Missing Link in Pedestrian Deaths

Missing Link in Pedestrian Deaths

Today’s Washington Post has a very good article by Ashley Halsey III on “Few Common┬áThemes in Pedestrian Deaths.” The article reports on similarities between recent fatal pedestrian accidents throughout the D.C. area.


(Near the site of Sunday’s fatal accident on Rockville Pike)

Although overall highway fatalities are substantially down over the last 50 years, the result of better automobile engineering, the levels of pedestrian deaths from car impacts “has inched down stubbornly.” You just can’t engineer stronger people. “There is no mystery about the cause of pedestrian fatalities: speeding cars, distracted drivers and pedestrians, and alcohol are common factors.”

Halsey is right to focus on speed:

The difference that speed makes was demonstrated Tuesday at an event in Southeast Washington hosted by Klein and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The event was held near the scene of recent pedestrian accidents, including one in which a U.S. Department of Transportation employee died.

A test driver was able to brake successfully from 20 mph to stop short of a crash-test dummy dressed as a small boy in a Washington Nationals cap. When the driver tried to brake in the same distance from 35 mph, the car shattered the dummy.

“When someone is hit at 20 miles an hour, he has an 80 percent chance of surviving,” said George Brayan of DDOT. “When it’s 40 mph, there’s a 20 percent chance.”

Now where did we see those same statistics recently?

But there’s a missing link in the speed analysis. It’s not just that cars go fast. It’s WHY they go fast.


Drivers go fast because they think they can, and because they think it’s ok to do so. It’s a big road, made to go fast, so why not?

So what can we do about that? We can give those drivers a different message. Won’t work for everybody, but it would be better than what we do now.


As we discussed at length in the 2010 White Flint Town Hall meetings, street design affects speed. Modern traffic calming doesn’t rely on physical barriers, which simply shift traffic to someone else’s street. New designs “talk” to drivers, communicating the message that this is a special place where speed is not appropriate. Some designs force drivers to concentrate (road narrowing and mini-circles, for example). Others simply demonstrate that a neighborhood street is not a highway.

Maybe we can’t engineer stronger people. But we can engineer a safer place.


Which is Rockville Pike? A hint: Halsey’s article describes it as a “six-lane highway.” But that’s our Main Street.

Halsey notes that “cities with relatively compact core areas fared better than more sprawling, less walkable places.” Under the White Flint Plan, Rockville Pike will become more walkable, and White Flint less sprawling. That’s the whole idea of the Plan.


The Plan isn’t just to make $7 billion in new tax revenue for the County, have fancy new developments and new office buildings, or offer more late-night dining options. It’s also to save energy, protect the environment, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and . . . not least, save lives.

Barnaby Zall

(Pictures courtesy Ian Lockwood, www.glatting.com)

[Update: Halsey wrote a nice note to me, agreeing that there was much more to be said, including about ways to moderate speed, but that in most of these cases, alcohol was a contributing factor.]

Barnaby Zall


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *