Why American Cars Kill More Minority Pedestrians

Here's why.

Flickr / DennisM2

Americans are 7.2 times more likely to die as a pedestrian than from a natural disaster — and the risk is higher if they aren’t white.

Smart Growth America recently conducted a study called “Dangerous by Design,” which examines the number of pedestrians killed by cars. From 2005 to 2014, more than 46,000 pedestrians were fatally struck by cars. Although people of color make up about the third of the population, they make up 46.1 percent of pedestrian deaths.

There are some reasons for this. To start, people of color are less likely to own cars, which means they are more likely to walk. They are also more likely to rely on public transportation, having to walk to local train stations and wait at bus stops. Many low-income areas are transit deserts, which means people have little to no access to frequent public transportation and have to spend more time getting to work. A longer commute likely means more transfers — and more walking. And bad design is a major issue — communities of color are less likely to have safer walking infrastructure like sidewalks, traffic islands, and crosswalks. The results can be fatal. In 2014, about four pedestrians of color were killed each day.

Native Americans are the most overrepresented racial group in pedestrian deaths. They make up only 0.7 percent of the population, but 2.7 percent of pedestrian deaths. In North Dakota, where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe recently held protests to stop a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built, Native Americans make up 37.5 percent of pedestrian deaths — but only 5.1 percent of the state population.

African Americans are the second most overrepresented racial group, making up 19.3 percent of pedestrian deaths but 12.2 percent of the population. A study in 2015 found that motorists are less likely to stop for black pedestrians — which can lead to fatalities.

The Dangerous by Design study also found that adults 65 and over are at a higher risk of pedestrian death, and the lower the median income of the area, the higher the risk of pedestrian deaths.

Reducing the number of travel lanes and building traffic islands can decrease pedestrian deaths and injuries. And when cities build road designs meant for highways (like wide, straight lanes) through communities, this encourages more speeding and increases the risk of pedestrian deaths. Understanding how pedestrians use roads can lead to better design solutions, like wide sidewalks, pedestrian countdown signals, restricted right turns on red lights and more.

In the future, autonomous cars may become safer than human driversreducing car accidents and pedestrian deaths. But if humans are to put their safety in the hands of artificial intelligence, autonomous cars have to be completely safe. As Dr. Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute, said, even if autonomous cars are twice as safe as human drivers, that still won’t be acceptable to society. Autonomous cars can also be used for ride-sharing when human drivers aren’t using them — possibly increasing options for transit deserts. On the flip side, autonomous cars can take away jobs from drivers, and at least in the near future, only the rich can afford autonomous cars.

Before relying on autonomous cars to solve these problems, it’s best to invest in better infrastructure design. Researchers in Sweden recently created a model to find the most efficient route for electric buses that can save both carbon emissions and cost. Since public transportation can increase access to jobs and reduce commute time, cleaner and more frequent public transit for low-income areas is definitely a start.