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August 1, 2023Episode 63. One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Pedestrian deaths are at a 40-year high.
FEATURING: Ben Ettelman
The dangers for those who travel on foot have constituted a public health challenge for as long as we’ve had motor vehicles. Why are pedestrian deaths increasing so fast? And what can be done to stem the tide?
About Our Guest
Associate Research Scientist
Ben Ettelman works in TTI's Center for Advancing Research in Transportation Emissions, Energy, and Health (CARTHEEH). He uses a range of quantitative and qualitative methods to develop research that informs decision-making in transportation. Ben has more than 13 years of experience in transportation planning and research in policy, emissions, air quality, public health, transit, safety, public engagement and education. Prior to joining TTI, Ben was a public involvement planner for a consulting firm in Portland, Maine. Ben holds a M.S. in community and regional planning from The University of Texas at Austin and is a member of the American Planning Association and the International Association of Public Participation.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello and welcome to Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. In this episode, we’re taking a close look at the latest numbers on pedestrian safety in America. It’s not an encouraging picture. More than 7,500 people traveling on foot last year were killed by vehicle drivers. That’s more than any year in the past four decades, pedestrian deaths have increased by almost 80 percent over the past 10 years. Other traffic deaths are up too, but only by about 25 percent. Here to help us understand what’s going on with this trend is Ben Ettelman, an associate research scientist at TTI. Ben, welcome to Thinking Transportation.
Ben Ettelman (guest) (01:14):
Thanks so much for having me, Bernie. I appreciate it.
Bernie Fette (01:18):
I’m gonna quote really briefly from your bio here that says that your work focuses on research that informs the interaction between transportation and public health. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Do I have that right?
Ben Ettelman (01:30):
That’s right. Yep.
Bernie Fette (01:31):
Okay. Seems like a really fitting description given what we’re talking about today, because more than 7,500 pedestrians were killed by vehicle drivers last year. That’s the highest number in 40 years. Pedestrian deaths have increased by almost 80 percent over the past decade. Other traffic deaths are up too, but only by about 25 percent. Why is this happening, Ben? Help us understand the problem better, if you would, and then after we talk about that a bit, we can go into discussing solutions.
Ben Ettelman (02:10):
Sure, sure. Well, yes, it’s an epidemic, and it’s something that anybody who works in transportation, safety, public health is very aware of, and something that significant efforts have been made by city, state, and local and transportation agencies across the country. And frustratingly those numbers aren’t reflective of those efforts. You know, you mentioned the national numbers, but I also wanted to mention the Texas numbers because in Texas in 2014, there were 488 fatalities and 1,059 serious injuries. In 2022, there were 828 pedestrian fatalities and 1,442 serious injuries. That 1,442 in 2022 accounts for 5.8 percent of all serious injuries. But the 828 fatalities accounts for 17.3 percent of all of the fatalities in the state of Texas.
Bernie Fette (03:08):
So the pedestrian deaths as a share of overall traffic deaths, that segment is growing.
Ben Ettelman (03:14):
That’s correct. And so this really ultimately speaks to the challenge that we face when we have vulnerable road users, which includes pedestrians, bicyclists, as well as motorcyclists. But when pedestrians are struck by a vehicle, the likelihood that they are seriously injured or killed is extremely high as compared to traffic crashes. So mm-hmm. <affirmative>, one of the reasons for these steadily rising numbers, of course, is VMT rising. In 2014, we had about 2.98 trillion vehicle miles traveled. That’s the number of vehicle miles, or how much people are driving, essentially. So 2.98 trillion in 2014, up to 3.26 trillion in 2022. So again, we’re seeing a steady increase in the vehicles on the road, both the number of vehicles and how many miles they’re driving.
Bernie Fette (04:04):
So you have that many more miles being driven, that many more cars on the road. It more or less stands to reason that this is a function of exposure, right?
