Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America

Urban planner Angie Schmitt explains why American pedestrians, especially people of color and poor people, die in higher numbers compared to our peer countries.

Angie Schmitt is an urban planner who writes about sustainable transportation. She has served as the national editor at StreetsBlog, and her commentary has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and on NPR. She runs a planning and consulting firm focused on pedestrian safety. She is the author of the book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. She recently came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk to editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson to talk about why pedestrian deaths in America have been on the rise for the last decade.

Robinson

Your book is about what you call a silent epidemic. We don’t talk nearly enough about pedestrian deaths in the United States. Lay out the scope of the problem before we get into the causes and all the structural factors.

Schmitt

Traffic deaths in general are a kind of mass death. We’ve become accustomed to it in the United States. I made up this term—pedestrian safety crisis—to describe the escalation in pedestrian deaths over the last roughly 10 years, in which pedestrian deaths have increased about 50 percent. And the problem actually got a lot worse during the pandemic. There are many reasons for that. That’s what I tried to lay out in the book.

Robinson

But essentially, the numbers are just going up and up over time. And of course, we started from an unacceptable baseline, but it is a problem that is actually getting worse.

Schmitt

Yeah. And that’s actually kind of unusual. We used to be able to count on traffic deaths being reduced over time because we were inventing things like seatbelts and airbags since the 1970s. So to have this sustained increase over the past 10 years is really unusual and kind of unprecedented in traffic safety. And when it first started occurring, a lot of people just thought it was a blip. Nobody knew what was going on. And now we know it’s a very sustained trend. And we have a better idea of what the causes are.

Robinson

Is this a uniquely American trend? Or is this being experienced in lots of places around the world?

Schmitt

The United States is kind of an outlier on traffic safety. Among wealthy nations, we do really badly. So traffic safety in the United States, compared to our peers in Europe, and some of our peers in Asia, has really eroded more generally. But this, specifically, is unusual as well. We haven’t seen the same thing in Canada. Germany just recorded the biggest ever decrease over time. So we’re uncoupling from a lot of our international peers on this.

Robinson

And so it’s thousands of people every year who are killed as pedestrians, right?

Schmitt

About 6,500 people are killed this way. So to put it in perspective, it’s about twice as many people as those killed in fires in the U.S. In every town in this country, we have teams of people who prevent fire deaths. And then meanwhile, we lose so many people this way. There’s really not a whole lot of infrastructure to even support changes.

Robinson

One thing perhaps worth emphasizing is the way that a death like this is a particularly traumatic death for the loved ones of the people who die. I feel like it’s the kind of death where you have to be haunted for years by the knowledge that [they might not have died] if they had just moved a split second sooner or one thing had been slightly different. I mean, I feel like with a long illness, there are ways to kind of reconcile yourself [to the situation]. But these are really the kinds of deaths that are like freak accidents. They’re not freak accidents, as you point out—we’ll discuss all the actual causes. But it is particularly gruesome in many cases and a particularly traumatizing kind of death that we’re talking about.

Schmitt

Right. These are violent deaths. They’re gruesome. The organization I used to work for called Streetsblog was trying to use language that de-sanitized the issue. A lot of the language we use to talk about these kinds of deaths is so boring. I think it lulls us into complacency about this. We could talk about a coronavirus death in an absolute way. Or heart disease—the kind of thing that’s killing older people, one of the things that eventually gets written on a death certificate. [Traffic deaths] do affect older people disproportionately, as well–but we also see years of life lost.

Robinson

In the book you try to humanize and tell the stories of people who are involved in these things. Looking at the human reality here, it’s a true horror. It’s traumatic for the family members and witnesses as well. There are people who are going to relive [these accidents] for years, thinking about what they could have done. Also drivers. Sometimes we’re talking about reckless drivers, but you emphasize the structural causes of these things. I’ve met people before who’ve accidentally caused deaths with their cars, and they go through the rest of their life completely haunted by having taken a life.

