Pedestrians navigate Virginia’s Route 1 without sidewalks. Photo by Cheryl Cort.

Over half of recent pedestrian deaths in our region happened on wide, high-speed arterial roads. When will traffic engineers, elected officials, and residents get serious about fixing dangerous street designs?

A new report out today from the National Complete Streets Coalition chronicles pedestrian fatalities and injuries and ranks every state, metro region and county based upon the degree of danger pedestrians face.

Our region fares relatively well, ranking 35 out of the 51 largest metro areas (with 1 being the most dangerous). At the same time, the report found that 843 pedestrians were killed in the region from 2003 to 2012 — an unacceptable number no matter the DC region’s current ranking. The danger for minorities, young people, and older adults, as well as those walking along suburban arterial roads, is particularly high.

In state rankings, Maryland placed 15th and Virginia 22nd, and DC 49th on the Pedestrian Danger Index. That combines fatality rates and the share of local commuters who walk to work. 269 of Maryland’s fatalities occurred in Prince George’s County, accounting for over 30% of the region’s deaths.

The report includes an online, interactive map showing the locations where drivers have fatally struck people walking. It includes several tragic examples documented on this blog, such as the elementary school principal in Loudoun County who was killed trying to cross a four-lane, 35 mph road.


The report also highlights the inequality of traffic violence, with older adults, children and minorities dying in disproportionate numbers. In each jurisdiction, Hispanics suffered an average pedestrian death rate higher than non-Hispanic whites; the rate is 135% higher in DC. African-Americans have fared similarly in recent years, dying 126% more often in DC.

While they comprise about 10% of the overall population, older adults accounted for 15-22% of pedestrian fatalities. Tragically, children under the age of 15 are also frequently at risk: from 2003 to 2010, 47 children in Virginia, 71 children in Maryland, and 11 children in DC were killed while walking.


Comparison of national pedestrian danger for various demographic groups. Image from the report.


"We are allowing an epidemic of pedestrian fatalities, brought on by streets designed for speed and not safety, to take nearly 5,000 lives a year nationwide — a number that increased six percent between 2011 and 2012,” said Roger Millar, Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. “Not only is that number simply too high, but these deaths are easily prevented through policy, design, and practice. State and local transportation leaders need to prioritize the implementation of Complete Streets policies to improve safety and comfort for people walking.”

Across the Washington, DC region, jurisdictions have been working in recent years to make their streets safer and more welcoming for pedestrians. Most jurisdictions in this region have adopted Complete Streets policies to make walking safe for all users, though physically redesigning dangerous streets has been slow.

In the Washington region, a few examples of complete streets include wider sidewalks and “bulbouts” on Georgia Avenue in Petworth to ease crossings, and a redesign of Lawyers Road in Reston that took a four lane road to two lanes plus bike lanes and a middle turn lane. VDOT officials say they’ve seen a 77% reduction in crashes since the redesign.


Bill Deatherage, of the Kentucky Council of the Blind, walking along Louisville, KY’s Brownsboro Road before and after sidewalk construction. Photo by Anne M. McMahon, courtesy of Smart Growth America.


According to the report, arterial roads present the greatest danger to pedestrians: in Maryland, Virginia, and DC, a majority of pedestrian deaths occurred on high-speed arterials. Rockville Pike or Route 1 are examples of arterial roads that have both local businesses and destinations that attract pedestrians, while also trying to move regional traffic through at high speeds.

Several jurisdictions are trying to reinvent places like Tysons Corner, White Flint, or Route 1 as walkable, mixed-use destinations, but it will be imperative to redesign the arterials that divide those communities if they are to succeed.

Unfortunately, many obstacles to safer streets remain. Especially in the suburbs, old plans with inertia continue to move places in the wrong direction, including adding lanes to Route 7 in the core of Tysons. In DC, pedestrian advocates are still simply seeking transparent pedestrian crash data from DDOT to be able to better identify the most dangerous intersections.

Everyone deserves the ability to walk safely to home, work, school, or get groceries. As more people make the sustainable, healthy choice to walk, the dangers of our auto-oriented infrastructure are becoming more apparent. This report should be a wakeup call to traffic engineers, elected officials, and all of us. New York City has set a goal for zero traffic deaths in 10 years. Are we ready for the challenge?

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Kelly Blynn is a former DC resident and an advocate for sustainable transportation and equitable development. She is now a graduate student in the Masters in City Planning program at MIT and a co-founding member of the pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC.