Florida, already the most dangerous place to walk in the United States, is getting deadlier. The Sunshine State has seven of the 10 most pedestrian-hostile metro areas, with the Tampa Bay area ranking eighth deadliest. This disturbing achievement, and other bad news, is outlined in Dangerous By Design, a report out today from the advocacy group Smart Growth America.
Dangerous By Design looks at average annual pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people (3.1 in Tampa Bay). But its “Pedestrian Danger Index” also controls for the share of people who walk to work, meaning the numbers are comparable across states and metro areas. Florida’s Pedestrian Danger Index, already the worst, increased by more than 10 percent in the past two years. It’s much worse than other Sun Belt states, so it’s not just the weather. It has more to do with sprawl and with roads designed for speed rather than pedestrian safety.
Between 2010 and 2019, drivers struck and killed 53,435 people in the United States. Worse, annual pedestrian deaths have risen by 45 percent in the last decade. This is a civil rights issue as well as one of safety. The death rates are far higher for pedestrians who are Black or older and for those who walk in lower-income areas.
The study shows that, nationally, African-American pedestrians face two-thirds greater risk than white walkers. (When the last report came out in 2019, we noted that, incredibly, a study from Las Vegas showed drivers were likelier to yield to a white woman in a crosswalk than a Black woman.) People walking in lower-income neighborhoods die at nearly three times the rate as those in well-to-do neighborhoods. Anyone between 50 and 64 years old faces a higher risk and, for those over 75, it’s far higher still.
The report singles out Florida for praise but also for its inability to solve the problem. Smart Growth America notes that “in 2014, the state adopted a Complete Streets policy ... but policies intended to save lives should be measured by their success, and Florida’s effort has failed to live up to its billing.” It goes on to say that “while it makes sense not to see dramatic improvements immediately, progress should be evident at some point. But Florida has continued to grow more dangerous for people walking.”
Even well-meaning designs run up against bad driver behavior. One recommendation of the report: Put clearly marked pedestrian signals on busy roads to slow traffic and make it safer to cross. Recently at one such crosswalk on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg, a pedestrian crossed after an SUV in the near lane stopped. But in the inner lane, a driver screaming up the road saw the flashing yellow too late, slammed the brakes and stopped in a cloud of acrid smoke. A close call that traffic engineering failed to prevent.
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In other words, better road designs alone won’t solve the problem, although the report points out that roads designed for safety rather than speed may help police themselves. Roads that give cues to drivers to slow down — narrower lanes, crosswalk curbs that jut out into the roadway and the like — will require fewer police stops to pull over speeding drivers.
But it’s a people problem, too. Drivers, especially frustrated ones, must remember to share the road. They must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. In a region where districts often don’t provide bus service to kids who live within two miles of their schools, there should be adequate sidewalks and safe crosswalks. This will be harder in Hillsborough County now that the Florida Supreme Court has rejected its transportation tax. And yet, politicians make policy priorities all the time, and safer streets should be high on the list.
The report is blunt: “Our current approach to addressing the rising number of people struck and killed while walking has been a total failure. It needs to be reconsidered or dropped altogether.” However, there is something we can fix right now — our driving habits. Remember that speed kills. A pedestrian hit at 20 mph survives 95 percent of the time. But raise the speed to 30 mph, and survival is only a little better than 50/50. At 40 mph? Fully 85 percent of pedestrians die. And yet, when the roads emptied early in the pandemic, some drivers sped up, and the rate of traffic fatalities climbed, even as miles driven plummeted.
Until the roads themselves are safer, drivers can do their part to make them so. We have a responsibility when we get behind the wheel, one that is deadly serious.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.