Cell phones are not what’s causing America’s epidemic of pedestrian fatalities

More people drove in 2016 than in 2015, according to new data released this week by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Alongside that increase was a disproportionately high rise in pedestrian fatalities — a trend that the authors attribute to increases in distracted driving and distracted walking.

This analysis is wrongheaded, and blames individuals for what is a systemic problem. The way we design and build streets is a fundamental part of whether people can walk safely along a road or whether they are at risk for being struck and killed. Street design does not seem to be a priority for GHSA — but it should be.

We know street design is part of this problem because there are patterns to where fatal collisions occur. Heat maps of pedestrian fatalities show that pedestrians are struck and killed by cars at the same intersections and along the same corridors over and over again. Are people using cell phones more in these locations? I doubt it. Street design plays a clear role.

And if street design is part of the problem it needs to be part of the solution. Instead of blaming pedestrians, GHSA would do better to explore how state highway departments — the groups they represent — can make streets safer for everyone from the ground up.

Reducing pedestrian fatalities needs a “yes and” approach. Should we reduce distracted driving? Yes. Should we reduce drunk driving? Yes. We should also change the way we design and build streets to protect people from fast-moving cars. Until that happens, it should surprise no one that pedestrian fatalities continue. This problem is bigger than our phones.

Emiko Atherton
Director of the
National Complete Streets Coalition
A program of Smart Growth America