Ben Ettelman (04:13):
That’s exactly right. And the exposure is significantly impacted by speed. If you look at the average risk of severe injury or a fatality to pedestrians struck by a vehicle, it’s about 10 percent at an impact speed of 16 miles per hour, 25 percent at 23 miles per hour, it goes up to 50 percent at 31 miles per hour, 75 percent at 40 miles per hour, and 90 percent at 46 miles per hour. So as we see speeds increase, and as we see increased exposure of vulnerable road users, including pedestrians, more cars on the road, cars driving faster, we’re going to see these numbers increase. So this is one of the most significant reasons we’re seeing this steady increase of pedestrian serious injuries and fatalities in Texas and in the United States. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And ultimately what we know is the biggest additional reason for our inability to, to protect our most vulnerable road users is that we have infrastructure that has traditionally not protected the most vulnerable road users. Now, this is changing, and I think we can dig into this more, but I think it’s really important point up top to state that we need to make sure that we have infrastructure that protects our vulnerable road users from human error protects vulnerable road users from individuals who are speeding, protects vulnerable road users from the increased number of vehicles on the road. And again, we’re moving in the right direction. There’s the safe systems approach that USDOT has implemented across the country, and this translates to efforts like Road to Zero in the state of Texas and several cities within the, the state of Texas that have adopted Vision Zero initiatives. All of these initiatives are focused on creating infrastructure that prioritizes, protects vulnerable road users, but anything related to transportation infrastructure, that change is incremental. It takes time.
Bernie Fette (06:14):
Okay. Infrastructure that protects vulnerable road users. Talk a little about what that looks like, because when you say infrastructure, you’re talking about all of it. You’re talking about the roads. I guess you’re also talking about placement of sidewalks, placement of crosswalks. What does that look like in a world where transportation systems are designed with vulnerable road users more in mind? What would that look like? Mm-hmm.
Ben Ettelman (06:39):
<affirmative> So I’ll use an example from my hometown city of Austin. There’s a stretch of 51st Street in between Airport Boulevard and I-35. Now, this used to be a four-lane road with sidewalks right up against the edge of the road. So you had no merge, you had no bike lane, you have about eight and a half foot wide lanes. And so you have a road where vehicles were traveling very fast. And on top of that, you had very little buffer between any vulnerable road users and the vehicles on that road. So over the past year, the city of Austin went through what’s called a road diet, and they narrowed that road down to two lanes, one lane in each direction with significant buffer, including the bollards, kind of the big white plastic separator between the bike lane, which also provides more of a buffer between the pedestrian facility. So this does several things. It slows traffic down because you have less vehicles on the road and more narrow lanes. It provides a buffer between vehicles and pedestrians. And again, it actually, because you have more vehicles traveling on a road with less capacity, less roadway, it naturally leads to vehicles driving more slowly. The other aspect that I’ll share in terms of when we talk about transportation infrastructure, and I talk about this all the time, is the old adage that someone driving a vehicle, they typically don’t look at the speed limit when they’re driving. They drive as fast as they feel comfortable based on the design of the road. So even if you have …
Bernie Fette (08:16):
Or as fast as the rest of the people are driving?
Ben Ettelman (08:18):
That’s true. And so if you have a 35 mile per hour road, but you have four lanes and they’re, you know, 10 to 12 feet wide, you’ll have vehicles driving quite a bit faster regardless of whether there’s pedestrian facilities there. So this approach to narrowing roads, providing facilities with buffers, it’s not just a, Hey, let’s put a a sidewalk on the side of a roadway. It’s okay, let’s narrow the roads so people look at this road and say, this doesn’t feel like a 60 mile per hour or a 50 mile per hour road. This feels like a 35 mile per hour road.
Bernie Fette (08:53):
Okay. And the example that you’ve given here with 51st Street in Austin was a retrofitting. It was an example of changing something that already existed that was mm-hmm. <affirmative> designed and built many years ago. How much of the infrastructure solution that you’ve been talking about, how much of that is about changing what already has been built and how much of that is about designing infrastructure that hasn’t yet been built? That’s still part of a plan in a growing part of a community. How do you approach those two concurrently?
Ben Ettelman (09:35):
I think that several cities are focused where they can on narrowing roads in areas that have high crash rates. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> In terms of designing new facilities. Or perhaps a good example would be redesigning and rebuilding facilities. Like I-35 is being redesigned and rebuilt in several locations in central Texas. And there absolutely is the inclination by, for example, TxDOT to make sure that when they are designing these roadways, there are pedestrian facilities that are being designed that are separated from the roadway. So it’s not a frontage road with a sidewalk directly abutting that frontage road. Rather, they have a hike / bike trail in several locations along 35 that are separated.
Bernie Fette (10:24):
Yeah. And that’s an example of the new construction.
