A new study compares data on pedestrian and bicycling fatality rates in the US with those in three European countries. While Europe’s fatality rates tumbled, the rate of pedestrian and bike fatalities on our roads is rising. CalBike spoke with the researchers about why the US is heading in the wrong direction and what we can do about it. In this first of two articles based on our interview with the study’s authors, we delve into the details about traffic fatalities.
The researchers looked at data from 1990 to 2018 for Germany, Denmark, the UK, and the US. John Pucher is a professor emeritus at Rutgers University. Ralph Buehler is a professor and the chair of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech. Both specialize in urban transportation and much of their research focuses on international comparisons, like their latest study.
Traffic fatality trends
Germany, Denmark, and the UK saw huge declines in traffic fatalities for all road users during the study period. However, traffic fatality rates fell in the U.S. by only 20%, and only for occupants of automobiles. Cars are killing people who walk and bike on U.S. streets at an increasing rate.
The researchers calculated the fatality rates per 100M kilometers walked. From 2016 to 2018, the US saw 11.2 pedestrian deaths per 110M km. Compare that to the UK with 2.2, Denmark with 1.7, and Germany’s 1.4. The US has eight times as many pedestrian deaths per mile as Germany.
The study found that the fatality rate for bike riders is also obscenely high in the US at 6 deaths per 100M kilometers. The UK saw 1.6 bike fatalities, Germany 1, and Denmark 0.9. The US has nearly seven times as many cyclist deaths per mile as Denmark.
The Road Safety Annual Report 2020 from the International Transport Forum of the OECD confirms the conclusions of the Buehler and Pucher study. In a comparison of traffic fatality trends among 42 countries from 2000-2018, the US stood out for having the largest increases in the deaths of pedestrians (more than 40%) and bicyclists (approximately +80%). The US stands in stark contrast to most of the other countries in the report, who reduced fatality rates during this same period.
“Slaughter” on the streets
“One of the problems is most of the population and especially most of the government policymakers aren’t aware of how serious the problem is,” Pucher said. “This is a slaughter.” In addition to the thousands of people killed while walking and biking on American streets, many more are injured and some will be disabled for life.
“It’s a huge public health problem,” Pucher said. “It’s an equity issue as well.” The people most affected are people of color, lower-income people (who often can’t afford the price of safety on US streets: a car), children, and seniors.
“What it comes down to is a political willingness at all levels of government to make pedestrian and cyclist safety a priority,” Buehler said. “It’s a second thought.”
This important research is one more addition to a growing body of research that points to the urgent need for more Complete Streets. Finding ways to increase Complete Streets is a key part of CalBike’s work. We continue to work with Caltrans to improve Caltrans-controlled roadways, which are often the most dangerous in our communities.
This article is the first of two based on our far-ranging discussion with Pucher and Buehler about their research and their recommendations for safer streets. In our second installment, they offer solutions based on their cross-cultural experience and highlight some advantages the US has in creating safer streets.