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Trib Blames Peds for Death Spike, Stats Tell Different Story

Image: Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Tribune’s transportation coverage has come a long way in recent years, but windshield bias still rears its ugly head from time to time, and the victim-blaming headline and image of today’s editorial on the current walking fatality crisis was a doozy: “Look up from your phone: Pedestrian deaths have spiked.” The accompanying photo shows a woman walking across the street while using a smartphone.

According to a new report from the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration, a nonprofit that represents state highway safety offices from around the country, about 6,227 pedestrians were killed in 2018. That’s up 35 percent from a decade ago, and the highest number since 1990.

“Walking has become more hazardous to your health,” the Tribune editorial board writes calling the trend “a troubling spike.” They correctly note that the rise in pedestrian deaths can be attributed to the growing popularity of SUVs, which studies show are 2.5 to 3 times as likely to kill struck pedestrians than a regular cars. They accurately mention that current street layouts tend to encourage speeding, and reckless and distracted behavior by drivers exacerbates the problem. And they rightly call for safer street designs and lighting.

But, along with the headline and photo, the editorial contains multiple statements that suggest that irresponsible behavior by pedestrians is a significant factor in the safety crisis:

    • “So why the jump in this category, even as road deaths overall decline? Among the reasons: More… pedestrians are distracted by mobile phones.”
    • “Road designs and lighting improvements can better protect pedestrians (although not keep them from texting while ambling).”
    • “Enforcing laws against jaywalking by pedestrians… would help, too."

Granted, the editorial also blames texting by drivers for the increase in fatalities, and calls for enforcement of laws against “sloppy turns by drivers.”

But the Tribune editorial is way off base is suggesting that pedestrian behavior is a major contributor to the death spike, let alone that a jaywalking crackdown is warranted. As Streetsblog USA recently noted, the GSHA report indicates that drivers are “entirely to blame” for the spike. In addition to the SUV boom, the study found that population growth in Sun Belt states with car-centric development is a factor, with five states — Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arizona and California -- accounting for almost half of all walking deaths.

Distracted driving may also be a contributor. The GSHA report notes that the increase in walking deaths parallels the national rise in smartphone use, although it includes the caveat, “there is a lack of evidence to establish a definitive link.”

Between 2013 and 2016, only 1.2 percent of Illinois car/pedestrian crashes involved a person on foot using a cell phone. Image: Active Trans
Image: Active Trans
Between 2013 and 2016, only 1.2 percent of Illinois car/pedestrian crashes involved a person on foot using a cell phone. Image: Active Trans

But last year’s Active Transportation Alliance Chicago Regional Crash Report, based on Illinois Department of Transportation crash data, showed that that cell phone use by people on foot was not a significant factor in pedestrian deaths in our state. That study found that, out of the 20,117 people on foot struck by drivers in Illinois between 2013 and 2016, a mere 1.2 percent of the victims were using cell phones.

So why on earth is the Tribune implying, through the editorial's headline, image, and talking points, that so-called “distracted walking” is a major factor in these cases? In reality, safety efforts should focus on the behavior of the road users piloting high-speed, multi-ton vehicles that can easily kill other people.

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