Why Pedestrian Deaths Are Rising

Jarrett Walker offers insights into "Right of Way," a book written last year by Angie Schmitt that is influencing the traffic safety conversation and pushing the fields of planning and engineering in new directions.

June 21, 2021, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


NYC-crosswalk

Garyisajoke / Flickr

Jarrett Walker discusses Angie Schmitt's book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America–one of Planetizen's Top Urban Planning Books of 2020–which argues that our singular focus on "the standard suburban street, mass produced around every US city according to manuals that prioritized traffic flow over all other aspects of human life," has led to a "silent epidemic" of pedestrian deaths. 

Today, "50% more pedestrians are dying after being struck by vehicles" than ten years ago. In her book, Schmitt points to causes such as "the dominant culture’s impulse to blame the pedestrian, which started with the invention of the crime of 'jaywalking' almost a century ago," and the "pervasive language choices made by journalists, law enforcement, and other officials that tend to exonerate the motorist no matter what the facts are." Other contributing factors include "the trend toward larger and higher-riding cars that make it harder to see a child stepping into the street" and the overly enthusiastic claims of autonomous car manufacturers.

Of course, road design still lies at the heart of the problem. In Schmitt's book, "[a] chapter called The Ideology of Flow looks at how and why streets have been designed on the principle that traffic speed simply matters more than the safety of pedestrians." Here, says Walker, "she must take on the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) an excellent example of the principle that the most controversial ideologies are often hidden in documents whose titles promise that they are utterly boring and irrelevant." Her book "invites the reader to think about the value of human life when it conflicts with our need or longing to go places quickly."

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