New Report: America’s Epidemic of Traffic Deaths Is Getting Worse

Dangerous By Design 2022 SGA 1

The trends aren’t new, but the report’s conclusions are more forceful than ever. In short: We know why people are dying on our streets. It’s not because of individual recklessness, and it’s not an inevitable-if-tragic side effect of cars or driving. It’s a choice. A design choice. A matter of public policy priorities.

We also know how to solve the problem. We have all the design tools we need to make all our urban streets into both safer and more productive places. All that’s left is to call upon those with the power to halt this public health crisis to finally treat that task with the urgency it deserves.

Here is a short list of key findings of Dangerous by Design:

This is an ongoing, and intensifying, public health crisis. Since 2009, the number of people walking who are killed annually has increased by a horrifying 62%. From the report, “According to early estimates from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released in May 2022, 7,485 people walking were struck and killed in 2021, which would be the highest number in 40 years.” As the report documents, especially at risk are those who live in places with more dangerous streets and less political will to fix them. This includes low-income people and people of color. Older Americans, who are more physically vulnerable, are also disproportionately likely to be killed on our streets.

The pandemic did not make things better, and may have made things worse. As we’ve written about at Strong Towns, the pandemic exposed an apparent paradox, and with it an important lesson. Although driving went down when COVID hit, road deaths continued to go up. The simple reason: many roadways became less congested, especially at rush hour. As Dangerous by Design puts it, “Congestion, something transportation agencies spend billions to eliminate, seems to have been slowing traffic and reducing deadly crashes… Seeing driving go down while deaths went up should call into question the long-held belief that traffic fatalities are inextricably linked to the amount of driving.”

The causes of this crisis are well known, and so are the solutions. Just look at where traffic fatalities are happening. A guest feature in Dangerous by Design by Alex Engel of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has the data. In urban areas, arterials—or what we Strong Towns advocates would typically call stroads—make up 15% of all roads but are where a whopping 67% of pedestrian deaths occur.

We know stroads kill. We also know why. Dangerous by Design provides a compelling, non-technical, visual breakdown of a typical stroad intersection, highlighting the exact design features that induce fast-moving traffic combined with a high potential for crashes and conflicts.

A root cause of the crisis is the ways in which the traffic engineering profession imposes its values on our streets. This year, the Strong Towns message gets prominent billing in Dangerous by Design via an included guest essay by Charles Marohn with a simple message: “Traffic engineers do not share your values.” When the public is asked what they want out of city streets, they overwhelmingly rank safety the top priority. Despite this, our transportation planning and funding systems continue to prioritize different values: vehicle speed and throughput. We route billions of dollars into so-called “improvements” that widen rights-of-way, speed up traffic, and rob us of not only safe places, but also lively, productive ones.

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