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Walking the Unfriendly Streets

Pedestrians' Fatality Rate Higher Than Drivers', Study Finds

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page B01

Walkers are far more likely to be killed in street accidents than are motorists, according to a report on pedestrian safety released yesterday.

The report found that in 2001, the last year all data were available, the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled for walkers was 20.1, compared with 1.3 for car and truck travelers.

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In the Washington-Baltimore region, 17 percent of victims of commuter traffic fatalities in 2002 and 2003 were pedestrians, even though only 3 percent of commuters walk.

The "Mean Streets" report, a nationwide study released by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, also found that the number of walkers killed on the streets of the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area rose from 130 in 2002 to 150 in 2003. That contrasts with a slight national decrease over the same period: 4,827 pedestrians died in 2003, and 4,919 died in 2002. Across the country, an estimated 70,000 pedestrians were injured in each of those years.

"This should be a wake-up call for every elected official in the country to take on this issue as a project," said Maryland Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery). "I believe this is our biggest transportation safety challenge of the 21st century."

From 1994, when the study first came out, to 2003, 51,989 pedestrians died. From the time of the first study period to the most recent, fatalities declined 12.8 percent.

But Anne Canby, president of the transportation policy project, said that number is deceptive because far fewer people are walking. According to census data, she said, the portion of commuters who walked to work declined by nearly 25 percent from 1990 to 2000.

Thus, Canby said, the streets are less safe for pedestrians, largely because of roads designed solely for cars, lax traffic enforcement, and traffic signals that do not account for walkers.

"People have not accepted that walking is a legitimate form of transportation," she said.

Walkers face dangers in cities and suburbs alike, according to the study. Transportation officials in the District said the biggest obstacle that walkers face in Washington is severe congestion, especially at heavily traveled intersections.

In suburbs, experts said, walkers face the perils of crossing streets that can be as wide as 12 lanes and lack sidewalks, crosswalks and other pedestrian-oriented features.

Smart-growth advocates said walking is getting more dangerous in suburbs because the fast growth of the past several years has been geared toward a car culture.

"Everybody forgot about walkers," said Laura Olsen of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "Rapid growth and wider and wider streets makes it harder and harder for people to walk."

Several local governments have begun to address the problem in recent years by hiring pedestrian safety coordinators, requiring developers to include sidewalks in their projects and adding such things as countdown clocks to crosswalk signals so walkers know exactly how much time they have to get from one side of the street to the other.

The report also found that nationwide, minorities and the elderly are especially vulnerable. People age 70 or older account for 17 percent of deaths, though they make up 9 percent of the population; African Americans account for 19 percent of deaths but just under 13 percent of the population; and Latinos account for 16 percent of pedestrian deaths but about 13 percent of the population, the study found.

Pedestrian experts said that in some cases, this reflects an income disparity. Poorer people are more likely to walk and less likely to be familiar with some traffic standards.

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