Ben Ettelman (10:26):
That’s correct. Yep. So there is an emphasis in the redesigning and the rebuilding and the building of new facilities on safe pedestrian facilities. There is a challenge that all transportation agencies face in the United States, and that is that we have an auto-dominated transportation system. Frankly, the majority of our society drives in single occupancy vehicles. We have communities that have been designed around the automobile. We have folks that live in suburbs. They’re driving from 20, 30, 40 minutes outside of the city center to access jobs, to access schools, to access services. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So we rely on these high-speed facilities. And so I definitely understand the, the challenge that transportation agencies face when they’re trying to accommodate ensuring the efficiency of travel time reliability, ensuring that these vehicles have the ability to drive from point A to point B, but also ensuring that we have pedestrian facilities. So in many cases we have cities and states trying to work together to create facilities that are automobile focused, and then create facilities that are more pedestrian focused.
Bernie Fette (11:42):
Okay. That’s a really good introduction to one question that I had, which is that distinction between the two. You’ve talked about pedestrian bridges, for example. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we’ve talked about using an example on the street where I live has dedicated lanes for bicycles, it has sidewalks and it has automobile traffic lanes. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. That’s an example of a shared infrastructure space as opposed to the pedestrian bridge that you mentioned, which is dedicated exclusively to that form of transportation. Is part of the solution to this challenge that simple, if I can use that word, so simple as a complete separation between the infrastructure that serves pedestrians and the infrastructure that serves automobiles, other motorized transportation? Or am I just oversimplifying here?
Ben Ettelman (12:40):
Well, unfortunately, yeah. I mean it is oversimplified, but it’s, you’re not wrong. I mean, I completely agree. And I think that when pedestrian safety folks sit down with transportation agencies and say, how can we address this? That’s certainly the conversation that we have. How can we separate these modes because they clash? Well, the problem ultimately comes also down to land use. And we won’t go too in depth with land use. But ultimately when we have land use patterns and development patterns that have spread folks out so significantly, you’re going to have folks walking in places where there are cars. If you look at New York, they have a significant density, they have significant number of pedestrians. You would think, well, that increase in exposure would lead to more fatalities, more serious injuries. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But in practice, it’s actually the opposite because the density and development over the past several decades and century at this point, has led to a, an environment that is friendly to pedestrians and isn’t friendly to speed. In most of the United States, you have cities that have been designed around the automobile. Ultimately, we have the demand for pedestrian facilities and demand for pedestrians walking spread throughout the entire community. So there is no easy light switch to say, yeah, we can just have all of our vehicles on this road and all of our pedestrians in this location because ultimately the way that our cities in the United States have been developed mean that we have those needs in the same place.
Bernie Fette (14:18):
Right. And a lot of the reason for that is not only because of land use, but because of personal preference, I would imagine. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> for the people who want to live in any place where other people live, ’cause one of the things that you pointed out is that people are traveling farther, say from where they live to where they might work to a city center or a more densely populated part of an urban area. And as those urban areas and then suburban areas spread out, we have more miles traveled, which you were talking about earlier in our conversation. You have more miles traveled, which then again, just basically because of exposure increases the potential for conflicts between cars and humans. Right?
Ben Ettelman (15:02):
Bernie Fette (15:04):
Okay. You pointed out a lot about infrastructure. Are these numbers going up because we have the same problem with impaired walking that we have with impaired driving? Does alcohol fit into the cause mix at all from what you’ve studied?
Ben Ettelman (15:19):
You know, Bernie, I have heard several folks within the pedestrian safety and the traffic safety community talk about the potential impact of drunk walking on these numbers. But I will also say that I have not seen research that shows that individuals walking drunk has led to these increases. I am certain that there are examples of that, but I have not seen any research that says that that is a significant contributing factor.
Bernie Fette (15:43):
Okay. And I have another question about it that may have a similar answer from you, because it’s another area where I’ve read a bit, but have not seen any really hard statistics, any really hard data, even in the academic literature that I’ve looked at. And that’s the issue of people who choose to end their own lives by jumping into traffic. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> From what little that I’ve seen, and I’ve heard from people in the field that address mental health concerns. And again, even a little bit in the academic literature world, that this really is a thing. It’s just that for obvious reasons, it’s very difficult to judge intent. Is that a piece of the pedestrian safety issue that you have heard about or read about, learned about in any way, even if it’s only anecdotal?
