Designing Roads to Kill: And Blaming the Pedestrian Who Dies On Them

A St. Louis woman died Thursday evening after being struck by a vehicle near this intersection on Chippewa Avenue. Her needless death and the popular local reaction highlights what is so wrong with our society’s deadly auto-centric culture.

Reader comments from the website of a popular local news source:

There’s no stop sign or signal there; it was probably jaywalking.

Correct, totally jaywalking. We drove by after they had taken her to the hospital and it happened in front of the gas station where their is a semi-sharp curve with no intersection.

that is a horrible place to decide to cross the street:(

I am very sad it cost her life, but looks like jaywalking again. Wonder if a cellphone was involved by either one? That’s the other thing you notice. People walking around crossing streets with cellphones.

{the 6400 block of Chippewa highlighted}

The image above highlights that while Chippewa is designed and driven like a highway, it runs through a significantly residential area. Why aren’t pedestrians a priority here? In fact, the intersection is a very short distance from South St. Louis’ most popular attraction, Ted Drewes which puts up barricades to help separate traffic and pedestrians. On any summer night you can see hundreds of people running across Chippewa to the popular ice cream stand.

This reaction of St. Louisians mirrors the story of a Boston Globe writer who came upon a body in the road, a pedestrian who had been hit by a car. She died and he wrote about the experience. The readers split between blaming the pedestrian and the driver. The writer relates that when he showed a photograph of that road to some Sweden friends. They said, “This is where you live? This is your neighborhood? Your streets are designed to kill people.’’ They wanted to know where the traffic calming measures, such as narrowing the road or introducing raised bumps (a more subtle version of what we know as speed bumps). And they also questioned the speed limit in a largely residential area, and for good reason. A pedestrian hit at 20 mph has a 15% of being killed. This percentage reaches a near certain death 85% when a vehicle is traveling 40 mph.

A roundabout at this location may very well not be a good idea, (the image is from a previous Urban Workshop story) our roads should be engineered for safety and not necessarily for vehicle speed and driver convenience.

Sweden long ago implemented a strategic planning initiative named Vision Zero that seeks to eliminate road injuries and deaths. As stated on their website, Vision Zero is the radical notion of moving responsibility for accidents away from road users and on to those who design the road transport system. An idea that apparently many in St. Louis would find foreign indeed. We have the knowledge to save lives now, and at little cost. What we do not have is the culture to do so.

The Transportation Research Board has produced a document called Improving Traffic Safety Culture in the United States. You can find it here (it’s a 388-page PDF). It is more than just a pedestrian issue: 40,000 Americans die in traffic accidents each year. Tom Vanderbilt at the How We Drive blog highlights the report’s comments on funding:

The low priority accorded to the highway safety problem and the attribution of the problem to the “other” driver has two consequences. First, it means that the field is woefully underfunded. This is evident when you “follow the money.” In 2004, the U.S. federal budget for the National Cancer Institute was $3 billion, for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute $2.3 billion, and for highway safety research (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration) $164 million. These are huge differentials, even though in terms of adjusted years of life lost before age 75, cancer and heart disease are each only 2 to 3 times that of motor vehicle injuries. The National Institute of Dental Research received $349 million for research in 2004, more than twice what was spent for highway safety research.

But there’s much more in the document and at least a few sections are worth reading in their entirety.

A case for evidence-based road-safety delivery
Ezra Hauer
A change from a system of road-safety delivery rooted in opinion, intuition, and folklore to one that is founded in science and based on factual knowledge is underway. Change, as always, faces obstacles. The main obstacle is the near absence of professionals who can be the carriers and providers of factual road-safety knowledge. The second important obstacle is the weakness of the knowledge in which these professionals would have to be trained. Both obstacles stem from the same source; in a society in which it is acceptable to deliver road safety on the basis of opinion, intuition, and folklore, there is little demand for factual knowledge and for carriers thereof. Therefore, the most urgently needed change of road-safety culture is to make intuition-based road-safety delivery socially unacceptable.

Is a strong safety culture taking root in our highway agencies?
Geni Bahar and Nesta Morris
iTRANS Consulting
In1997, the Swedish Parliament passed an Act stating that Sweden’s long-term road safety goals were zero fatalities and zero serious injuries. This goal is known as Vision Zero. Vision Zero gives a very clear message to highway agencies that almost every feasible countermeasure designed to reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries must be implemented. Under Vision Zero, cost-benefit analysis and the most cost-effective solution are not the issue: safety is paramount, and cost and mobility take second place. It is assumed that drivers make errors and that it is the responsibility of Swedish highway agencies to anticipate the errors and to adapt the road system to bring about the desired goal of zero fatalities and zero serious injuries. This approach demands the long-term commitment of highway agencies, strong leadership, and a strong safety culture that can sustain the processes to achieve the long-term goal.