Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Pedestrian Safety Panic

The Tampa Bay Times "institutional voice" raised the alarm on pedestrian safety recently.
St. Petersburg has had more pedestrians killed this year than homicides. This troubling trend is also reflected in national statistics: 2018 saw the highest number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed in the United States since 1990. While encouraging more walkers and bikers is commendable and creates a more sustainable transportation system, their safety is paramount. This is a community issue more than a law enforcement issue, and better safety will require more vigilance by drivers, walkers and bikers alike.
The subheading is "It will take a combination of urban planning, enforcement and driver awareness to reverse the trend."

Is that really the full story?

The Times editorial obfuscates the data, making comparisons between pedestrian deaths, homicides (they never quote any numbers, as if homicides have any relation to pedestrian deaths), and national statistics. And that's just in the opening statement.

What's really going on?

There is a lot of data available at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration available in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), incorporating national and local traffic fatalities, including St. Petersburg. FARS provides information on the times of day, locations of accidents, the ages of the victims, the factors contributing to the accidents and much more. FARS also provides ways to query the data to drill down into the locales and metrics of interest, such as pedestrian fatalities. FARS queries and some FARS static data were used to perform further analysis discussed below. We will focus on St. Petersburg, since that was the subject of the Times editorial.

First of all, the data does appear to confirm an increase in pedestrian deaths.
St. Petersburg Pedestrian Fatalities 2010 - 2018
 Clearly there has been an increasing trend in pedestrian fatalities in St. Petersburg since 2010.
Tampa Pedestrian Fatalities 2010 - 2018
For comparison with St. Petersburg, Tampa also has an increasing trend of pedestrian fatalities.
St. Petersburg Pedestrian Fatalities per 100,000 population
Considering the rate of pedestrian fatalities as St. Petersburg population grows, while somewhat moderated, still shows an increasing rate of pedestrian fatalities. As a comparison, using FARS, the state of Florida rate for 2017 was 3.12 pedestrian deaths per 100,000, and 3.82 for Pinellas in 2017.

The Times does have a point here. The data does confirm a troubling increase in pedestrian deaths.

However, there are some interesting details in the data the Times did not cover to try to understand this trend.
St. Petersburg Time of Day of Pedestrian Fatalities
Since 2010, 75.6% of pedestrian deaths occurred at night. Most of the increase since 2014 appears to be due to nighttime incidents, which are increasing faster than daytime pedestrian deaths since 2010.

Non-Motorist fatality location
Since 2010, 72% of fatalities occurred away from intersections. This suggests a majority of pedestrian deaths were not near crosswalks.

St. Petersburg race of pedestrian fatalities 2010 - 2018
The vast majority of pedestrian fatality victims, nearly 63%, were white, 21% black, and 8% Hispanic, closely tracking St. Petersburg demographics.

Additionally, the FARS data reports on Related Factors for fatalities.

Pedestrian Killed, Related Factors,  Florida 2017

Factors Number Percent
Failure to yield right of way 199 30.4
In roadway improperly (standing, lying, working, playing) 165 25.2
Not visible (dark clothing, no lighting, etc.) 64 9.8
Improper crossing of roadway or intersection 46 7.0
Darting or running into road 45 6.9
Failure to obey traffic signs, signals, or officer 28 4.3
Wrong--way walking 6 0.9
Inattentive (talking, eating, etc.) 4 0.6
Entering/exiting parked/standing vehicle 3 0.5
Physical impairment 2 0.3
Vision obscured (by rain, snow, parked vehicle, sign, etc.) 1 0.2
Asleep or fatigued 0 0.0
Emotional (e.g. depression, angry, disturbed) 0 0.0
Ill, blackout 0 0.0
Non--Motorist pushing  vehicle 0 0.0
Portable Electronic Devices 0 0.0
Traveling on Prohibited Trafficways 0 0.0
Under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medication 0 0.0
Other factors 1 0.2
None Reported 1 0.2
Unknown 158 24.2
Total 654 100.0

Source: https://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/People/PeoplePedestrians.aspx

FARS reports the factors that were involved in the accident such as “failure to obey traffic signs” or “traveling on prohibited trafficways.” These are factors that relate to the pedestrians, not the vehicle drivers. While FARS also reports on factors relating to drivers, it does so for all accidents, not breaking out pedestrian accidents. There may be multiple factors associated with an accident.

