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Standstill Traffic May Be the Only Thing Keeping Crash Deaths From Skyrocketing

If it weren’t for congestion, the number of fatal crashes would be much higher. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

In the waning weeks of each winter for the past decade, I’ve written a story about how the pedestrian-fatality crisis in the U.S. is getting worse. It’s usually pretty much the same. Once again, I report, a record number of miles were driven by Americans last year. Once again, I report, a record number of Americans were killed while walking last year. The data fluctuates a bit; sometimes, the miles driven or the number of people who died dips slightly. But the trend is clear: From 2009 to 2019, pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. increased by 45 percent.

This year’s story, appended with the overarching asterisk that is the coronavirus pandemic, is different but not in the way you may expect. In 2020, Americans drove a lot less, at least 13 percent fewer miles overall nationwide. And yet — and yet! — the total number of traffic deaths, not only pedestrian deaths, still went up, this time by 8 percent. If you compare the rate of traffic deaths per mile driven, it’s far worse: a fatality rate that’s a stunning 24 percent higher than the year before. It’s the highest rate in over a decade and the largest jump in almost 100 years.

Why the story is so different for 2020 isn’t too much of a surprise if you know how and when people are historically most likely to be killed on U.S. roads. Traffic-free streets invite reckless behavior, namely speeding, which is the No. 1 determinant of whether someone who’s not in a vehicle will survive a crash. From 2009 to 2019, American streets were most free of traffic at night, which is when the majority of fatalities occurred. But throughout much of 2020, because of stay-at-home orders, streets were emptier than usual during much of the day, meaning that deadlier crashes could happen virtually all the time. And they did. “Drive less,” which is a fairly decent climate strategy, clearly won’t work as a pedestrian-safety solution unless other changes are made.

What 2020 has made strikingly clear is something of a safety paradox. Since this country has largely opted out of making major changes to its wide, dangerous streets, the only thing that prevents more deaths from happening is having so much traffic congestion that it ends up slowing cars down. But traffic congestion is supposedly the one thing that we as a country spend billions each year trying to avoid, with city engineers and state departments of transportation funding and building wider, more dangerous streets in an attempt to keep cars moving fast. “Our roadways are designed for people to drive quickly, and without congestion, there’s nothing to stop it,” says Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, and former deputy assistant secretary of transportation policy at USDOT, who has been sounding the alarm about this problem for as long as I’ve been writing these stories. “The roadway is communicating to the driver that they should go as fast as they wish.”

Since 2009, Smart Growth America’s annual report Dangerous by Design, which is out today, has advocated for simple, effective changes to roadway design that have been proven to reduce or eliminate conflicts between cars and people: narrowing streets; adding more crosswalks, including mid-block crossings and crossing islands; and providing more space for driving alternatives like mass transit, bikes, and scooters. Although speed is a factor in deaths, speed limits — not to mention their racially biased enforcement — have not proven to be as effective as engineering has been in lowering a city’s pedestrian-death index. The answer — the only answer — is for cities to redesign their roads. And the absolutely mind-blowing thing about this is that if we, as a country, decided tomorrow that we would like to make our streets safer using a tool other than traffic congestion, it would make trips in vehicles shorter and less harrowing, too, because more people would have greater access to more efficient ways to get around. None of these ideas are new. They require no cutting-edge technology. They require only actively choosing that we don’t want our most vulnerable residents to die while crossing our streets every day, a decision many of our economic peers made several decades ago — and some of which have, in that time, eliminated traffic fatalities entirely.

With a new administration in office, headed by a train-loving president who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash, and a new bike-share-riding Transportation secretary, who built new sidewalks and cycleways through downtown corridors when he was a mayor, a great deal of attention has been paid to how federal legislation may finally address this crisis. The Complete Streets Act, for example, which was reintroduced in Congress earlier this month, would set aside about 5 percent of highway dollars for roadway redesigns to make streets more accessible for all users; Smart Growth America recently convened an entire summit on how to undo those damaging transportation decisions without introducing more harm. Safety improvements could be prioritized by giving that money directly to the neighborhoods most ravaged by traffic deaths, according to the report — older communities, lower-income communities, Black and brown communities, Native communities, communities with low rates of car ownership — where residents are ignored, blamed, and criminalized when they use the deadly roadway designs that officials in power refuse to change. “As long as we held on to this idea that it’s the people’s fault, they didn’t have to take responsibility for changing it,” says Osborne. With this new data, she says, the responsibility has been made clear. “We don’t need to wait for legislation. It is fully within their ability to change it today.”

Traffic May Be the Only Thing Keeping Crash Numbers Down