Schmitt

There’s so much trauma as a result of this. For every person killed, there are eight people who are seriously injured. [This creates] a lot of disability, a lot of missed work time—huge societal expenses. So it’s a shame that we haven’t done a better job. These are kinds of tragedies that people have to handle privately. We have walks for breast cancer and a bit of community around some of these other leading killers. And that really doesn’t emerge so much for this. It’s seen as an act of God, almost.

Robinson

Yes. It’s important for us to get into all of the ways in which it is not, in fact, an act of God. You lay out in the book all of the totally preventable causes of these accidents. It is instructive to look at the U.S. versus other places. Clearly something is being done here that is not being done elsewhere. There are many, many different causes. You blame the pedestrian attitude, which is one of the things that is used to rationalize these [deaths] or take attention away from the responsibility of other factors.

Schmitt

Right. There’s this kind of knee-jerk reaction, usually when a pedestrian or cyclist is struck, to point the finger back. It’s very common in news reports. They’ll say the person wasn’t in the crosswalk or was wearing dark clothing, and they don’t say that that means it’s their fault, but that’s clearly the implication. And this is before there has even been an investigation. A lot of the reporting is just straight stenography from the police report.

I actually got hit by a car myself for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It’s really bad right now out there. It was at low speed and I was okay, but I was in a crosswalk. I had the walk signal. And even among my own family, they’ve made little remarks—I don’t think they realize they’re doing it—that blame me. It was a hit and run as well. I was doing everything right, you know? That tendency [to blame the pedestrian] is very strong.

Robinson

You must not have looked or something like that. Like, how could you not see it?

Schmitt

I heard my mom telling her friend that I got hit by a car and her friend was like, Was she in the street? Well, yeah, I had to be in the street to cross the road. There’s a concept that I tried to take on in the book that’s very deeply ingrained in our culture: that roads are for cars to drive on and anyone else who’s in the road is doing something wrong. But it’s a little bit more complex than that. We obviously have crosswalks. Historically, streets had a lot of different social uses; children would play in them. So this is about who has access to public space.

Robinson

You write about something I had absolutely no idea about: the fact that this attitude toward cars versus pedestrian responsibility has changed over time. And when cars first came on the road, streets were places for people to walk and sell things. And the life of the city was in the streets. The killer cars were all blamed for bringing death and mayhem. And then over time, it became the pedestrians who were seen as the inconvenience to cars. You talk about the origins of the concept of jaywalking. There’s a kind of manufactured concept to it. It’s very interesting how the culture has actually changed to shift responsibility.

Schmitt

There’s a historian at the University of Virginia that writes about the early auto era in the U.S. And there was this very specific industry campaign to shift blame when someone was killed by a car from the driver to the pedestrian. It was very successful. They introduced this concept of jaywalking. We really don’t have a similar term for someone who fails to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. There’s no slur we assign to them. So that’s really important to the way we understand it. And it’s a big problem for resolving the issue.

Robinson

And the word jay means idiot, or hick. It’s a legal term that essentially means walking like an idiot. That’s really stunning. In the case where you were hit by a car, you were doing everything right. A lot of people are doing everything right. But then there are lots of cases where people are violating the law or the rules, but they’re doing so for quite understandable reasons. You say, Oh, you weren’t crossing in a crosswalk. And then you explain how this was an elderly man and the nearest crosswalk required like two thirds of a mile detour.

Schmitt

Right. In that case, it was a guy who was, I think, almost 80. And he was killed by an off-duty police officer while walking. They accused him of running in front of the police car. But how many 80 year olds are running around? In Phoenix, only about a third of pedestrians that are killed are killed within 500 feet of a crosswalk. So there just aren’t enough crosswalks. And I write in the book about how the law discourages engineers from adding signalized crosswalks as well. So on one hand, we’re actually arresting people sometimes for crossing outside crosswalks. And we do that in a way that disproportionately is biased against Black and Brown folks. And at the same time, we have laws on the books that are very obscure and that discourage engineers from adding crosswalks where they might be needed.

