though walking is far more common in Europe, streets are generally narrower, and in older cities, there aren’t sidewalks, but pedestrians share the roadway with cars. Despite these factors, Europe now has a lower pedestrian death toll per capita than the U.S.

We walk less, but we die more.

These data should be at once heartening and discouraging to advocates of Vision Zero. On the one hand, they show that it is entirely possible to have a modern economy, with technology and with lots of cars, that doesn’t kill so many pedestrians. On the other hand, they show us that the U.S. is very much on the wrong track.

(Cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)