Surprisingly, alcohol, drugs, and portable electronic devices do not appear to be big contributors to pedestrian fatalities in Florida. Note, however, in FARS, the overall US Pedestrian Killed, by Related Factors data for 2017 shows 11.3% under the influence or alcohol, drugs, etc. Most likely Florida is not correctly reporting the under the influence data.

Clearly "In roadway improperly", "Not visible", "Improper crossing", "Darting or running into road", and other factors are associated with pedestrians, not drivers. This suggests pedestrians share at least some fault for a substantial portion of these accidents.

Peeling back the data provides some additional insights beyond the Times editorial.

Pedestrian deaths are more likely to occur away from intersections than at intersections. This suggests jaywalking is related to increased risk of fatality.

Pedestrian deaths are more likely to occur at night. This suggests poor visibility at night is a contributing factor.

Given the demographics of the victims, pedestrian fatalities in St. Petersburg do not appear to have any racial disparity compared to the entirety of St. Petersburg.

While I want to avoid blaming the victims, and not all the FARS data captures drivers behaviors, pedestrian death related factors suggest that in many cases their actions are contributing to the accidents.

The Times has some elaboration to reduce pedestrian deaths in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg is not unaware. In May, the City Council approved a 20-year “Complete Streets” program that would add more crosswalks, bike lanes and other safety methods to streets around the city. The city has already added wide bike lanes to major thoroughfares, like those on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N between 4th and 30th Avenues N, which has been controversial. At the same time, the St. Petersburg Police Department recently received a contract for almost $80,000 to “conduct specialized traffic enforcement" focused on bicyclist and pedestrian safety from October to May. It will take multiple approaches to keep pedestrians and bicyclists safer. 
As cities such as St. Petersburg continue to create neighborhoods and urban cores that encourage walking and biking, the design of public spaces and the approach of law enforcement should continue to evolve. Pedestrian deaths have to go down. The vigilance of drivers has to go up.
Yes, "Pedestrian deaths have to go down. The vigilance of drivers has to go up." But that's not all. The vigilance of pedestrians and cyclists has to go up as well.

If we are to continue to promote walking and biking and want to reduce the fatalities, the data suggests improving pedestrian's awareness of their risks, the proper understanding of rights of way, increasing the use of helmets for cyclists (and scooters), wearing bright and/or reflective clothing at night, engaging drivers with eye contact before crossing roads, and safely navigating in traffic must be part of the solution.

Everyone of these deaths, and all traffic deaths, are tragedies. No one can argue against the goal of death reduction with programs such as Vision Zero, which has been adopted by St. Petersburg, Tampa, and other municipalities in Florida. However, the FARS data suggest some additional activities should be prioritized towards the goal of Vision Zero.

The Times and other activists have been on a kick the last several years promoting transit, bike, walking, and complete streets at the expense of automobiles. While there has been some increase in pedestrian, and small increase in bicyclists participation, transit use has decreased, while people still prefer to drive. This is promoting a deadly mix of bicyclists, pedestrians, and cars on arterials and surface streets. Complete streets further condense this mix through increasing automobile congestion for the benefit of the pedestrians and cyclists, increasing the odds of collisions. Any auto vs. pedestrian or bicyclist accident is too often a deadly outcome for the pedestrian or cyclist. A few more miles of complete streets around St. Petersburg won't make a dent in this tragedy, and in some cases nationally, have been shown to make it worse.

This also should include enforcement for pedestrians as well as drivers. Too many jaywalkers results in too many pedestrian deaths. Bicyclists ignoring traffic laws and riding against traffic is another risky activity. Nationally and statewide, and most certainly locally, many pedestrians under the influence are killed. The pedestrian victims demographics closely matches St. Petersburg's demographics. Stronger enforcement should not be sidelined by concerns from the "biking while black"scandal in Tampa a few years ago.

After all, if Vision Zero can't use all available tools for safety and fatality reduction, for pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers, then St. Petersburg and other municipalities in Tampa Bay adopting Vision Zero are not serious.

It will take much more than "a combination of urban planning, enforcement and driver awareness to reverse the trend" if the Times and urbanists really care about saving lives.

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