Driver killings of those walking have doubled. Police are failing to report 30-40 percent of 911 calls about drivers striking pedestrians, bicyclists, and other road users, with crashes going unreported most often in Black and brown neighborhoods

In 2004, pedestrians were only 10% of all traffic-related deaths; in 2019, they were 20%. The idea that “distracted walkers” are a major cause of crashes is a myth. State and federal attention focuses almost entirely on protecting people inside vehicles. This is because federal and state DOTs have traditionally focused on highways

July 21, 2021 – Last week, Citylab broke an explosive Washington, D.C., study that showed police had failed to record as much as 30 percent of 911 calls about drivers striking pedestrians, bicyclists, and other road users, with crashes going unreported most often in Black and brown neighborhoods, saying almost a third of car crashes involving a vulnerable road user go unreported in the nation’s capital, skewing D.C. crash totals. But underreporting is far from the only thing wrong with reporting standards across the U.S., advocates say.

The data gap might be explained, in part, by the fact that police are generally required to record a crash only if someone required medical transport for a serious injury, or if a motorist is likely to make an insurance claim. Bicyclists and users of other low-carbon vehicles typically don’t have vehicle insurance, but crashes involving them are still critical data points that city leaders rely on to shape their Vision Zero plans.

Add in the distrust that BIPOC communities often feel toward police, and D.C. advocates say that as much as 40 percent of crashes in mostly Black areas may go uncounted — so  District leaders may not even know where its most dangerous corridors are, much less have the specific data they need to fix them.

But the underreporting of non-fatal crashes isn’t the only reason why U.S. communities don’t have a full picture of our national traffic-violence epidemic. Here are three fundamental problems with local and national crash-reporting standards — and how to fix them.

1. There is no mandatory federal crash-reporting standard

The national Fatality Analysis and Reporting System contains a universe of useful data about the 6.5 million car crashes that happen on U.S. roads in an average year. But that data is all built on crash reports from tens of thousands of police departments — and each of those departments gets to decide which details about those crashethey think should count.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the critical information falls through the cracks. A 2016 report from the National Safety Council found that crash reports in 26 states lacked a field for officers to record whether drivers were texting, and that no state crash reports included a field to record whether drivers were fatigued, despite the fact that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had conducted major public awareness campaigns on both issues.

Some states have updated their reporting standards recently — but not all cities and municipalities in those states have followed suit. In 2019, for instance, 44 percent of officers simply didn’t report whether a driver was distracted in the event of a crash, nor did they note whether drivers were distracted by common behaviors, such as texting — likely because local forms don’t require them to do so.

2. The standard that NHTSA recommends is deeply flawed 

States aren’t totally flying blind on crash reporting, but federal guidelines are voluntary — and not they’re especially forward-thinking.

Since its initial publication in 1998, the little-known Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria has advised states on the collection of hundreds of data points on crashes, including hundreds of details on roadway features, vehicles, drivers, and other road users. But some of the most widely-recognized causes of our traffic violence epidemic still aren’t included in the 236 page tome.

For instance, the MMUCC doesn’t ask officers to note how far a walker who’s struck by a driver might be from the nearest unobstructed crosswalk; it simply advises them to note whether the walker was in a crosswalk or not, even if the closest one was miles away. Vehicle height and weight aren’t requested, either, despite the fact that the growing bulk of SUVs and pick-ups is well known to be accelerating U.S. walking fatalities.

Comparatively, the details that officers are advised to collect about vulnerable road users are weirdly granular. There’s even a separate form to detail whether pedestrians and cyclists were wearing safety equipment, with separate codes for “reflectors,” “reflective clothing,” and “lighting,” such as flashlights.

There are some efforts to paint a fuller picture of the factors commonly involved in car crashes — but they’re not based on police reports alone. recent study conducted by advocates in Portland, Ore., for instance, compiled law-enforcement data alongside hospital records, media reports, roadway measurements, and even manual inspection of adjacent land uses on Google Maps. Similar efforts are underway in San Francisco.

Some advocates say the MMUCC should include many of those factors its next edition (2022) — and the burden of collecting the data should be shared among departments of transportation, health, and other city offices, rather than left to the cops.

3. A lot is left up to officer discretion

Of course, even the perfect crash report might not give us the data we need to really understand our traffic violence crisis — at least if the officials filling it out rely on opinion rather than fact.

Law enforcement officers are often given wide latitude to guess at whether behaviors like speeding, distraction and erratic driving contributed to crashes, even when more hard data about what actually happened is readily available. Last year, reps for the U.S. Department of Transportation even acknowledged that as many as two-thirds of the “drunk walking” deaths the agency mentions in its safety campaigns were not verified by blood tests of the dead pedestrians, but instead based on “imputed blood-alcohol content” or an officer’s professional opinion of a walkers’ sobriety — opinions presumably based on the testimony of the driver and other witnesses, because, of course, the walker died.

