Walking around Fort Worth, or for that matter most of the heavily urbanized parts of Texas, has become more and more dangerous — and often fatal. And it could get worse.
Texas is ranked as the eighth most dangerous state for pedestrians, according to the “Pedestrian Danger Index” compiled by nonpartisan advocacy groups Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition. Among metro areas, Dallas-Fort Worth ranks 28th.
Texas had 485 pedestrian fatalities in 2013, and in 2017 recorded 616 and in 2018, 619, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
Projections provided to the federal government by state and local officials estimate that 635 pedestrian fatalities in the state next year, 657 in 2021 and 680 in 2022.
Among the reasons for the long-term trend both in Texas and the United States: The economy is growing and more people are moving into urban areas, said Robert Wunderlich, director of the Texas A & M Transportation Institute Center for Transportation Safety.
The trend mirrors pedestrian fatality statistics in other states around the country. Last year, the national pedestrian death toll reached its highest level since 1990, and 25 states are projected to see even more carnage in 2019, according to data compiled by the advocacy groups.
Ten years ago, 4,109 pedestrians died in the United States. The number has risen virtually every year since, and last year, the death toll was up 3.4 percent to 6,283. Pedestrian fatalities in urban areas are up 69 percent over the last 10 years.
Bigger Cars, Distracted Drivers
While there is no single agreed-upon reason for the rise in pedestrian deaths nationwide, experts routinely cite a number of factors, including distracted drivers, larger vehicles and more people walking and bicycling in urban areas.
“It’s a combination of people getting out more, having healthier lifestyles and moving more into urban areas,” said Shaun Kildare, director for research at the nonpartisan Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
The Texas transportation department cites as reasons for the trend “the state’s improved economic conditions, oil and gas industry-related traffic volume, population growth in the entire state, lower gas prices, increases in non-motorized modes of transportation, and expected increases in miles driven and speed.”
While the federal government has long spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote safety — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a budget of nearly $1 billion — Congress created a new “national priority” program in December 2015 to direct money to states specifically to promote pedestrian and bicycle safety.
But critics charge that the program and others aimed at making roads, intersections and driver behavior safer for pedestrians are underfunded, while most of the transportation-related money goes to road and bridge construction and repair.
Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, a nonpartisan advocacy group, calls the zeal for road building a “culture that’s so strong, so deep...it’s hard to overcome.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which administers key safety programs, would not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Bumpers with Better Insulation?
In Washington, House leaders are crafting legislation now that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, said would revamp the safety initiatives. “I think we pretty much know what we need to do,” he said.
DeFazio cited efforts that have proven effective, such as “bike boxes,” special areas at the head of a traffic lane that allow motorists to see the bicycles ahead of them.
Kildare cited European strategies, which include pedestrian impact protection systems that would provide more bumper insulation or more space under the hood and pedestrian collision avoidance systems that could stop or slow a vehicle before impact.
Such systems are designed to soften the blows pedestrians get when a vehicle hits them or prevent the collision entirely.
Kildare noted that such systems would provide help regardless of the road design. “While we believe roadway improvements are necessary,” he said, “the vehicle based technology would be a great start to addressing the problem.”
In Texas, the state transportation department plans to dedicate an additional $600 million in state funds for safety improvements along state roadways. Among its initiatives:
- Widen roads.
- Add rumble strips along more center lines and shoulders to help drivers.
- Add and reinforce shoulders along various roadways.
- Add select turn lanes.
- Implement technology improvements to help make the system safer.
The federal government has a wide range of programs aimed at making roads safer. The four-year-old special pedestrian and bicycle safety promotion program is authorized to spend $70 million over a five year period that ends in the next fiscal year. So far it’s spent $42 million. Experts say the programs need more funding.
“$70 million nationally is a pretty insignificant amount of funding, in fact I’d say a very insignificant amount of funding,” DeFazio said. “A major city could easily spend a heck of a lot more than that reconfiguring bike lanes, pedestrian crossings, signalization and all that.”
The federal transportation budget approved this week by the Senate Appropriations Committee would provide $49 billion in highway aid during the current fiscal year. Its House counterpart approved roughly the same amount, as well as $1 billion for the safety administration. The overall transportation budget also includes other safety-related funding.
The federal 2015 pedestrian and bicycle program was designed to allow states to focus on the growing problem, but safety advocates see it as too limited in what it can do. States can only use the money for a certain number of activities, such as training law enforcement officials about pedestrian and bicycle laws and public education programs.
Kara Macek, senior director of communications and programs at the Governors Highway Safety Association said not every state has a full slate of strong bicycle and pedestrian laws.
“And a lot of bicycle and pedestrian safety programs need to go beyond what is in the law,” she said.
It’s a difficult problem to tackle.
“They’re listening to loud music and they’re not paying attention,” said Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat and House transportation committee member, of distracted pedestrians.
“If I’m driving and I go through 20 blocks in the morning to go to work or wherever,” he said, “10 of those blocks there’ll be somebody stepping onto the street without awareness.”