Confronting the pedestrian carnage on American roadways

I recently finished reading Angie Schmitt’s exceptional book entitled; Right of Way: Race, Class and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. This book is an absolute must read for all planners, engineers, lawmakers, and decision makers.

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The details and statistics contained within the book are both shocking and frustrating in the sense that so much of our society seems to have become blasé about the horrific loss of life taking place on our own streets and highways. The heartbreaking personal stories made me wonder if we, as a nation, have lost our collective empathy and sympathy for the misfortunes of others. But, perhaps most maddening is the ridiculous extent of disinterest in addressing even the least expensive and low-hanging fruit solutions by some politicians, lawmakers, and the business community.


It wasn’t always this way. As Ms. Schmitt aptly notes, just a little over a decade ago, pedestrian deaths were trending downward (see graph above). But, a variety of factors have lead to renewed increases in pedestrian carnage. The factors are many, but here’s a brief summary of the primary ones:

  • Badly designed streets and roadways
  • Oversizing of pick-up trucks and SUV’s
  • Law enforcement and media that tend to blame the victim
  • Inaccurate, improper, and incorrect enforcement of walking laws
  • Political pushback by the auto and construction industries and their political allies
  • Nominal infrastructure improvements in neighborhoods of color and poor communities
  • Minimal funding for non-motorized (pedestrian and cycling) infrastructure
  • Trends toward an emphasis on protecting the safety of vehicle occupants vs. pedestrians

Among the important data highlighted in her book, Ms. Schmitt’s pinpoints that though approximately 20 percent of all traffic related deaths are pedestrians and cyclists, a paltry 1.5 percent of transportation funding is allocated towards infrastructure serving walkers, bicyclists, and alike. Furthermore, in some cases individual states and Congress have literally robbed this minimal funding and redirected it towards the almighty automobile.

Only the 13th child is visible from the driver’s seat in this SUV – Sources: and

Another eye-opener were the deadly designs now being built into so many motor vehicles. The height, weight, speed, and dangerous accessories like guard grills for pick-up trucks and SUV’s are appalling. Images within her book and online (see photos above and below) clearly demonstrate the frightening dangers now facing all pedestrians, but particularly children, seniors, and persons with disabilities by oversized and over-muscled motor vehicles. Such vehicles have grown so large and high that the front vision blind zone can extend out as far as 10 feet!

No way the driver would ever see this young child. Source:

As the photos below demonstrate, even the front appearances of many large vehicles have become rather sinister and menacing.

So…how do we begin to rectify these problems? Here are a few suggestions derived from both the book and from years as a professional planner:

  • Advocate and insist on effective, low-cost solutions being applied as soon a possible on problem streets and roadways. Often, adding painted markings can make a huge difference.
  • Advocate for increased transportation funding for pedestrian and cycling safety.
  • Advocate for safer designs in motor vehicles that take those outside the vehicle into account.
  • Advocate for road and highway designs that emphasize or improve pedestrian and cyclist safety.
  • Enforce existing laws properly and better educate those applying them.
  • Don’t buy unnecessarily over-sized vehicles.
  • Demand accountability from politicians and decision makers on improving pedestrian and cycling safety.
  • Call out the media and/or law enforcement when they inappropriately blame the victim.
  • Participate in community forums and public hearings to highlight the importance of pedestrian and cycling safety.
  • Support public interest groups, non-profits, and other organizations that are advocating for improved safety.


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