A Closer Look at Pedestrian Safety

This is the second post of a two part series on pedestrian road safety.

Many are blaming the recent increase in pedestrian fatalities on distracted walking. While it’s important to address this newly emerging issue, there are many other risk factors for pedestrians, and there may be better opportunities to improve pedestrian safety.

What Puts Pedestrians at Risk?


According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 73% of pedestrian deaths in 2011 occurred in urban areas, up from 59% in 1975.

Pedestrian crashes can also be broken down by where on a street they occur. As reported by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration

  • 32% of pedestrian crashes occur within 50 feet of an intersection.
  • 26% of pedestrian crashes occur in the middle of a block.
  • 15 to 25% of pedestrian crashes are estimated to take place in parking lots or driveways.

The most common scenario for pedestrian crashes involves a pedestrian crossing in front of a passenger vehicle traveling straight.

Street Design

According to a report by Smart Growth America, the incorporation of pedestrian needs into street design makes a significant difference in pedestrian safety.

  • Pedestrian crashes in places without sidewalks only represent 7% of total pedestrian crashes, but crashes are more than twice as likely to occur in these locations.
  • More than 40% of pedestrian fatalities occur where no crosswalk is available.
  • Over half of pedestrian fatalities occur on arterial roadways, high-capacity roads designed to be wide and fast.

Vehicle Speed

The risk of severe injury and death for a pedestrian struck by a vehicle increases dramatically as the speed of the vehicle increases, as seen in the graphs below.

pedestrian risk chart

Impact Speed and a Pedestrian’s Risk of Severe Injury or Death, AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety, September 2011.

This makes streets where pedestrians are exposed to vehicles traveling at high speeds especially dangerous.

Alcohol Impairment

According to the NHTSA pedestrian safety report, alcohol involvement for either the driver or the pedestrian was reported in 48% of all crashes resulting in pedestrian fatalities. 35% of pedestrians involved in these crashes had a BAC of .08 or higher, while only 13% of drivers did.

Who Has the Greatest Risk?

Children and Teens

Safe Kids Worldwide reports a 53% decline in fatality rates and a 44% decline in injury rates for pedestrians under the age of 19 over the past 15 years.

The IIHS suggests that this trend may be related to an overall decline in walking, particularly among children, during the past several decades. Improvements in traffic engineering may have also helped to reduced injury and fatality rates.

But just like for the general population, child pedestrian fatality and injury rates started to increase again in 2010, and the age group with the highest risk for pedestrian injuries and fatalities has shifted from children ages 5 to 9 to teens ages 16 to 19. Walking while distracted is more common among older teenagers than younger kids, and may be a contributor to this change.

In general, children are overrepresented in crashes involving pedestrians running or walking into the street.

Older Pedestrians

Pedestrians age 65 and older accounted for 19% of all pedestrian fatalities in 2011, and the fatality rate for older pedestrians is higher than for any other age group, according to the NHTSA's recent report on pedestrian safety.

Older pedestrians were also overrepresented in crashes involving turning vehicles, and in those in which the driver committed a moving violation.

Male Pedestrians

According to the IIHS, male pedestrians are killed more often than female pedestrians across all age groups, but the reasons for this difference are not known. In 2011, 70% of pedestrians killed were male, a proportion that has remained steady since 1975.

Potential Solutions

Further Study

We currently have information on the total numbers of pedestrian fatalities and injuries, but we don’t know much about how many fatalities and injuries occur per pedestrian, per mile walked, or per number of walking trips made. This makes it difficult to compare pedestrian fatality and injury rates over time or between different locations.

We need to gather more information about our walking behavior so that we can identify the real reasons behind the recent increase in pedestrian fatalities.

Complete Streets

Streets in the United States tend to be designed with cars in mind rather than bicyclists or pedestrians. Smart Growth America reports that In Germany and the Netherlands, where “complete streets” are more common, bicyclist and pedestrian death rates per kilometer traveled are two to six times less than in the United States.

“Complete” streets include pedestrian safety countermeasures such as wide sidewalks, raised medians, safe bus stop placement, bike lanes, and raised crosswalks. Many of these additions also serve to calm traffic.

Promoting Walking

While one might think that more pedestrians and bicyclists on the road might mean more crashes, a revolutionary 2003 study revealed that the opposite is true. The increased presence of pedestrians and bicyclists actually seems to make drivers more cautious and more attentive, making the road safer for everyone. This idea, known as “safety in numbers,” places the burden of sharing the road safely on drivers, not just on pedestrians and bicyclists, and suggests that we actually need to encourage more people to walk to make walking safer.

What You Can Do

As a driver, watch carefully for pedestrians and follow speed limits, especially as the days grow shorter and winter weather conditions bring low visibility. Be especially aware on Halloween, the highest risk day of the year for young pedestrians.

As a pedestrian, walk on sidewalks whenever they are available, and if there is no sidewalk, walk facing traffic and as far away from traffic as possible. Be predictable by obeying signs and signals, and be alert for drivers who may not see you.

Many organizations offer resources to help you start walking and improve pedestrian safety in your area.

  • Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition provides help for communities and agencies at every stage in the process of implementing complete streets.
  • The National Center for Safe Routes to School offers training and resources to help schools and communities encourage children to safely walk and bicycle to school.
  • Many states and communities promote biking or walking to school or work on specific days. Local organizations may offer resources to plan your route or even provide aid stations along the way in an effort to attract new bicyclists and pedestrians. Check out the national Walk and Bike to School Day website for more.
  • The new NHTSA website Everyone is a Pedestrian offers programs and resources for citizens, community advocates, educators, and state or local officials to walk safely and promote safe walking.