Robinson

There are all sorts of fascinating policy factors in the background. You have this one crazy fact that I couldn’t even believe, which is that there are state constitutions that prohibit states from using gas tax money on sidewalks. There are all sorts of ways in which car culture, and infrastructure designed around automobiles, is woven deep into the law and deep into the planning process.

Schmitt

That’s the case where I live in Ohio. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the oil companies put a lot of money behind a referendum to get voters to say that none of that gas tax money could be spent on sidewalks. So when I was a kid, I lived in a sprawling suburb, and I used to have to walk about a mile to school. I had to go the circuitous way, even though my school is really only maybe like half a mile or a quarter mile away. So my dad went to the school board and said, Hey, how about we put a sidewalk in front of the school? They told us no because the state constitution said they couldn’t use the money that way.

Robinson

It’s incredible. I grew up in the suburbs of Florida. And one thing that doesn’t surprise me from your book, but that I didn’t actually know, is that Florida is pretty much the worst. And I know why. Because in the suburbs of Florida, there are all these roads where cars are going 55 miles an hour, but there are things that you need to get to on the roads. And if you’re walking, there are no sidewalks. You’re crossing through Burger King parking lots and climbing through bushes, and there’ll be a sidewalk for like 300 feet, and then all of a sudden, it’ll stop. You go on the grass, or there’ll be a ditch and then you’ll have to walk on the road. And these are the kinds of places where this problem [of pedestrian deaths] becomes much worse. It really is much worse in some places than others.

Schmitt

There was a group that ranks the worst cities for pedestrian safety every few years. They’ll do the top 20 cities, and 15 will be in Florida. Florida is the worst. It’s not just Florida. The Southeast and Sun Belt region of the U.S. is the worst, because those are places that developed at the height of the automobile era, when we were building the interstate highway system, and all the engineers were trained to build the city streets like highways. That was the training they got. So we built an environment that’s really sprawling. We have these major arterials that are very dangerous. My sister lives in Broward County, Florida. So I go down there about once a year, and I always have a complete mental breakdown just looking at people walking on the streets, because it’s so dangerous. Another issue is, in a state like Florida, the kind of people who are walking tend to be lower income, people who might be recent immigrants, or they’re just poor, and their rights and needs are really taking a backseat.

Robinson

Let’s discuss that. The subtitle of your book is Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. One of the things that you emphasize heavily is that this is not a crisis that equally affects all Americans. And one of the reasons why it might not be paid sufficient attention is that the people who are most likely to be killed tend to be poor people, older people, disabled people, and people of color, the people who have to walk to work and don’t have a car, the people who are a little slower to cross the street. So there are all sorts of factors that make some people more likely to be a victim of this epidemic. Just like with COVID, these kinds of crises don’t fall equally on the person in the giant SUV and the person desperately running across the six-lane highway to get to their job.

Schmitt

Right. We’re starting to better understand how our public health issues work this way. I come from the field of urban planning. And really, it’s the engineers who have more control over these issues. For a long time, we were designing our transportation system by catering to a certain person who we were thinking of as the default kind of person. And it’s probably a man in middle age. He’s working age. Maybe he’s commuting from the suburbs to downtown. Okay, so those are the kinds of people the system caters to. Many people don’t fit into that. There are children, retired folks, people with disabilities—a lot of people that don’t fit that. And for them, the system just doesn’t work very well. It’s very dangerous. So, the statistics show this.

Robinson

As the city centers have gentrified, a lot of poor people and people of color have now been pushed out to the suburbs. These are places where it’s a much more difficult experience to be poor and walk around. The infrastructure just isn’t there. You write about how even in an incredibly bike- and pedestrian-friendly city like Portland, Oregon, which has invested tons in making itself walkable for all these young people who like to bike around safely—there’s this whole other part of Portland where the all the poor people are shunted, places where the street lights are out. This is the same problem happening all over America.

