Episode Preview with TTI's Neal Johnson (audio, 42s):
Full Episode (audio):
July 13, 2021Episode 12. There’s Danger Afoot: Death by walking remains a chronic roadway safety issue.
FEATURING: Neal Johnson
Cars and pedestrians have been sharing space on city streets for more than a century, and traveling on foot remains as dangerous as it’s ever been. Associate Transportation Researcher Neal Johnson helps us explore worrisome trends for the most vulnerable users of our roadway network.
About Our Guest
Associate Transportation Researcher
Neal Johnson is part of the Behavioral Research Program within TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety. His research has concentrated on the safety impacts of user behavior with a specific focus on pedestrians and bicyclists. Neal has led several projects that focus on pedestrian and bicycle safety including outreach and education, training of law enforcement, analysis of crashes and laws, survey research and behavioral data collection.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Welcome to Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we move ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:28):
With people driving a lot less during the COVID-19 outbreak, it would have been reasonable to expect that fewer pedestrians would die in motor vehicle traffic. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the pedestrian death count rose sharply in 2020, reaching its highest point in 30 years. Thanks to advances in auto technology, travel is generally safer than ever for you if you’re behind the wheel, but if you’re on foot, it’s a different story. That’s the topic of our visit today with Neal Johnson, an associate transportation researcher at TTI, and an expert in pedestrian safety. Welcome, Neal. Thank you for joining us.
Neal Johnson (guest) (01:12):
Yeah, I’m excited to be here. Thank you.
Bernie Fette (01:14):
I was hoping we could start with some numbers. I don’t want to dwell too much on specific numbers in our conversation, but just to kind of give people a picture of where we are on this topic. There were 6,205 pedestrian deaths nationwide in 2019, which was 51 percent more than 10 years before, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And during our pandemic year of 2020, people were driving considerably less. But even when that 16 percent travel reduction was factored in, according to GHSA, pedestrian traffic deaths spiked by 20 percent in the first half of that year. GHSA says also that pedestrian deaths have risen by 46 percent over the past decade while all other traffic deaths have increased, but only by about 5 percent. So that paints a pretty grim picture for pedestrians.
Neal Johnson (02:15):
Yeah, it does. And I think one thing to consider is that it’s not just that fatalities are rising on the pedestrian side of it, but it’s also that the percentage of fatalities that are pedestrians — meaning pedestrians, bicyclists and other non-motorized modes of transportation — is making up a larger percentage of our fatalities right now. So there’s about 20 percent of fatal crashes in 2019. So it’s about one in five crashes is either a pedestrian, a bicyclist or somebody else that’s on a non-motorized vehicle. Whereas that was only about 15 percent of fatalities in 2010.
Bernie Fette (02:46):
Well, this might be an oversimplified question, but, why is that?
Neal Johnson (02:51):
Yeah. And so I think some of this is could be because we have invested large amounts of money and research into vehicle safety over the last few decades, so vehicles are becoming safer themselves. New technologies are in place to help make vehicles safer. So that’s why those fatalities aren’t rising as much as, as pedestrians. But of course, pedestrians don’t have airbags. They don’t have technology to stop them from avoiding a crash. And there’s also research out there, some of it saying that there’s the increase in SUVs. That could be part of this reason for the increase in pedestrian fatalities.
Bernie Fette (03:20):
Why is that distinction with SUVs important?
Neal Johnson (03:24):
When an SUV strikes a pedestrian, it hits them in very different parts of their body than a typical sedan would. So it could damage more internal organs and then make it less likely for them to survive that crash. That’s what some of the research is saying.
Bernie Fette (03:38):
So we’ve had advancements in vehicle safety by creating SUVs for the people who are inside the vehicle, right. And just the opposite for the people who are outside.
Neal Johnson (03:47):
Exactly. Well, and I guess there’s also been an increase in interest in active modes of transportation over the past several years. And that also includes people just wanting to increase use of public transportation, for example, which inherently involves some walking at some point to get to that bus stop or get to that final destination.
Bernie Fette (04:05):
What are some of the other factors? I mean, whenever we talk about crashes, just for people in vehicles, we talk about distractions. We talk about alcohol impairment. Are any of those factors contributing to the increase in pedestrian deaths and injuries?
