Md. pedestrian death rate called higher than national average

State shortchanges walkers, bicyclists, study contends

November 10, 2009|By Michael Dresser | michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Maryland, with a pedestrian death rate that is significantly higher than the national average, ranks second from the bottom nationally in its spending of federal transportation funds on resources for walkers and bicyclists, according to a study released Monday.

The national study, "Dangerous by Design," concludes that a disregard for the safety of people on foot in highway engineering is an important contributing factor in the thousands of pedestrian deaths on U.S. roads.

Produced by a coalition of groups led by the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership and Transportation for America, the report calls for significant investments in projects to make roads safer for walking. It calls on Congress, which is expected to vote on a new six-year transportation bill next year, to hold states accountable for failing to use federal funds to promote walking and ensure safety.

One of the worst states in that regard, according to the report, is Maryland, which the study ranks 49th among the 50 states in per capita spending of federal transportation funds on bicycling and walking projects. The study puts Maryland's per capita spending on such projects at 45 cents - compared with a national average of $1.46 and a high of $9.47 in Alaska. Only Virginia, with per capita spending of 22 cents, was ranked as more stingy toward walkers.

Douglas H. Simmons, deputy state highway administrator, said the report might be understating Maryland's commitment to such projects because the state has traditionally funded some pedestrian programs entirely out of its own Transportation Trust Fund.

But Dan Pontious, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said that in spite of some progress, transportation agencies cling to their old priorities.

"In the big picture, we're still really focused on moving cars, and there's much more progress to make to create vibrant, walkable communities," he said.

In the report, Maryland also ranked poorly in terms of the risk of being killed by a vehicle while walking. The study computed a pedestrian danger index - based on the number of fatalities per 100,000 population and the percentage of commuters walking to work - with a national average of 52. Maryland's score was 83. Pedestrians made up 19.4 percent of those killed on roads in Maryland, compared with a national average of 11.8 percent.

Among metropolitan areas, Baltimore was ranked 29th out of 52 nationally as cities in the South and West dominated the list of the most dangerous regions. But the Baltimore area fared far worse when compared with most cities in the Northeast and Midwest - ranking as more dangerous than Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh, among others.

According to the report, nine of the 10 most dangerous metro areas for walkers are in the South - the top four of them in Florida. The study ascribed the region's high rate of pedestrian deaths primarily to "lower density and automobile-oriented development patterns."

The report relies on data on fatal crashes compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, combined with population data generated by the U.S. Census Bureau, to determine the number of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 population.

Advocates for pedestrian safety held a news conference Monday at which they endorsed a concept called "complete streets," in which roads are built or rebuilt to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles as well as motor vehicles. Many cities and states, they said, have made walking safer by investing in infrastructure that protects pedestrians.

However, it reported, Maryland has spent only 0.6 percent of its federal highway money on pedestrian and bicycle projects - one of the lowest percentages in the nation.

Simmons said that figure may be misleading. "Traditionally we had put our federal dollars more toward major projects," he said. For smaller-scale projects, "it's a little easier to go through the state process."

Among the programs Maryland typically funds with state dollars are its Retrofit Sidewalks program and another that brings state highways into compliance with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

Simmons said the state has been making steady progress on accommodating pedestrians and making older highways safer for the past 15 years. But, he said, "Retrofitting the entire system, yes, will take a substantial amount of time."

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