Schmitt

It’s really stark in Portland, actually. I use Portland as a bad example. Obviously, they’ve done a lot of good things, and they have a much lower fatality rate than many places. And this is true of almost every metro area: you have these socioeconomic dividing lines in cities. In Portland it’s this road called East 82nd Street. So everything east of 82nd Street in Portland is called East Portland, and that’s the part of the city that’s more diverse and poor than the rest of the city. Half of traffic deaths in Portland occur in East Portland, even though only a quarter of the population lives there. So people who live there are about twice as likely to be killed. Out of the 30 highest crash intersections in Portland, 28 out of 30 are in East Portland. There’s infrastructure inequality that occurs where white wealthy neighborhoods are having an easier time securing safe roadways and lower income neighborhoods of color are being passed over for the kind of stuff they need.

Robinson

There is a racial gap in pedestrian deaths. People of color are much more likely to be killed in a pedestrian crash. And so when we are thinking about systemic racism, when we are thinking about the various harms that fall on people disproportionately by race, you know, obviously people immediately think about police shootings, housing discrimination, employment discrimination. But these [pedestrian deaths] are violent deaths that need to be part of that analysis.

Schmitt

It’d be interesting to look at the number of people who are killed by police cars. There’s so much emphasis on shooting—obviously, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be. But if a police car hit someone and kills them, there’s a few more layers to that, but still, I think we would see pretty disparate numbers. It would be a big number.

Robinson

One of the reasons your book is very valuable is that even beyond this specific issue, you encourage us to question the very concept of an accident. We see accidents as acts of God, as tragedies, as just these unavoidable unfortunate things that befall people. But what you do is say, okay, but if accidents occur much more in these areas, in this country, to these people, then what is going on here? And should we really be thinking about this in the language of pure accident?

Schmitt

People make decisions all the time. People in positions of authority make decisions that they know will lead to deaths. In Europe, they’re going to take this a lot more seriously. They’re going to require speed limiting devices on new cars during this year. So speed is such a huge factor in traffic deaths. And, by the way, in a place like Florida, what we’re doing with speeding is just a waste of gas. When I was just down there, in Broward County, people were going 50 miles an hour between two traffic lights that are like 400 yards apart—maybe not even that—and so they just went right to a red light anyway. So that really doesn’t save anyone too much time. I’m sorry, I’m off on a tangent. Anyway, we have the technology now to where we could eliminate speeding if we wanted to. We don’t have to wait for automated vehicles. That kind of stuff exists and has been operationalized by some of our peer countries, and we’ve just chosen not to implement it. We won’t even require speed limiting devices on heavy commercial trucks. So on 18-wheelers on the highway, this comes up before Congress—and these families who’ve lost people and have lost children give this tearful testimony asking for speed limiting devices on heavy trucks—and they just say no, because they’re being lobbied by the trucking industry. There isn’t a lot of public pressure for Congress to do the right thing.

Robinson

I drove in Britain a couple of years ago, and there are speed cameras pretty much all across Britain. It’s very difficult to go anywhere without a sign saying that the speed cameras are watching you. And I didn’t enjoy it. But I have to tell you, I was very careful.

Schmitt

Those are so controversial. But there is a lot of evidence that they work, such as in New York. I work with this group now called Families for Safe Streets, and I talk about them in the book. It’s mostly parents whose kids have been killed by cars by drivers in New York City. It’s the same thing. The NYPD is arresting a mother whose daughter was killed in a crosswalk in Queens, because she’s protesting for these red lights, for the speed cameras only in school zones. And it’s just such a tough battle for them. Even in New York City, where only about 50 percent of households even have a car in the household.

Robinson

You pointed out that some places like New York City have actually reversed the trend or have done a fairly good job of reducing or coming close to eliminating these kinds of deaths. Some places in America have done well, as you mentioned. A lot of places in Europe have done well. So one of the things that I think should make people angry is that this is such a preventable problem. This is such a horrible thing. But we do have evidence that there are things that we could do to change this.

