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Report: Pedestrian deaths hit 40-year high

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It’s a dangerous business going out your door, Bilbo Baggins tells Frodo. But in America, rather than Middle Earth, a pedestrian’s greatest threat may just be how American towns have designed their roads.

A new report from Smart Growth America warns that federal data shows that in 2022, the most recent year available, pedestrian deaths hit a 40-year high in America at 7,522.

The increase from a decade ago is stark: a 57% jump from 4,779 deaths in 2013. Additionally, almost 140,000 people went to the emergency room for pedestrian injuries between 2021-2023.

“Each year, thousands of people lose their lives by just trying to cross the street—and that’s especially true if you’re a person of color or live in a low-income community,” Calvin Gladney, president and CEO of Smart Growth America, said in a press release. “It’s shameful that if you look like me in this country, your life is put at risk when you leave your home, and it’s continuing to grow even worse compared to other Americans.”

The worst cities for pedestrians tend to be in the Sun Belt and California. Memphis, Albuquerque, Tucson, Bakersfield, Deltona-Dayton Beach, and Baton Rouge were at the top of the danger list.

The most dangerous city in Pennsylvania was Philadelphia, 43rd in the nation with 647 pedestrian deaths in 2018-2022, more than 100 more deaths compared to 2013-2017. Scranton was 61st with 47 deaths (three more than previously); Harrisburg was 72nd with 45 deaths (16 more); Allentown was 92nd with 42 deaths (14 fewer); and Pittsburgh was 96th with 111 deaths (four more).

To lower deaths and injuries, Smart Growth America argued for making safety improvements in road design.

“Roads are often designed to prioritize speed for vehicles rather than safety,” SGA noted in a press release. “Crosswalks are regularly missing or too far apart, intersections are difficult to cross on foot, and many turn lanes encourage going around corners quickly, which can pose a hazard.”

High-speed roads tend to pass through poorer neighborhoods, putting residents at greater risk of injury.

“Despite only accounting for 17% of the population, 30% of all pedestrian deaths happen in census tracts with yearly incomes below $50,000,” SGA noted.

Progress has been rare.

“If you compare the most deadly places for pedestrians in our 2009 report, today dozens of metro areas are far more dangerous, surpassing previous tragic highs,” said Beth Osborne, vice president of transportation and thriving communities at SGA.

Pennsylvania has seen some improvements, but only relatively. Pedestrian deaths dropped 10% in the first half of 2023, but remain above pre-pandemic levels. Traffic deaths have also slightly declined after rising for years.

Though lowering speed limits have been suggested in some cases, PennDOT officials have acknowledged that safer streets come from redesigning roads to be safer for drivers and pedestrians.