Ben Ettelman (16:40):
Yes. And I will say, as you stated, it’s anecdotal, but it’s something that we do discuss within the pedestrian safety community. The intent is hard to really put your finger on. But I would kind of reframe this by saying, we shouldn’t be trying to say, well, this individual is attempting to end their life, or this individual was under the influence and made a decision that they wouldn’t have made if they weren’t under the influence. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we, we just cannot make a judgment on that. However, as a transportation professional, what we can do is say, well, how can we ensure that that individual cannot put themselves in harm’s way? Too often this conversation comes up and folks are saying, how can we keep people from making these decisions? And I ultimately push back on that notion ’cause I think that, again, we don’t know intent. We need to create infrastructure that protects those individuals, whether it’s they’re trying to end their life or they are, you know, drunk or on drugs, and they make a decision that they wouldn’t make if they were otherwise sober. The infrastructure needs to protect them from that bad decision.
Bernie Fette (17:51):
Let’s talk briefly about demographics, if we could. Are there any particular groups that are especially at risk or more likely to be injured or killed by a vehicle driver?
Ben Ettelman (18:04):
There’s significant equity implications with pedestrian safety. And it’s something that, again, within the community we talk about all the time. So this is a challenge that is multifaceted. If we look at the areas in a community that are underserved, if you look at the demographics, they have lower rates of car ownership, higher transit usage. So ultimately these are households and populations that are walking more. Oftentimes there is underinvestment in safe facilities in these areas. So there in many cases aren’t sidewalks or discontinued sidewalks. Sidewalks for a block, and then no sidewalk. And in these locations, oftentimes we see speeds are higher. At the same time, we’ll look at maybe some of the areas within cities where there are significant investments. And a lot of times the way that pedestrian facilities have historically been built over the past, say two decades, three decades, has been okay — a big developer comes in, they want to build a big apartment complex. As part of that development, they are then required to build pedestrian facilities. So if you look at city centers where there’s been significant development, you have amazing, pristine pedestrian facilities, but you’re not getting that same investment in underserved communities.
Bernie Fette (19:23):
Okay. So I’ve heard you mention two things, both the circumstances for people living in a particular area, and the limited amount of public investment that’s made in the infrastructure. In other words, not as many sidewalks. And at the same time, you’ve got people who are depending more on transit, people who are less likely to own a car. So in both of those regards, both with the infrastructure and the circumstances for the people living in certain areas, this is an economic issue in large measure, it sounds like, if I’m not oversimplifying once again. So one demographic group that is, for example, at greater risk is the group that is of lower income, correct?
Ben Ettelman (20:08):
Yes. I know cities like Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, El Paso are addressing this. So they are making investments in these communities specifically because they know they have been underinvested. And that has led to increased exposure, increased pedestrian serious injuries and fatalities.
Bernie Fette (20:30):
So the underinvestment then ends up leading to an overrepresentation in the pedestrian death statistics.
Ben Ettelman (20:39):
That’s well put.
Bernie Fette (20:40):
Okay. So here’s the big question. We’ve been talking a lot about the problem and the causes for it. How do we fix this? How do we fix this ever worsening traffic safety issue that is also a serious public health issue? Do we need new solutions? Do we need old solutions done in a different way? Are there solutions that don’t work as well as they used to? What do we do, Ben?
Ben Ettelman (21:06):
There are certainly plenty of engineering countermeasures that are being implemented that are highly effective. But I will make two points that I think are critically important. The first is collaboration. It’s a multidisciplinary problem. We need to have policy in place that provides protection for pedestrians. We need to make sure that we have the ability for our law enforcement community to be able to enforce those laws when they’re implemented. And, and that’s a challenge right now, one that we haven’t touched on, but it’s a significant challenge in traffic safety across the board because we have a significant shortage in police officers across the country. I have family members who are police officers, and I’ve talked to them about this. And this leads to traffic enforcement being one of the lowest items on the totem pole. There are solutions like automated enforcement that can be considered. And we also need to make sure that we’re continuing to push forward on education and outreach efforts.
Ben Ettelman (22:07):
Uh, we wanna make sure that the public understands that you know, that they have a responsibility driving under the influence that puts people at risk. I think that there continues to be significant emphasis from state dots and cities to message how important it is not to drive under the influence. However, we continue to see that be a significant contributor to traffic safety deaths and serious injuries. We also wanna make sure that individuals who are pedestrians know the best way to cross the street. For example, when you’re crossing mid-block, a pedestrian has the right to cross mid-block in the state of Texas, but they have to yield to a vehicle. Conversely, if a pedestrian is crossing at a crosswalk, if their foot is in the crosswalk, the vehicle should yield. But I would say that the infrastructure component will make the biggest impact on improving pedestrian safety in Texas and in the United States. First of all, we need to collaborate among all of the different, you know, organizations, whether it’s state, regional, and local entities. We need collaboration between law enforcement and transportation agencies to ensure that we’re messaging consistently. But the second point would be, if we could only do one thing, we would need to invest in infrastructure that protects our vulnerable users. If we want to reduce the number of serious injuries and fatalities, we need to continue to develop infrastructure that protects vulnerable road users.
