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Pedestrian Deaths: A 'Silent Epidemic' Fueled By Race, Class And Car Design

Angie Schmitt, author of "Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America" [Island Press]
A green-colored pedestrian walk symbol as seen through a cracked windshield featured on the cover of Angie Schmitt's book "Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America"

We’ve been talking a lot about the pandemic, but there’s another public health crisis affecting Ohio, and indeed, the nation. It’s pedestrian deaths.

In July, the deadliest month on Ohio's highways in 13 years, 17 pedestrians were killed, up 113 percent from the eight who died in July of last year. Pedestrian deaths in 2019 were the highest in 30 years, according to preliminary data from the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Journalist Angie Schmitt calls it a "silent epidemic." As the former national editor of  Streetsblog, she's spent much of her career writing about the inequities in our transportation system and how they work against walking, biking and mass transit.

Her new book is "Right of Way: Race, Class and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America," published by Island Press. ideastream's Amy Eddings spoke with Schmitt from her home in Lakewood.

I framed this as a public health crisis because we are talking about the public landscape, our shared streets and highways. Do you see it that way or is this a transportation issue?

Yeah, definintely. Traffic deaths in general are one of the top reasons people end up in our hospitals in the United States. I just think there's been sort of a resistance to thinking of it that way and that's part of the problem.

Why, as the data you reference shows, are Black and Latino pedestrians more likely to get hit by a car than white pedestrians?  

One reason is that, because of historic discrimination and the racial wealth gap and other reasons, cultural reasons, Black and Latino Americans are less likely to own cars. They're more likely to be taking transit and doing transportation walking trips.

But another reason is there's been systemic racism in how we address the problem. A lot of times Black and Latino neighborhoods of color are being passed over for safety improvements that white communities have, sort of, the political clout to secure.

You say the suburbanization of povertyhas led to more pedestrian deaths.

Right, so I think a lot of people have heard about that trend. There's more people of color living in suburbs and there's more lower-income people living in suburbs in the United States. And what that means for this issue is that there's more folks that are relying on transit and maybe relying on walking out in locations that really weren't designed with pedestrians in mind. Wide, high-speed arterials are where a little over 50 percent of pedestrian deaths happen in the United States. So those suburban arterials are very dangerous. 

A map showing streets where a significant percentage of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries occur includes high-speed arterial roads like Kinsman Road and Denison Avenue, and the busy commercial strips of W. 25th St. and E. 55th St. [Vision Zero Cleveland]  

Cars themselves are the problem, especially SUVs and these new, supersized pickups. I stood in front of one at a Chevy dealership and my chin was level with the front hood, and I’m 5 feet 7 inches tall. Isn’t this a sightline issue? Why isn’t pedestrian safety included in auto ratings and safety requirements?

In the United States, we have a long history of vehicle regulations going to back to the Ralph Nader era in the 1960s and 1970s, and we regulate vehicles for all kinds of things. We require seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes, that kind of thing. But we've never really done much to protect the people outside of vehicles. All those vehicle safety improvements are just benefitting passengers and drivers. There's a famous auto safety guy [ Clarence Ditlow, who died in 2016] who I quote in my book and he says the reason we haven't done this is because it affects the appearance of vehicles a lot. The front end of the vehicles is a big way automakers — that's a big tool for them to try and sell cars.

Right, the grill is acting as a giant billboard for these auto companies.

Right. Plus, the front ends of cars has gotten very mean-looking. If you look back at the front ends of cars in the 1990s, they were sort of cute and they almost smiled at you. And now they're all scowling and mean, and I think you can sort of connect it to other underlying issues. The splintering of our society, a little bit, is coming through, I feel like, in some of these vehicle designs now.

Angie Schmitt's four-year-old son stands in front of the high front end of a lifted Ford F250, and is completely dwarfed by it. Higher vehicles and bigger bumpers create larger front-end blind spots. [Angie Schmitt]

Will smart cars stop pedestrian deaths? Cars being able to sense that somebody is standing in front of them and can swerve or stop?

I am a little bit optimistic that that will help resolve the issue, to some extent. But right now, the government hasn't moved to require those features. Not even in some of these more dangerous vehicles, like the large pickups. So that is a limitation to how much good they can do.

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