(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a multiple-part series about street safety in Louisville as the city continues to roll out its three-year pedestrian safety campaign, Look Alive Louisville. This section examines just how dangerous our streets are today across the country and at home. View the entire series here.)
Today, traffic violence is off the charts. The Utne Reader reported last August on a 10-year study by the National Complete Streets Coalition finding that, “16 times more people were killed crossing the street than in natural disasters over the that same period.” That report continued: “68,000 walkers on average are injured every year. The victims are disproportionately children, seniors and people of color.”
“It’s like an airplane falling out of the sky every other day. If that actually happened, the whole system would be ground to a halt until the problem was fixed,” Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, was quoted in Utne. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s data from 2012 shows that a pedestrian is killed every two hours on American streets and injured by a motorist every seven minutes.
According to Slate, around 35,000 people are killed on American streets each year and another 2 million are injured. The article posits that as a society, we just don’t care anymore:
But in the end, after all the numbers, after all the gruesome crashes, with countless little crosses lining the roadways, here’s what I’ve learned: We don’t really care. We don’t really care how many people die or are injured. We have come to accept that it’s just part of life in modern America. It’s no different than the sun coming up in the morning, or the tides rolling in and out every day. It just is what it is.
Even if we did care, we wouldn’t agree on what to do about it or wouldn’t want to do the things that would make the numbers drop…
The truth is, driving is dangerous. It’s the leading cause of death for nearly everyone younger than 45. It’s probably the most dangerous single thing you do every day. The only truly effective ways to save lives are to make driving optional instead of a mandatory fact of life, to narrow roads so as to slow speeds, provide great public transportation options, and enforce strict penalties for bad driving behavior.
Have we all but given up on safety in our streets? Have we accepted traffic violence as a daily part of life? While we express outrage over the death and injury, we’ve become surprisingly jaded. Writing in the Washington Post, Eben Weiss of satirical Bike Snob blog and book, lays out the problem in the context of cyclists in the aptly named article, “Don’t make bicyclists more visible. Make drivers stop hitting them.”
It’s still carnage out there now, but we’ve long since sublimated any outrage over death-by-auto into victim-blaming. Crossing the street has long been criminalized, save for the handful of seconds you get when the “walk” signal appears. Effectively, we’ve lost equal access to the public roadways unless we’re willing and able to foot the hefty bill for a car. Instead, what we have is an infrastructure optimized for private vehicles and a nation of subsidized drivers who balk at the idea of subsidizing any other form of transit, and who react to a parking ticket as though they’ve been crucified. Sure, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are all supposed to “share the road,” but see how equal you feel riding in the gutter on broken glass as cars speed by. It’s the American idea of “equal,” an insidious form of inequality in which we pretend the powerful and the weak are exactly the same.
There is an enormous level of frustration out there about the response to death and injury on our streets. Street safety campaigns have taken on a tone-deaf feeling of farce, often blaming the victim or instilling fear in pedestrians that serves to reinforce the “know your place” attitude that still governs our streets.
Sizing up the problem at home
Already in Kentucky through August 20, 439 people have died on the state’s roadways, outpacing the past two years over the same period. Forty nine of those deaths occurred in Jefferson County alone, making Louisville the deadliest place to drive in the state.
A five-year study of crashes in the state from the University of Kentucky found that between 2009 and 2013, there were 25,700 fatal or injury crashes in Jefferson County. Of those, 706 involved cyclists (2nd worst behind Lexington) and 1,515 involved pedestrians (most in the state). About 1,000 crashes a year are related to drugs or alcohol. On average, there are only 238 reckless driving convictions annually in Jefferson County. For counties with populations over 50,000, Jefferson rates 13th for convictions for speeding.
In fact, WDRB reported in January that pedestrian deaths in Louisville have climbed to a four-year high. In 2014, 18 people walking in Louisville were killed by motorists and 483 were struck by drivers. Twenty were killed in 2010. The television station launched an online map charting those deaths.
WDRB also reported that a third of the 18 deaths last year occurred along Dixie Highway and in adjacent Pleasure Ridge Park or Valley Station. Thirty pedestrians were struck and injured by motorists along Dixie in 2014. Safety improvements dubbed the“Dixie Do-Over” are currently in the works for that corridor. Since 2010, 20 percent of all pedestrian fatalities occurred on Dixie Highway.
According to Metro Louisville, an average of 16 pedestrians have died on Louisville streets each year over the past five years, with that number on the rise. Louisville has a rate of 2.57 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents, above the national average.
As mentioned in the first part of this series, Metro Louisville’s Understanding Pedestrian Crashes in Louisville, Kentucky, 2006–2010 report found a higher rate of death on state arterial streets and a higher rate of crashes on local streets. This would suggest major design problems with our largest streets, speed among them, that is contributing to pedestrian danger. A map of pedestrian fatalities in Louisville often resembles the same wheel-and-spoke pattern on which our suburban streets are arranged.
In a 2009 Dangerous by Design report, Louisville was listed as the seventh most dangerous city for pedestrians in the country, topping cities like Houston or Las Vegas. We again crunched the numbers in 2011 when the city was ranked 19th worst. In the latest numbers from 2014, the Dangerous by Design report ranked Louisville at 17th worst, noting that 200 people died walking on Louisville streets between 2003 and 2012.
“These numbers are not acceptable,” Fischer said in a statement.
To combat these numbers, Fischer, Bike Louisville, and the Louisville Metro Police Department have joined forces under the banner of Look Alive Louisville. Learn about that effort in the first part in our ongoing series on street safety in Louisville.