A recent analysis by NPR News is drawing attention to a traffic safety paradox. Pedestrian deaths nationwide are at near-record high levels and the reason may partly be because of advances in auto safety.
“After two years of marked increases, the number of pedestrian fatalities in the US is holding steady with nearly 6,000 pedestrians killed in 2017, according to estimates from the Governors Highway Safety Association.” NPR writes that these numbers, are “tapering off” over the last year or so but remain at a near 25-year high. Moreover, these high numbers come “as deaths from other types of traffic fatalities are dropping,” a situation that analysts attribute to improved vehicle safety technology. These, NPR writes, “make crashes safer for people inside cars – but just as deadly for pedestrians.”
We all know that cars are far safer than they were a generation or two ago. Better construction, anti-lock braking systems, air bags, more advanced seat belts and better child seats (along with laws requiring drivers and passengers to use them) have all made surviving a crash far more likely. But outside the car things are very different. Cyclists are far more likely to wear helmets than they were 20 or 30 years ago, but in the case of a serious crash involving a bike and a car that may not make much difference. Pedestrians, as NPR notes, are just as likely as they have always been to die or suffer serious injury when hit by a car.
This is why programs like Portland’s Vision Zero initiative are so important. Drivers are still bound by the rules of the road, as laid out here in Oregon in Section 811 of the Oregon Revised Statutes, but the imbalance between people on foot and people behind the wheel continues to grow. The city’s Vision Zero website (see link below) lays out the actions the city and its Transportation Bureau are taking to try to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe.
Among the most important of these is the plan to lower the speed limit in residential areas of Portland to 20 mph effective April 1. According to the Vision Zero website the PBOT has already begun changing the posted speed limit on many streets “and expects to implement the reduced limit citywide” by the April 1 deadline. The site notes that “a pedestrian hit by a driver at 25 mph is nearly twice as likely to die compared to someone hit at 20mph.” In a city whose residential streets are often “narrow, have few marked crosswalks, and no bike lanes” this seemingly small speed decrease can make a huge difference.
Provided, of course, it is enforced. As a Portland attorney whose practice often focuses on car accidents, and a longtime supporter of our city’s cycling community, I applaud the effort to make our streets safer for everyone. I’ll also, however, be watching to ensure that the new speed limits are properly enforced. This is an area where our civil courts play an important role, supplementing the activities of the police and criminal courts. The changes being implemented through Vision Zero will only be effective if drivers know that they will be held accountable when they break the law or act irresponsibly.
The Oregonian: Pedestrian and Cyclist Deaths by Year 2008-2014
Portland Bureau of Transportation: Vision Zero