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Morning Shift

Pedestrian Deaths Are On The Rise

Pedestrian deaths are at their highest rate in nearly 30 years, according to according to a new report issued by the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Nationally, about 6,227 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2018, a four percent increase from last year. At least 80 pedestrians were killed in Illinois between January and June.

Sam Kling of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs joins the Morning Shift to discuss how cities like New York reduced their pedestrian deaths, and what Chicago can do to protect pedestrians.

Distracted drivers, pedestrian-unfriendly cars

Sam Kling: There’s not really one single cause that’s behind this. It’s really the culmination of several big trends. One thing that the authors of this report point to is the proliferation of smartphones. So the rise in pedestrian deaths sort of tracks the adoption of smartphones among the American population. There’s not really concrete evidence on how much that contributes to this rise, but it certainly does appear to play a role….And then another thing that is really important is the role of SUVs and pickup trucks.

Jenn White: How is that causing an uptick in pedestrian deaths?

Kling: So these cars are designed — these trucks, SUVs — they’re designed in a certain way so that the front end profile is very big and tall, and it means that if a SUV or a truck hits a pedestrian, the pedestrian is two to three times more likely to die than with a regular car. And if you look at auto sales over the past few years, SUVs and pickup trucks have really dwarfed regular cars in terms of sales. About twice as many SUVs and pickup trucks are being sold today as regular old cars.

White: Do we know what’s driving that trend?

Kling: I’d say lower gas prices is probably number one.

The most dangerous urban plans

Kling: Land use patterns and street design really, really matter. So [the report has] a listing of the most dangerous states according to pedestrian fatality rates, and almost to a T they are states in the Southwest and the South — places like Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, so on. And these are places that were really developed and settled and grew mostly after World War II. Very auto-centric urban development patterns — this means there are a lot of cul-de-sacs where, say, the only way you can get to someplace is if you drive onto a big arterial road, and then you go to a strip mall, or a mall or something. And it means that if you’re a pedestrian in these places, you really don’t have adequate facilities. So let’s say you work in that cul-de-sac, or you live in that cul-de-sac and you have to take the bus. Well, that could mean crossing a ten-lane, busy street with no crosswalks and no sidewalk. And so even just getting to work can be a really dangerous proposition.

For pedestrian safety, how does Chicago rank?

Kling: So Illinois is kind of in the middle of the pack. Chicago is also in the middle of the pack. Over the past few years, Chicago has kind of had a mixed story — it’s been pretty flat in terms of pedestrian fatalities, around 40 to 45. But if you compare that, to, say, ten years ago, it’s up quite a bit: about 50 percent.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Char Daston. Click play to hear the full conversation.

GUEST: Sam Kling, Chicago Council on Global Affairs fellow

LEARN MORE: Study: US pedestrian deaths hit highest number since 1990 (Associated Press  2/28/19)

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