As pedestrian deaths continue to rise across the country, a new cadre of professionals is taking notice—traffic engineers. A recent article from National Society of Professional Engineers (NPSE) outlines the commitment traffic engineers are making to addressing current street design practices to save pedestrian lives.

A public safety crisis is upon us. In 2018, 6,227 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles. That number jumps to 7,450 if you include “non-traffic” incidents occurring in driveways, parking lots and other private property and those that died within a year of their collision (source: National Safety Council). For comparison, 373 Americans died in mass shootings in 2018.

“We’ve seen a 50% increase in pedestrian deaths in 10 years. It’s the most shocking and disturbing trend in highway safety that I’ve seen in my lifetime. And I’ve been doing this research professionally for almost 40 years,” Richard Retting, the director of safety and research at Sam Schwartz, a traffic and transportation planning and engineering firm, told NSPE.

No single factor has been identified for the increase in pedestrian deaths, though distracted driving, the increasing size and popularity of large trucks and SUVs, and speed of motor vehicles (heavy or otherwise) are believed to contribute.

Traditional strategies for reducing pedestrian injuries and fatalities include awareness and education campaigns for pedestrians and drivers. Though these strategies were effective at curbing the frequency of people driving under the influence of alcohol, their effectiveness at decreasing motor vehicle speed and driver inattention is not yet evident.

While factors such as distracted driving and the popularity heavier vehicles are difficult to address, pedestrian safety can be improved through street engineering by increasing visibility, lowering motor vehicle speeds, and decreasing pedestrian-driver conflict. For example, Florida DOT reviewed their collision data to find over 70% of pedestrian deaths had occurred at night. In response, they invested $100 million in street lighting improvements. Since implementation, pedestrian fatalities dropped 50% in areas where street lighting was installed or enhanced.

While improving street design may seem obvious, some folks are still catching on. Notes the NSPE,

“Professional engineers can bring a commitment to the ethical canon of “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” [Retting] adds. “That means sometimes making decisions that improve safety, even at the cost of mobility. Maybe there will be fewer traffic lanes on some streets and resulting traffic delays.”

Some people are starting to sue due to unsafe street design. In our region, a 17-year-old injured while trying to walk across Niagara Falls Boulevard recently announced intentions to sue the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda. The family of a woman killed while crossing the Boulevard has also sued the towns (NYSDOT is responsible for street design and signal maintenance on the Boulevard while the towns are responsible for sidewalk and crosswalk maintenance).

Dana Papaj was hit while walking her dog in Grand Island in a hit-and-run accident. She is suing Erie County over the condition of East River Road for being in “hazardous, defective, and dangerous condition.”