Walk This Way

Our View: Reducing Pedestrian Deaths Requires More Than Bricks And Mortar

November 12, 2009

It's not hard to spot the flaws in the study released this week that ranked Maryland 49th among 50 states in per capita spending of federal transportation money on pedestrian and bicycling projects. In looking for big projects, researchers missed the far more numerous little ones - as well as all those financed primarily with state rather than federal funds.

When the Maryland State Highway Administration refurbishes a road, sidewalks are often upgraded to meet higher safety and accessibility standards - yet that's not the kind of effort that would be considered in the report. A big example: The new Woodrow Wilson Bridge outside Washington included $30 million to improve access to walkers and bikers, but that was not primarily a pedestrian project and therefore didn't count.

But the research, which was prepared for a coalition of groups that advocate for enhanced spending on transportation projects, does a better job of pointing out is that Maryland has a relatively high rate of pedestrian fatalities compared to other states.

That's partly a result of the state's high density of cars and people, which provides more opportunities for crashes to take place. But there are likely other factors, too. The Baltimore area fared worse than many other large cities, for instance.

Last year, 115 Maryland pedestrians (about one out of 10 of them cyclists) died from injuries suffered in traffic accidents. While that's only about 19 percent of the 592 highway deaths recorded, it's a number that shows little sign of improvement.

Generally, Maryland's highway fatality rates have been falling, but pedestrian deaths have stayed in the same range of 110-130 for at least a decade. In 2006, there were 129 pedestrian fatalities, including seven bicyclists.

There are any number of engineering solutions to the problem, including more and better sidewalks and marked crossings, barriers to prevent jaywalking, wider roads with marked bicycle lanes and signs to warn motorists to share the road.

But a closer look at the statistics suggests those can be of limited help. According to police investigators, a majority of pedestrians killed in 2006 (the most recent year for which such an analysis is available) were at fault in accidents. More than one-third were in the road illegally and nearly one in 10 was under the influence and/or failed to yield the right of way.

No doubt Maryland should spend more on bike trails and sidewalks. Such enhancements not only make a community more livable but dovetail nicely with a smart growth philosophy that has critical economic and environmental benefits.

To reduce pedestrian deaths substantially will require investing as much in public education and law enforcement as concrete and steel. Certainly, it's been tried before - brochures reminding people to look both ways before crossing the street are a staple of elementary schools everywhere - but perhaps not as aggressively (or creatively) as it might.

Driving Baltimore city streets is often an exercise in anticipating the poor judgment of pedestrians for whom the terms "green light" and "crosswalk" appear meaningless. Aggressive and impaired drivers are often at fault, too, but two wrongs don't make a right - or provide consolation to the deceased.

As the state's 2002 master plan for improving bicycle and pedestrian transportation points out, the most effective safety strategy is to integrate engineering, education and enforcement efforts. All three are currently inadequate, as Maryland's persistently high number of fatalities so clearly demonstrates.

Readers respond

In Baltimore City the bigger problem may be lack of knowledge and/or disregard of traffic laws.

Many Baltimore pedestrians cross in the middle of blocks, against lights, seemingly oblivious to vehicles, cross-walks, and traffic signals. Likewise, many Baltimore drivers ignore pedestrians in cross-walks, speed in crowded areas, run red lights, turn on reds when pedestrians are crossing with the "walk" sign, and generally act like they have walker-blindness.

Barbara McClinton

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