Neal Johnson (04:18):
Yeah. So we know that pedestrian fatalities most often happen away from intersections where pedestrians crossing the street and most cases, these are at what we would call a mid-block location.
Bernie Fette (04:28):
Neal Johnson (04:28):
Also fatalities are much higher at night. That makes up a huge majority of the fatalities, especially here in Texas. Now of course, now some of that somewhat intuitive where if you’re at a mid-block location in a vehicle you’re usually driving at full speed. So therefore if you were to hit a pedestrian, you would hit them at a higher rate of speed than you might at an intersection where you might be slowing down. So, of course that’d make it a more severe crash. It’s also harder to see pedestrians at night. And so that’s why nighttime comes as a factor as well.
Bernie Fette (04:57):
What role, if we know, what role do distractions, for instance, walking while texting, is that an issue?
Neal Johnson (05:05):
Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about that, but there’s been more anecdotal evidence of that as opposed to actually research-based evidence that distracted walking is the issue or a main issue at any rate for pedestrian crashes. I would argue that the driver distraction is definitely a factor for pedestrians because drivers are just not seeing the pedestrians because they’re not focused on their task of driving if they will be looking at their phone.
Bernie Fette (05:28):
We know that there was a downturn in travel delay. What about the pandemic effects on pedestrian crashes?
Neal Johnson (05:36):
Yeah. So I think there’s two things about that I’d like to touch on. One is yes, there were definitely, we saw it in many areas of the country where there was a lot more people out there walking and biking. And even sometimes they turn streets into walking and biking areas. So you could socially distance while you were doing that, right? And we saw that in many large cities, we saw parts of Austin even here in Texas, but we’ve seen it throughout the country. So there’s definitely more activity going on. The other thing to think about in terms of the pandemic and how it affected pedestrian safety was what you just referred to in terms of, yes, we had less congestion. People were driving less. We knew that right in 2020. However, we were still having lots of crashes. And one thing that was happening that we noticed it’s that speed became a much larger factor in a lot of crashes, basically it’s because congestion was so much less, people could drive faster, right? They could go through town at a much higher rate than they would have before. And that inherently, especially on local streets, poses a higher risk to pedestrians because that the higher rate at which you would hit a pedestrian, there is a less likelihood of that the pedestrian surviving that crash.
Bernie Fette (06:45):
Again, they don’t have the airbags around them.
Neal Johnson (06:47):
Bernie Fette (06:49):
You mentioned people walking at night being especially vulnerable. Are there any demographic groups that are particularly affected?
Neal Johnson (06:59):
Yeah. So from a TxDOT study I did a few years ago, we do know some things about the demographics of the people involved in the pedestrian crashes. We know that they’re predominantly in that young 20- to 24-year-old age group. That’s usually that’s the highest age group that’s represented there. Also we know that it’s predominantly men and that is also true for just crashes, in general. We know that men typically are killed at a higher rate than women. And this is mainly attributed to studies that show that men are just more likely to take risks.
Bernie Fette (07:30):
Neal Johnson (07:30):
And so if that can be true on both the driver’s side of this equation, where the drivers are taking a more risk when interacting with the pedestrian, but also when that pedestrian’s out there walking and what risks are they taking.
Bernie Fette (07:43):
For instance, maybe trying to cross at that mid-block location and making a race out of it. It’s just that they’re more likely to take risks like that?
Neal Johnson (07:52):
Yeah, exactly. That’s what some of the evidence has shown over the years, yes.
Bernie Fette (07:56):
Neal Johnson (07:56):
We also know that blacks are overrepresented in pedestrian crashes compared to their proportion of the population.
Bernie Fette (08:02):
And why is that?
Neal Johnson (08:04):
I guess there could be a few explanations for that. Could be a matter of exposure, meaning that this demographic group just tends to walk more or is exposed to traffic more when they’re out there walking. We also know that unfortunately, typically those neighborhoods tend to get less investment in things like sidewalks and crosswalks and crossing signals. So we also know that that has a disproportionate effect on that group as well.
Bernie Fette (08:27):
I’m glad that you brought up the issue of sidewalks and such, because I’m also wondering if there are specific conditions or circumstances that make pedestrian traffic crashes more likely more frequent. Can you explore with us a little bit more about the issue of sidewalks and other sort of infrastructure-related factors?
