US drivers are killing 50 percent more pedestrians, European drivers are killing a third fewer

If anything else–a disease, terrorists, gun-wielding crazies–killed as many Americans as cars do, we’d regard it as a national emergency. Especially if the death rat had grown by 50 percent in less than a decade.  But as new data from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (via Streetsblog) show, that’s exactly what’s happened with the pedestrian death toll in the US.  In the nine years from 2009 and 2018, pedestrian deaths increased 51 percent from 4,109 to 6,227:

There are lots of reasons given for the increase, distracted driving due to smart phone use, a decline in gas prices that has prompted even more driving, poor road design, a culture that privileges car travel and denigrates walking, and the increasing prevalence of more lethal sport utility vehicles.  Undoubtedly, all of these factors contribute.

While some may regard a pedestrian death toll as somehow unavoidable, the recent experience of European countries as a group suggests that there’s nothing about modern life (Europeans have high rates of car ownership and as many smart phones as Americans) that means the pedestrian death toll must be high and rising. In fact, at the same time pedestrian deaths have been soaring the US, they’ve been dropping steadily in Europe.  In the latest nine year period for which European data are available, pedestrian deaths decreased from 8,342 to 5,320, a decline of 36 percent. Here are the data from the European Road Safety Observatory:

In the past decade, Europe and the US have reversed positions in pedestrian death rates.  It used to be that the number of pedestrian deaths per million population were higher in Europe, now the US pedestrian death rate per million population is now 75 percent higher than in Europe. The following chart compares the change in pedestrian death rates over the last nine year for which data are available for both Europe and the US.

It’s worth noting that even though walking is far more common in Europe, and streets are generally narrower, and in older cities, there aren’t sidewalks, but pedestrians share the roadway with cars.  Despite these factors, Europe now has a lower pedestrian death toll per capita than the US.

We walk less, but we die more.

These data should be at once heartening and discouraging to advocates of Vision Zero.  On the one hand, they show that it is entirely possible to have a modern economy, with technology and with lots of cars, that doesn’t kill so many pedestrians.  On the other hand, it shows that the US is very much on the wrong track.