Simply put, officers also don’t always have the tools or the bandwidth to make accurate crash reports — which is why some advocates want to give reporting responsibilities to agencies with better resources and specialized training. But until that happens, police may keep leaning on the same, simplistic explanations that perpetuate the corrosive myth that individual road-user error accounts for almost all crashes, rather than collecting data that could identify more complex, systemic factors.

“At least anecdotally, a lot of officers will default to explanations [for crashes] that frankly, often eye witnesses don’t even agree with,” said Rohit T. Aggarwala, senior fellow at Cornell Tech and author of an op-ed encouraging Secretary Buttigieg to reform FARS. “Excessive speed seems to be the default for many things; driver inattention is another one you hear a lot, too.”

But Aggarwala hopes that, with the right reforms, much subjectivity can be stripped from crash reporting — especially with former management consultant Pete Buttigieg at the helm of the DOT.

“Guys who work at places like McKinsey are usually pretty obsessed with data,” said Aggarwala. “To bring a former consultant’s kind of perspective to this could be great to help identify where there are gaps that need to be filled…It would definitely be great to see the data cleaned up, and more importantly, to see the data matter.”


How We’ll Know If Buttigieg’s USDOT Really Cares About Cities


(Photo by Janne Hellsten / CC BY 2.0)

President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Pete Buttigieg to be Secretary of Transportation have given urbanists high hopes for what a former mayor can do to adopt a pro-urban mobility agenda. Many of these rest on transit and funding: saving the nation’s transit systems, giving city departments of transportation more control over spending, and embracing bike lanes as a national strategy. But the real test of whether Buttigieg will lead a pro-urban USDOT is not in these marquee issues. It will be in the less glamorous issue of pedestrian safety, as it relates to new cars, autonomous vehicles, and data collection.

Sadly, the United States is going the wrong direction on pedestrian safety. Over the last 25 years, American roads have gotten safer for people in cars, thanks to larger vehicles and new safety features. People outside cars, however, are dying more than ever – 7338 in 2019, compared with 6524 in 1995. The same larger vehicles are much more damaging when they hit people, and encourage drivers to go faster on local roads than ever before. In 2004, pedestrians were only 10% of all traffic-related deaths; in 2019, they were 20%. The idea that “distracted walkers” are a major cause of crashes is a myth.

Still, state and federal attention focuses almost entirely on protecting people inside vehicles. This is because federal and state DOTs have traditionally focused on highways, not local roads where pedestrians are more likely to be. (It’s no accident that the responsible federal agency is known as NHTSA — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.) It’s also helpful that automakers benefit from assuring their customers that their cars are safe to ride in.

For these reasons, pedestrian safety is a distinctly urban issue. In New YorkSan Francisco, and other big cities, the majority of traffic deaths are not of vehicle occupants. Pedestrians die outside major cities as well, but there they are dismissed as outliers – people without cars, or freak accidents. Too often, those victims are also disproportionately poor, female, and people of color. And automakers have little incentive to focus on pedestrian safety. So the only officials who reliably focus on pedestrian safety are city officials.

As a result, whether a Buttigieg-led USDOT prioritizes pedestrian safety is a far more serious test of his commitment to cities than any other. There are three areas where he could earn serious pro-urban credentials.

The first is having NHTSA incorporate pedestrian safety into new car safety standards. In Europe and Asia, regulators require new cars to be designed with pedestrian safety in mind. Features such as pop-up hoods protect a pedestrian’s head from hitting the engine block; better front-end design can reduce damage to pedestrians’ legs and prevent victims from going under the tires; crash avoidance systems can react faster than drivers. In addition to these requirements, overall crash-test ratings include not only the survival of occupants but also of pedestrians – redefining what a “five star safety rating” means. In 2015, NHTSA began work to incorporate pedestrian safety into its new car regulations, but it stalled under the Trump administration. Both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have recommended that NHTSA resume this process. A Secretary Buttigieg should make it a day-one priority to get this rulemaking restarted.

A second opportunity will be in the regulation of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Although AV companies often talk about the benefits AVs will bring cities, they have pursued a deeply anti-urban legislative agenda. They have sought to ensure that AVs be allowed to drive at the prevailing speed of traffic rather than the legal speed limit, which means that AVs will contribute to unsafe conditions rather than help cities implement the lower, pedestrian-friendly speed limits that many have adopted. They have also sought preemption to prevent state and local officials from treating AVs any differently from traditional vehicles. This would mean cities would not be able to judge for themselves whether AVs’ safety standards are appropriate for dense urban environments, nor would they be able to prevent AVs from cruising around cities instead of paying for parking. A pro-urban USDOT will force AV manufacturers to embrace pedestrian safety as a paramount consideration – and will oppose any attempt to pre-empt cities from regulating AVs as a separate class of vehicles.

