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Too Many Lives Cut Short on Our Nation’s Roads

In 2009, a truck struck and killed Beverly Shelton’s grandson, Zachary, who was walking inside a marked crosswalk and accompanied by an adult. The driver had rolled through the stop sign rather than make a complete stop.

Berkeley residents remember kindergartner Zachary Cruz by placing flowers at the scene of the fatal crash.

Since the time of Zachary’s death, another 32,000-plus pedestrians have been killed in the United States. A pedestrian is killed every two hours and injured every eight minutes on our nation’s roads. Unfortunately, these tragedies are rising at a distressing rate. From 2009 to 2014, pedestrian deaths increased 19 percent. The Governors Highway Safety Association projects 2015 will be the largest year-to-year increase in pedestrian fatalities since national records have been kept. Pedestrian crashes, as a share of total traffic crashes, climbed from 11 percent to 15 percent in the past decade.

Read Beverly Shelton’s poignant post about her experience »

Responding to these alarming trends, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), for the first time in its history, convened a forum to better understand the contributing factors to this unacceptable loss of life. The agency is generally called in to investigate major crashes involving multiple victims. Pedestrian crashes typically involve a single vehicle and single pedestrian, and therefore often do not get the attention they deserve.

Younger and older pedestrians are most vulnerable — children often because of inexperience, older adults because of their increased fragility. While people age 65 and older comprise 14.5 percent of the total U.S. population, 20 percent of all pedestrians killed in 2014 were in this age group.

Experts at the NTSB forum suggested several possible contributing factors to the rise in pedestrian deaths. Driving reached its highest level in history in 2015; meanwhile, walking has increased in many cities. Roads designed solely for cars put pedestrians at risk. The ubiquitous smartphone also may play a role. Neurologists point out that the human brain cannot multitask, yet it is common to see both drivers and pedestrians with their heads down, staring at a screen. A lack of solid data on exposure and distraction hampers the research and policy community from having a full understanding of the problem.

The research community is in agreement that lowering traffic speeds in urban areas will undoubtedly result in fewer fatalities and serious injuries. “Any measure that reduces vehicle speed reduces the force of impact and likelihood for serious injury,” said David Zuby of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Some cities have put muscle behind efforts to make their streets safer through what have come to be known as “ Vision Zero policies. These policies can be summarized in one, concise sentence: No loss of life is acceptable. Vision Zero programs combine smarter street design, targeted enforcement, education and effective emergency response to make our streets safer for people of all ages and abilities.

With this approach, cities are seeing reductions in traffic deaths and injuries among both pedestrians and drivers. New York City has seen a 22 percent drop in traffic fatalities since 2013, the year before its Vision Zero policy went in to effect. City leaders expect to see further reductions in serious injuries after the establishment of a citywide 25 mph speed limit in 2014.

Passage and implementation of Complete Streets policies help to ensure that all roads are planned, designed, constructed, operated and maintained to provide safety, access and convenience for all road users, regardless of how people choose to get around their communities, and regardless of age and ability.

Such policies can dramatically reduce tragedies — and the haunting memories left in their wake. “Every crosswalk is a reminder of the violent way he died that terrible, horrible, awful day,” Grandma Beverly recounts. “Painted crosswalks aren’t enough. Every driver needs to recognize that driving is a privilege, not a right. I want people to quit killing little kids and elderly people. We need people to care.”

No parent or grandparent should live with the feeling that a child’s life was cut short. Our nation can significantly improve pedestrian safety and protect the lives of young and old.

Take Action: What We Can Do to Make Our Streets Safer

Individuals and Families


The Public Sector

  • Localities and states should prioritize pedestrian safety and consider the full array of funding options, including flexible federal funding, to implement pedestrian safety measures today.
  • Cities, towns, counties and states should adopt and implement Complete Streets and Vision Zero policies.
  • State governments should strengthen laws that protect pedestrians and effectively send the signal that speeding, distraction and aggressive driving will not be tolerated.
  • Congress should ensure that all federally funded, non-interstate roads are planned, designed, constructed, operated and maintained to provide safety, access and convenience for all users of the road, regardless of mode, age or ability.
  • Invest in data collection. The U.S. Department of Transportation should prioritize figuring out a national methodology that can be used to collect pedestrian exposure data. Police departments should collect and record as part of the crash record any evidence of distraction. Better data will facilitate passage of strong, targeted laws that save lives.


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Jana Lynott is a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute and project manager of the AARP Livability Index. As a land-use and transportation planner, she brings practical expertise to the research field. Follow Jana on Twitter @JanaLynott.

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