Schmitt

Right. Some of them are pretty inexpensive. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a whole lot of public pressure or awareness. So that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write a book. If we can bring a little more attention to this issue, we can save lives. That’s step one. But there are all kinds of tools that are available. I was on a training with the Federal Highway Administration all morning. They were talking about how you can change the intersection geometry. So you’re changing the position of the curves in an intersection, and they can predict whether it will reduce pedestrian crashes. But the industry is really catching up. And there’s a lot of public pressure in the other direction. Drivers think city driving is terrible, right? This is terrible. It’s so frustrating. It feels like waiting in line. So there can be really heated political battles about it. And there’s a lot of public pressure on politicians to not act on behalf of safety.

Robinson

In the U.S., there’s very much an individualist, how-dare-you-tell-me-what-to-do? kind of ethic that suggests that all regulation is a form of tyranny. I want to talk about the big trucks. I saw a truck the other day that had these big bull horns, like these steer horns strapped to the front. And I felt it, I gripped it, and it was really solid. They were pointy. And then I was like, this is a pedestrian impalement device on the front of someone’s truck. This shouldn’t be allowed. But I live in Louisiana. And I’m sure it is allowed. And I’m sure if there was any effort to prevent you from putting big impalement cow horns on the front of your truck, it would be seen as an affront to the American way and individual liberty.

Schmitt

Right. Well, we got carmakers to agree to remove hood ornaments from the front of their cars because those kinds of things would just mangle a pedestrian. You do not want to get hit by one of those because of the way crash physics works. If you’re going to suffer a blow, you want it to be cushioned. So yes, that is a big problem. A lot of people are modifying their cars now to add bull bars which are similar to those steel bars, even police departments. In Portland, taxpayers are paying for these pedestrian-killing bull bars in front of the Transit Police in Portland. So that’s disturbing.

Robinson

You do talk about trucks and SUVs. First of all, there are more SUVs. Now everyone is buying SUVs. There used to be a critique of SUVs where people saw them as ridiculous because they’re supposed to be off-road vehicles. I remember when the SUV trend began. We made fun of people who would buy off-road vehicles for the streets. But now it’s just like there are hardly any sedans. Most cars that pass you are SUVs or trucks.

Schmitt

Right? It’s like the default. Now the default now is a midsize SUV. Everyone I know has a midsize SUV now. That’s probably the clearest evidence of what’s causing the increase [in pedestrian deaths]; it’s the change in the vehicle mix in the U.S. Cars have gotten bigger. We’ve switched from sedans. If you look back to the cars that we drove in the 1990s, these little Hondas, I mean, a few people could lift them. But it’s changed so much. So now cars are bigger, they’re heavier, and when they strike pedestrians, they hit them higher on the body. So instead of being struck in the legs, people are struck in the abdomen, right where their internal organs are. Children can be forced under the wheels of these big trucks instead of onto the hood. The Federal Highway Administration published a study in 2015, kind of quietly, where they said it was a meta-review of the research. They found pedestrians were two-and-a-half to three times more likely to be killed if they were struck by an SUV. And for children, it was four times more likely. And the Obama administration was trying to get what we call our Five Star vehicle safety rating system to include impacts to pedestrians at the time. So if they had proposed that in 2018, then Obama’s out, Trump’s in, and they quash that.

Robinson

I’m sure if Donald Trump had his way he would mandate bull bars on every new car. It’s just whatever insane deadly thing is the worst possible thing. You have these crazy pictures in the book of the big trucks. And they did some tests—it’s kind of scary looking—where they had a bunch of children and they tried to see how many children could fit in front of one of these trucks before the driver could see you. And they ran out of children before they even figured out how many children. It was like 17.

Schmitt

They have big frontal and rear blind zones. It’s shocking how often children are run over by their own parents in their own driveways. In the U.S., 50 children a week. They used to be backed over in their own driveway mostly by parents or close relatives. So that should be getting a little bit better—at least the rear visibility problem—because they’ve finally mandated these backup cameras. But now we have trucks, especially pickup trucks—that have gotten so enormous. They have five foot grilles. I’m not exaggerating. They come up to my chin. I’m not even a short woman. So now they have very large blind zones. That is especially a concern with children and people in wheelchairs. It’s a big problem.