A final area – and one that should appeal to a former McKinsey consultant like Buttigieg – is in data collection. Pedestrian and cyclist crashes often go unreported, especially when there is no injury, and in many cities the police do not report crashes where the driver is not considered at fault (in the police officer’s discretion). Further, NHTSA’s data collection excludes private spaces such as driveways and parking lots, where many auto-related injuries and deaths occur. Both GAO and NTSB have called for NHSTA to do better data collection, and a Secretary Buttigieg should heed those calls.

In all three cases, a Secretary Buttigieg will face opposition. AV makers will accuse USDOT of impeding the development of new technology. Traditional automakers will argue that European design standards won’t work in the American market. State DOTs and police departments may argue that more data collection is onerous and pointless. But those who care about cities must hold the Biden administration accountable for placing the most vulnerable road users at the top of their priorities. That, far more than money, will show how much the former mayor’s USDOT cares about cities.


Regulate Cars Not Pedestrians

Regulate Cars, Not Pedestrians


(Photo by Carlos Lorenzo / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) did an admirable and important thing when designated October as Pedestrian Safety Month. Pedestrian deaths have been growing dramatically in the last decade, so it is good to finally see this public health crisis receive the attention it deserves.


But NHTSA’s accompanying “Pedestrian Safety Playbook” is a damning illustration of how NHTSA and its umbrella agency, the United States Department of Transportation, evade their own responsibility for the problem.

During the last 10 years we have seen pedestrian deaths climb about 50 percent. This increase stands apart from what we see for passengers and drivers and defies the pattern in the rest of the wealthy world. In addition, the most vulnerable and marginalized — elderly, Black, Native, Hispanic/Latino, low-income, and disabled — are bearing a disproportionate share of the death and injury toll, which now totals more than 6,400 a year. But rather than draw attention to the structural causes — unsafe roadway design, ever-larger-and-more-dangerous vehicles (SUVs and trucks) and a series of demographic trends like the aging of the American populace —- NHTSA’s Pedestrian Playbook falls into a trap we see all too often around this issue: blaming the victim. NHTSA elevates behavior change as the key element of safety, with far too great an emphasis on pedestrian behavior.

NHTSA’s playbook draws a false equivalence between walking under the influence and driving drunk. Driving under the influence is illegal, but walking under the influence is both legal and safer than most alternatives for both the walker and for everyone else.

It also instructs pedestrians to take extraordinary precautions like waving flashlights as they walk, perhaps appropriate for rural roads with no sidewalks, but not for cities, suburbs or small-town America. The truth is that too many Americans are living in neighborhoods that do not have proper street lighting. And many are getting killed doing things like making short trips to and from cars or nearby shops — not setting out on long journeys with traffic safety at front of mind.

We know what can protect pedestrians. We need sidewalks, streets, crosswalks, and traffic signals designed with their safety in mind — especially in areas where there may be drinking or where older people are trying to cross. We also know that people driving slower are less likely to strike and kill a person walking. USDOT and NHTSA have the authority and resources to make streets safer. What they don’t have is the political courage to do it.

First, NHTSA regulates car design. They are the folks who have given us seatbelts, airbags, and automatic braking systems. But they have focused their resources to protect people inside cars, not the people outside of cars. There are solutions at hand. For example, pedestrian detection, while not yet perfect, has been shown to work in tandem with other technologies to reduce pedestrian crashes by as much as 35 percent. Europe will require new cars to include GPS enabled speed limiters by 2022. We could do the same to slow speeds in areas with pedestrians. The federal government could release the hold on the rule proposed by President Obama’s Administration that would, for the first time, test cars for their impacts on crash test dummies outside of cars and rate their performance. This is especially pressing as recent data has confirmed that SUVs — which have come to dominate the new car market — are two-and-a-half to three times more likely than sedans to kill pedestrians when they strike them. NHTSA’s regulations to change vehicles to protect drivers and passengers have been working. Let’s use the same strategy to protect pedestrians.

Next, USDOT helps determine what transportation infrastructure gets built and how. Right now it’s heavily weighted towards highways and road expansion — which encourage driving and higher speeds as well as create other impacts to people and the environment. To reduce bloodshed, we need to prioritize sidewalks and crosswalk construction and practical alternatives to driving, like better transit. What if federal funds were only released to jurisdictions that were adopting engineering standards that reduced auto speeds and prioritized pedestrian safety? The fact is that we know how to engineer streets to be safer for pedestrians (and we see examples of that around the world and in a number of American cities), we just don’t have the will. We recognize that some of these changes would take more than agency regulators getting their priorities straight. Congressional and presidential leadership would also be required. But with pedestrian deaths continuing to grow every year, and the known public health and climate benefits of walking, we think it’s time to stop telling pedestrians to wear high visibility clothing. Instead, let’s wisely use the proven tools of our government to protect the common good.