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Why Pedestrian Deaths Are At A 33-Year High And How To Prevent Them


A new report shows how dangerous it has become to walk along the street. The Governors Highway Safety Association estimates the number of pedestrian deaths last year was 6,000 nationwide. That's a 33-year high. And that's at the same time that other traffic deaths are decreasing. We're going to zoom in on one place where the problem is particularly bad - Los Angeles.

We're joined by Alissa Walker. She's an editor at the news site Curbed. Welcome.

ALISSA WALKER: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: We want to focus on LA because the mayor, Eric Garcetti, has been working for two years on an initiative to end traffic fatalities. And in those two years - do I understand this correctly, Alissa? - there's been an 80 percent rise in pedestrian deaths.

WALKER: That's right.

CHANG: That's extraordinary. How many pedestrian deaths does that mean in absolute numbers?

WALKER: In 2017, that means 134 walkers were killed on the streets of LA. And that's the highest number in 15 years.

CHANG: I want you to help us paint the picture of what it's actually like to cross a busy street in LA. Could you describe one of the most dangerous intersections in the city for us?

WALKER: Sure. I live by several of them, so I get to cross a lot of them with my young children. The first things that you will notice are that the streets are very, very wide. There are from - anywhere from four to six lanes of traffic on some of these main arteries in the city. And just as someone who's walking across the street with a young kid, the countdown clocks are sometimes not long enough for me to make it across the street with my 3-year-old, you know, running as fast as she can. So that's one of the biggest problems.

Then we have something else that's not really unique to LA but we see all over the United States - that people can turn right as pedestrians have, you know, been given the signal to walk, you know, across the street the other way. So a lot of the cars are turning very fast, just turning the corner and not really seeing or paying attention to pedestrians who are coming in either direction on the other side. And then a lot of the other problems are not unique to LA, things like drivers are going too fast.

CHANG: So drivers are going too fast. Speeding is a problem.

WALKER: Right. I mean, speed is what kills. If you're hit by a car that's going 25 miles an hour, you have an 80 percent chance of surviving. If you're hit by the same car going 40 miles an hour, you only have a 20 percent chance of surviving. So I don't care who's on their phone or what they're doing. The car going too fast is going to be what kills somebody. And if they're trying to eliminate traffic deaths, that's what we have to start working on, is the speed.

CHANG: Well, what else besides adjusting speed limits can LA do to try to help with this problem?

WALKER: So what LA wanted to do when it first started its Vision Zero program was address some of these dangerous intersections, like the one I talked about before, with things like scramble crosswalks that stop traffic in all directions, let people cross diagonally, even, which separates the pedestrian movement from the car movement. So those right turns, for example, into crosswalks won't be as big of a problem. Then there was kind of a shift in their strategy and they went after the 40 most dangerous corridors across the city. So looking at, you know, blocks and blocks and blocks where a lot of pedestrians were dying, and looking at how cars were moving through the space and endangering the lives of pedestrians and cyclists. So for these streets, these would be engineering changes that would actually make pedestrians more visible and get drivers to slow down and pay attention.

CHANG: Why is that not working yet?

WALKER: I think you need to have a lot of buy-in from your elected officials. We have a city council member who has banned one of the most effective safety tools in his council district because of the perception from - I'm going to call them traffic safety deniers - people who think that these changes are just a trick to get people out of their cars and onto public transit. And they don't actually believe the deaths are happening, and they should still be able to drive as fast and free as they can through their streets.

CHANG: Alissa Walker is the urbanism editor of Curbed. Thank you very much.

WALKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 1, 2018 at 9:00 PM PST
An earlier version of this story stated that there was a 42 percent increase in pedestrian deaths in Los Angeles since the mayor launched an initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities two years ago. In fact, it was an 80 percent increase.