Robinson

I nearly cried at the phrase used to describe those child accidents as the “bye-bye accidents” because the children will go out to say bye to the parents and then…

Schmitt

Oh my gosh, the stories, these parents that ran over their own kids—it is horrifying. It’s horrifying. It’s really a scandal that it took them so long to act on backup cameras. So that’s always how it is. There will be all this evidence showing the need for a federal safety regulation affecting cars and then there’s pushback from the auto industry. They delayed that for, I don’t know how long, 5-6 years.

Robinson

The statistic of a death or an injury just doesn’t even begin to capture the trauma that comes to a parent who has hurt or killed their own child and lives with that for the rest of their life. It destroys multiple lives. You have a picture, actually. You say that the trucks come up to cover you. Any reader of the book will see that because there is, in fact, a photo of you in front of one of these giant trucks. And it really is striking how monstrous they are. I saw there was a designer of one of these. It was a GMC guy—I can’t remember if you quote this—who said we wanted to make it look like it’s coming to get you.

Schmitt

That’s the really messed up thing. There’s a really interesting book that my book was a little bit inspired by. It was written in the early 2000s, by this guy named Keith Bradsher. He talks about the first phase of the introduction of SUVs in the United States. And the auto marketers and designers really tapped into this malicious impulse to bully people, and to have cars that look violent. That helps them sell cars and trucks—especially to have kind of a violent-looking exterior right now. Some of the ungluing of our society that’s been happening in recent years has come through in the way vehicles are designed and also being operated. We’ve noticed a lot more reckless driving during the pandemic. So some of our bigger societal problems, I think, are being reflected in some sort of tragic ways. And in some commercial ways, in consumer trends.

Robinson

Most days, I see at least one giant black truck with a bull bar, and all the tinted windows, and [spoke-like] things coming out of the wheels. And I think, you know, this is not a healthy society.

Schmitt

It’s tied in with identity; it’s political. It’s very difficult for politicians to take on. And in addition, it’s tied in with the American auto industry, which is tied in with labor and the industrial Northwest and employment conditions there. So that’s a factor also.

Robinson

We don’t have time to go through all of the causes. Your book is really good at laying out everything that goes into creating this problem at every level. But perhaps we could end here: If you were the head of the Department of Transportation and had limitless power to redesign the streets and roads and highways and byways in America, what are the main policy interventions that we should be doing in every place around the country to minimize this problem and take us more in the direction of Europe?

Schmitt

They just passed the big infrastructure bill, which is sort of an improvement on the status quo. But it’s not a revolutionary bill. I would have loved to see an interstate highway scale type program for sidewalks, right? We have so many communities where there aren’t sidewalks. And also the bus stop infrastructure. People wait for buses in dirt ditches next to a pole in the ground, in the rain. And so I’d love to see more of a shift from large-scale projects. I think there’s a lot of egotism tied up in these big mega projects where politicians get to cut ribbons. And people would benefit a lot more from small-scale interventions to what’s already built, especially ones that really tapped into public knowledge about what the problems are. We need to go back to a lot of the stuff that we’ve built and adjust it and make it better fit what’s happening in our society right now. What’s really needed varies a lot from place to place. So it’s hard to say one thing. But I think the public would benefit a lot more from those kinds of small-scale retrofit type interventions than the big highway projects.

Robinson

Angie Schmitt, thank you so much for joining me.

Schmitt

Thank you so much for having me.

More In: Interviews

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Our magnificent March-April edition. Featuring articles on the costs of the drone war, predatory developers in Florida, the leftism of Charlie Chaplin's movies, the bullshit of Yuval Noah Harari, awful new right-wing children's books, and more!

The Latest From Current Affairs