Bernie Fette (23:40):
So you’ve got a long list of potential solutions, but infrastructure is at the top of the list.
Ben Ettelman (23:46):
From my perspective. Yes. And that’s not to minimize the impact of policy, of enforcement, of education and outreach. It just means that at the end of the day, we have the ability to build infrastructure that can keep people from making mistakes. People are fallible, people will speed. People will not look over their shoulder when they’re turning right and miss that there’s a pedestrian crossing the street. Pedestrians will make mistakes. They’ll cross mid-block, they’ll cross when they’re not supposed to at an intersection. Mistakes have happened and will continue to happen. We need to build infrastructure that protects our most vulnerable road users from making a mistake.
Bernie Fette (24:28):
So we’re gaining a better understanding of the problem, but the numbers are still high and they’re growing. What is the greatest research need? We’ve talked about the solutions starting with infrastructure. If you had to make a list of research priorities to help us understand the problem even better, what would you put at the top of the list of research needs?
Ben Ettelman (24:54):
You know, I would say that from engineering research, we have excellent research happening. From my time beginning to work in this field 10 years ago to now, I’ve seen significant improvements in the options that are available to practitioners to implement in terms of engineering countermeasures. I think the research, from my perspective, isn’t necessarily on a light switch solution. You know, it is much more on how can we get state DOTs, regional planning organizations and cities to coordinate and collaborate to ensure that their priorities align. So we can all work together to ensure that we are building infrastructure from state roads to regional roads, to local roads that are protecting these individuals.
Bernie Fette (25:45):
We have certainly covered a lot today. If our audience could take away just one big thought from our conversation, what would you hope that that thought would be?
Ben Ettelman (25:55):
Well, I would hope the thought would be, let’s collectively focus on the most impactful approaches to improving pedestrian safety. And from my perspective, as I’ve mentioned, that’s infrastructure. Infrastructure that limits speed, that provides safe facilities, that separates pedestrians from high-speed traffic, infrastructure that provides safe crossings. There are several examples of cities doing it right, of states doing it right. And we just need to double down on these efforts. Bernie, I don’t think there’s anything that Ben Ettelman can provide right now that isn’t in the ether. It’s much more about recognizing that we need to come together and we need to focus on collectively and collaboratively creating and developing infrastructure that has a vulnerable road user in mind. And if that means that we have to sacrifice a little bit of speed, a little bit of throughput, a little bit of the ability for folks to travel from point A to point B in 20 minutes as opposed to 18 minutes, that’s a fair sacrifice to save lives.
Bernie Fette (27:03):
Last question. What is it that gets you excited about showing up for work every day?
Ben Ettelman (27:10):
<laugh>. So I love the fact that the work that we do with Texas A&M Transportation Institute helps us improve the lives of everyday citizens. This is a really important topic, one that frankly is a little bit negative, but everyone within TTI, from our folks who are doing more of the engineering research to the folks doing more of the outreach and education and coordination, we are all focused on improving those numbers as significantly and drastically as we can. So what makes me excited is the fact that when I wake up, when I come to work, I can make a difference in the world. I can save a life. And that’s, I think what gets everybody who works in pedestrian safety at TTI excited to to do this work.
Bernie Fette (27:58):
We have been visiting with Ben Ettelman, an associate research scientist and program manager at TTI. Ben, thanks very much for sharing your time and insights with us. We appreciate it.
Ben Ettelman (28:11):
Thank you, Bernie, for having me. I appreciate it as always,
Bernie Fette (28:15):
People who navigate our transportation systems on foot face dangers that have been around for as long as we’ve had automobiles. In fact, the number of pedestrians killed in motor vehicle collisions has nearly doubled since 2010. The reasons for this deadly trend are many. Experts point to the growing prevalence of trucks and SUVs on the road, driver distraction, and speeding. So, while vehicles have become safer over the years, drivers in many cases have not. Strategies to address this problem encompass the full range of engineering, education, and enforcement actions. But at the center of the solution mix is the need for transportation agencies and stakeholder groups to collaborate — because it’s a problem that’s too big for any single entity to tackle alone. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode, and please join us again next time for a visit with Michael Berube, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Sustainable Transportation and Fuels at the U.S. Department of Energy. 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.