Neal Johnson (08:48):
Yeah. So I don’t know that we actually have precise evidence for this, but I think there’s an argument to be made that when you have improved infrastructure for people walking, that you increase their, their ability to follow the laws better. So for example, if there are consistent sidewalks that connect places where people want to walk to and from, they’re more likely to stay on that sidewalk and be safer. Whereas if the sidewalk goes part of the way and then ends, then you have to find your way either on the side of the road or in a, you know, somewhere in a ditch or something like that. Again, we don’t have necessarily evidence of that, but I think there’s just an argument to be made that if you have better infrastructure in place, that pedestrians can make better decisions about when they’re out there walking and also create less exposure for themselves while the desire’s there to definitely improve infrastructure for pedestrians, improve safety for them. And I guess I will mention that TTI has also been kind of at the forefront of looking at how we can use engineering solutions to improve safety. So I’ve been helping out other folks at TTI on projects to understand how much more drivers are yielding at certain types of crossing devices that we use for pedestrians. So pedestrian hybrid beacons or rectangular, rapid flashing beacons, things like that, where we’re measuring, how often drivers are yielding to pedestrians at those locations to understand what devices we should be putting in place to help increase the safety for pedestrians because devices like those I’m talking about are usually used at those mid-block locations that are in increased risk for pedestrians. And so we can use more of those engineering devices to make it easier for pedestrians to cross at those mid-block locations. Then we’re improving pedestrian safety on the educational part of it. We need to use that as a tool in combination with improving the infrastructure, and also with having enforcement out there to better improve that safety for people walking and biking.
Bernie Fette (10:41):
Let’s step back for a moment to the alcohol factor. What do we know about that?
Neal Johnson (10:46):
There is growing evidence that alcohol plays a factor in pedestrian crashes. It’s still a little bit limited in terms of the amount of research in this. And of course, unfortunately there’s also lots of data we don’t know. Unlike a vehicle crash where we typically, especially if it’s a fatality, they usually find out if that person had any type of alcohol in their system or something like that. We don’t always know that for the pedestrian. So that’s one thing to think about, but we also know that pedestrian crashes, again, more often happen at night and in the Texas Department of Transportation study I referenced, there’s a noticeable spike in pedestrian crashes in certain hours. Like for example, that 2:00 to 3:00 a.m. hour on Sunday morning.
Bernie Fette (11:25):
Neal Johnson (11:25):
Which would coincide with bar close, right, for a Saturday night. If you’re out late, there’s some evidence there that, that timeframe at least shows a little higher proportion of pedestrian crashes than other hours of the day, especially when you factor in the amount of people that are out walking and driving at that time of night, which is much lower, of course.
Bernie Fette (11:44):
And that may also have a connection, I wonder, to the age group that you were talking about, people in their early twenties being overrepresented in these numbers, and that might tie to the demographics that would be leaving those bars late at night or in the early morning hours.
Neal Johnson (12:00):
Yes, exactly. And it gets, it also somewhat fits with the demographic group that we, again, we know males are overrepresented in these crashes as well. And I should also note that the alcohol factor is probably on both sides of the equation here. It’s probably not just the pedestrians that are walking after having a drink or two; it’s also those people that choose to get in a car and they drive and then they might hit a pedestrian because they’re not looking for them. They’re again, all their faculties are not there. They’re not necessarily concentrating on, on driving as much as they would if they were not impaired.
Bernie Fette (12:32):
Right. I know from other research that TTI has been working on with younger drivers that they’re waiting, generally speaking — they’re not necessarily getting their licenses whenever they are immediately eligible to, that some people are choosing not to drive, choosing to use whether it’s ride hailing or the active forms of transportation that you mentioned earlier — walking, being chief among them. Is that delay in getting licenses and owning vehicles factoring in. I mean, have you learned anything on that front about whether there’s a connection there with the higher number of fatalities in that age group?
Neal Johnson (13:09):
I haven’t specifically looked into that, but I think it’s definitely an area of research that we should look into to find out if there are connections there. ’cause that would be good information for us to know in terms of what we can do to combat the issues, right?
Bernie Fette (13:22):
Right, right. And which then leads me to ask, what are some of the other questions that you and your colleagues have in your mind on this topic? What are some of the research priorities that you’re pursuing now, or that you wish that you could pursue if you had the sponsored funding support?
