Photo by Transportation for America on Flickr.

Pedestrian fatalities stopped declining in early 2010. Unfortunately, a safety nonprofit and its chairman, Maryland’s highway safety head, chose to blame pedestrians for getting killed while downplaying other, equally important causes.

According to the report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, an association of the safety departments of the various US states and territories, the overall number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 0.6% in the first half of 2010, possibly halting a four-year decline in pedestrian crashes.

The report (PDF) also evaluates a number of possible causes, including the rise in pedestrian travel, distracted driving, and distracted pedestrians. Even though it cites about the same number of anecdotal cases where the driver seemed to be at fault and where the pedestrian appeared responsible, the GHSA press release and quotes from GHSA’s chairman, Vernon Betkey, Jr., the head of Maryland’s Highway Safety Office, twists the report into a one-dimensional message blaming pedestrians for the crashes.

GHSA gave the Examiner a statement actually claiming that Michelle Obama’s initiatives to get more people outside walking and exercising could be a cause of the deaths. Not only is that ridiculous, it’s misleading: even if more people walking has led to an increase, more people walking will lead to safer conditions generally.

If more people are walking, the rate number of crashes may rise simply because of numbers, but the actual crash rate, any person’s chance of being hit or killed, is lower. More pedestrians get hit every year in New York than in Miami, but it’s far more dangerous to be a pedestrian in Miami; it’s just that so many more people are walking in New York. More get hit in downtown DC than elsewhere in the city, but walking is riskier in many of those other areas.

The press release also ignores the report’s recommendations that government do more to design safer roads. Perhaps that’s not a surprise since the organization comprises state highway safety officials who have done little to even admit to, let alone address, their governments’ complicity in these pedestrian deaths.

In his writeup of the report, the Post’s Ashley Halsey III buys into Betkey’s narrative wholesale. He talks about how many fatalities in Prince George’s and Fairfax counties, in particular, involve crossings at night, away from crosswalks.

But missing in this discussion is the question of why people are trying to cross dark roads where there are no crosswalks. In many busy areas of those counties, there are shopping centers along multi-lane arterials with poor lighting and long distances without crosswalks. If someone on foot wants to get to one of those stores and isn’t in a car, they have few alternatives. The pedestrian could be more careful, but also the government could be putting in better streetlights, crosswalks, and traffic signals.

To frame his piece, Halsey cites a fatality in Landover which did involve a signalized crosswalk. According to the article, the pedestrian signal was flashing the red “don’t walk” hand icon, during which time three teenagers ran across the road. A driver hit and killed 15-year-old Wayne Cuffy. Halsey’s piece is dripping with accusations against Cuffy:

It is the kind of risk teenagers take: darting across six lanes of traffic, paying no mind to the flashing sign warning pedestrians to await the green light. Wayne Cuffy and his buddies bolted across Landover Road on their way to the mall Tuesday night, a mistake that cost the 15-year-old his life when he stepped in front of a Ford Expedition at Dodge Park Road. ... It was dark, and rush hour was winding down when they dashed into traffic toward the mall. Cuffy was struck just after he left the curb.


But wait. The signal was flashing the red hand. That means the traffic light was red for cross traffic. For the driver to hit Cuffy, the driver had to have run the red light (added: or made a turn without yielding).

Yet there’s absolutely no mention of this fact in Halsey’s article. Who’s really at fault: a teenager who hurries to get across the road before the light changes, but while cross traffic has still got the red light, or the driver who hits him despite the red light?

Other state officials did acknowledge these issues, like this statement in the report from North Carolina:

Rapid urbanization, a weakened economy, and growing numbers of vulnerable populations (including older pedestrians and socio-economically disadvantaged groups) without other transportation options have challenged the State to keep up with issues specific to pedestrian safety and mobility.


Or from Nevada:

Like many other places in the southwest, the road network in Clark County consists of arterials that are designed as six lanes with intersections jumping to eight lanes. In urban area that bisects freeways or beltways, intersection can be as large as 12 lanes! Streets are flat with wide lanes that are comfortable for speed and there are few places marked for pedestrians to cross the street. On major arterial streets the norm is to have nowhere for up to a mile stretch for pedestrians to safely cross the street.


Betkey seems to ignore this serious problem in his own state. It’s too bad the safety heads from North Carolina or Clark County, Nevada aren’t the ones running GHSA, and that the safety official in such an urbanized state is blind to the other serious factors behind pedestrian safety besides

If you live in Maryland, please email Betkey, his boss Neil Pedersen, and Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley and express your disappointment that your safety official is ignoring serious road design issues. Ask them to prioritize fixing dangerous roadways in Prince George’s and elsewhere in the state that give pedestrians no safe opportunity to cross streets.

It’s easy to blame iPods or Michelle Obama, but more important to work to make the roadway network actually usable by pedestrians. That’s the real way to improve both the numbers of people walking and their safety.

Update: GHSA is disavowing the Obama quote to Dave Jamieson of TBD, but the Examiner reporter, Scott McCabe, insists they suggested it.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.