Neal Johnson (13:37):
Well, most of my work since I work in the behavioral research program, most of my concentration is on how we can make behavior change. How can we change the behavior of drivers, behavior of people walking, you know, behavior of all road users basically, and also kind of measuring that and understanding what the trends are in that way. So, when I think of work that I would like to do, I mean, I try to find more ways to educate. That’s always been my focus, is how can I better get educational materials, educational tools out to people. So, they know the rules of the road, so they know what the risks are, for example. So, I think that’s where always my focus is, is where can I help do more education to the public. I do also manage a grant that is also sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation that is training law enforcement on the laws around pedestrian and bicycle safety. And the idea behind it is that we want to equip law enforcement with the information so they can better enforce the laws so that they can help make our roads safer for everybody. So, for example, making sure that drivers are yielding to pedestrians when they’re required to at the crosswalks and making sure that drivers are passing bicyclists at a safe distance — you know, things like that. Where can we use law enforcement as a tool to help us better increase the safety for people that are more vulnerable, like people walking, for example.
Bernie Fette (14:56):
That’s really interesting. And it, again, prompts another question in my mind about the knowledge that people have about pedestrian traffic laws and whether or not they understand those as well as they might, the laws that govern how we operate motor vehicles. For instance, we talked earlier about pedestrians crossing mid-block. Is that against the law, or does it depend on where you live? Can you address that just as an example of what it means when we say pedestrian traffic?
Neal Johnson (15:28):
Yeah. So, mid-block crossings, when it comes to those legality of that, depends heavily on the situation you’re in. And I should also note that mid-block crossings are an issue. However, we know it’s an issue, not only from the behavioral aspect of it, but also the infrastructure aspect of it. We know that there are long distances between crossings, between crosswalks, intersections, and places where we would want a pedestrian to cross. We know there’s long distances between them. And so it’s important for us to consider when we’re thinking about mid-block crossings for pedestrians, that it’s not necessarily that, oh, you bad pedestrian, you’re crossing middle of the block. It’s sometimes there is no other choice because you’re not going to walk two miles out of your way to the nearest intersection, cross, and then come back to cross, to get to something right across the street from you.
Bernie Fette (16:18):
Neal Johnson (16:18):
Right? And I think that’s, again, going back to what you talked about earlier about how infrastructure can help influence the behavior of the pedestrians, especially in terms of legality though, at least in Texas, it is not illegal to cross the road at a mid-block crossing unless you’re in between two adjacent intersections that have traffic lights that are in use. So, if you have two intersections near each other that both have traffic lights, if you cross in the middle of block there, that is illegal, according to the Texas Transportation Code. However, if you’re a mile between intersections, for example, and you cross the middle of the block, it is not illegal for you to cross. However, you are required as the pedestrian to yield the right of way to the vehicles.
Bernie Fette (16:58):
Right. Okay. So, generally speaking, it depends on where you are.
Neal Johnson (17:02):
Bernie Fette (17:03):
You were talking a minute ago about education for law enforcement, for pedestrians, for everybody to be an important factor in, in helping to stem this tide. What are some of the other countermeasures, I wonder how you come about deciding what weight should be assigned to public education versus enforcement versus some of the infrastructure aspects we were talking about. Can you talk about the countermeasure approach in general and where you think the emphasis areas are and should be?
Neal Johnson (17:32):
Yeah. So I think, and most people that work in the pedestrian research area, especially in pedestrian safety, they’re very much advocates of improved infrastructure for the pedestrians. And I would definitely agree with that. I think the infrastructure, again, like we’ve already talked about can definitely improve behavior and make it easier to make those good decisions. So that way you’re not taking any more risks than you need to when you’re out there walking. However, the truth of matter is we’re not going to change the infrastructure, even in our cities versus our country overnight. That’s not going to happen right away.
Bernie Fette (18:03):
Right. It’s a pricey proposition to rebuild and build new sidewalks and such.
Neal Johnson (18:10):
Right, and while, you know, we talk about infrastructure investment, you know, are trying to get it passed in Congress right now, right?
Bernie Fette (18:14):
Neal Johnson (18:14):
So, it will take time for those things to happen. So, I think in the meantime, there’s a lot we can do on the educational part of that to tell people: Hey, we know infrastructure is not that great. We know there’s going to be these problems. Here’s how you can deal with them. And here’s how you can improve your safety and decrease your amount of risk when you’re out there walking. So, for example, if there are no sidewalks, talk about how we recommend walking on the left side of the road, facing the traffic, so you can see the traffic coming towards you and you can respond. And just letting people know, again, like I talked about with mid-block crossings, how we understand there’s long distances between crossings. So, if you’re going to have to cross at that mid-block location, be very cognizant of the speed of the vehicles, making sure that you know, that they don’t need to yield to you at that location. That’s not part of the requirement. You need to make sure you’re yielding to the vehicles and allowing for the speed of the vehicles and all that to give yourself time to cross that road where you need to.
Bernie Fette (19:09):
A lot of what we’ve talked about relates to, I don’t know if you’d call it a philosophy, but a belief that some people have that a certain amount of risk is a price that we pay as a society for the freedom of mobility. From a pedestrian safety standpoint, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that belief.
Neal Johnson (19:31):
Yeah. Well, I think there’s a certain amount of inherent risk and a lot of things we do in daily life. I mean the pandemic definitely taught us that, right, where, you know, just going outside of our homes, you know, in some cases could present risk. So, I think it’s important for people to understand that there is risk involved, but there’s also things a lot of people can do to decrease their risk. And so, one of the things important to think about is that when you’re walking and biking, you don’t have this 3,000-pound-plus hunk of metal surrounding you to give you protection like you do in a vehicle. That makes you particularly vulnerable, right, when it comes to a crash. And so, I personally do take precautions when I’m out walking, especially at night, for example, where I know I need to make myself more visible just to decrease the level of risk for me when I’m out there walking. So, for example, I might wear a reflective band around my wrist, or I might wear a reflective vest, or I might wear white color clothing as opposed to a dark shirt. That way I make myself more visible, so motorists can see me and decrease my amount of risk.
Bernie Fette (20:32):
Last question. More than 6,000 people died last year, and in many previous years, just trying to navigate our transportation pathways on foot. With 365 days in a year, just doing the math, we know that many pedestrians will die that way today. Many more will die in those collisions tomorrow. And the next day. Knowing that reality, what makes you get up and try again every day? What motivates you?
Neal Johnson (21:02):
Yeah. I always think about it, especially in terms of the educational and outreach perspective is now we haven’t been doing this during the pandemic, but pre-pandemic. And I was going to events where I would hand out information to people and talk to people and talk to them about how they can improve their safety. When walking, biking, driving, what they can all do to help increase safety for everybody out there on the roads. And as hard as it can be to look at the numbers and think, how am I going to make a dent in this, it’s always so fulfilling to know when you’re out there with people that you can just have that one connection with one person and maybe make, maybe just change their behavior enough where they’ll say: “Hey, I didn’t realize I was supposed to be yielding to a pedestrian at that mid-block crossing” or, you know, pedestrians say, “Oh, I thought the drivers always had to yield to me. So now I know I need to, to watch out for that one. I’m not crossing at a crosswalk.” So, I think about those times and during the pandemic for the outreach project that I run, you know, we are doing, doing a lot of that online and through social media. And that’s been increasing a lot, especially during the pandemic. And it’s just nice to know. I keep hoping that the messages are getting to at least one or two people. I mean, I know it’s just one or two people, but if that can change one person’s behavior, then it can start incrementally changing how safety will improve for people that are more vulnerable, like people walking and biking.
Bernie Fette (22:23):
Neal Johnson, associate transportation researcher at TTI. Neal, this has been very enlightening. Thank you very much for sharing your time and your insights with us.
Neal Johnson (22:36):
Yes. It’s been a pleasure.
Bernie Fette (22:38):
Cars and pedestrians have been sharing space on city streets since more than a century ago. Back then, America was experiencing a rash of pedestrian traffic deaths, even as it battled to overcome a nationwide flu outbreak. A hundred years and another pandemic later, one thing hasn’t changed. Traveling on foot is still a risky endeavor. And the tools for combating the problem — engineering, education, and enforcement — remain constant as well.
Bernie Fette (23:15):
Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll be back for the next episode, featuring a conversation with John Habermann, and his take on how transportation professionals can join the fight against the plague of human trafficking.
Bernie Fette (23:30):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.