Trib Blames Peds for Death Spike, Stats Tell Different Story

Image: Chicago Tribune
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

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.

  • FlamingoFresh

    It’s funny that the article mentions NYC being able to reduce pedestrian fatalities through “addressed speed limits, street designs, and moving violations”, which happen to all deal with vehicles and not pedestrians. Even when they provide the facts themselves, they can’t seem to make sense of it.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I thought the Trib story was short on facts, but I’m also not sold that studies at a state level are all that relevant either. For Illinois at least, Chicago is in a class of its own when it comes to density and congestion.

  • Kevin M

    Have pedestrian deaths by trains and buses also increased over the past decade? If so, by how much?

    If they have not (or have not risen by nearly as much as auto-related pedestrian deaths), therein lies the proof that cars kill pedestrians. Period.

  • planetshwoop

    Jaywalking enforcement. Sure. What else do the police have to do?

  • what_eva

    First off, this editorial is asinine.

    That said, rarely does a day go by that I don’t have to dodge some dope on the sidewalk with their face buried in their phone not looking where they’re going. They’re not walking into the street, but they’re sure not paying attention to other pedestrians.

  • James

    Why is it so hard to understand that if people are waking around like zombies they are more likely to get hit by something?
    And while the law may say cars should stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk, the laws of physics state otherwise. I can’t tell you how many times I see people just step out into the street without looking and expect cars to miraculously stop. That’s just stupid. Everyone needs to take more responsibility.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sure, everyone should be paying attention while traveling through the city — that’s common sense.

    However, in Chicago using a phone while walking isn’t illegal, while using a phone while driving generally is. That’s because the potential for death and destruction is exponentially greater when a distracted road user is piloting a heavy, high-speed vehicle. However, our distracted driving law is rarely enforced:

    And as the Active Trans study found, phone use by pedestrians is rarely a factor in Illinois pedestrian crashes. So why do the headline, photo, and multiple statements in the Tribune article imply that phone use by pedestrians is one of the major factors in the spike in deaths, and why does the article go so far as to imply that a jaywalking crackdown would be a good idea?

    That kind of rhetoric is counterproductive because it lets drivers and government agencies off the hook for taking action to the problem of rising pedestrian fatalities with measures like better street design, effective driving enforcement, and regulating vehicle design, which can be politically challenging.

    More discussion of the subject here:

  • oogernomicon

    Because 1.2% is a very very small percentage thereof?

  • outerloop

    I agree with John on a lot of points. However, just because something is legal doesn’t mean we should be carefree doing it or not conscious of our surroundings. We do live in the real world with tangible consequences. We should encourage all users of public space to practice safety. A 3x percentage increase in pedestrians using phones getting hit by cars from 2015 to 2016 should motivate us to teach safe practices to pedestrians as well.
    * Small data sets don’t make solid statistics so let’s hope the 2015-2016 increase is only a momentary spike.
    ** Drivers and government agencies are not off the hook and presenting arguments as “black and white” unfortunately allows people to get more entrenched in their beliefs and cut off input from those who hold contrary views (along with many other negative affects).

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think the question is what are the police doing now, and what goes into determining how they select which laws they enforce and which ones they don’t. There is really no point having laws on the books if we aren’t going to enforce them, outside of the fact it allows our City Council to pretend its working.

    Specific to jaywalking, I’ve been to several of the West Coast cities that are routinely held up as shining examples of more pedestrian-friendly urban environments. And they all seem to have in common having pedestrians who follow the legal right of way and whatever traffic signage or signals are in place. The residents I’ve known tell me was accomplished by their cops enforcing pedestrian laws as well as traffic laws. It’s a social compact. Chicago on the other hand is just a giant free for all in comparison, and while it is certainly true that cars are far and away the most dangerous parts of the equation, disregard for one’s fellow users of the sidewalks and streets is the common denominator IMO.

  • planetshwoop

    I think the question is what are the police doing now, and what goes into determining how they select which laws they enforce and which ones they don’t.

    Cynically, I was going to suggest that they ruthlessly enforce jaywalking in white neighborhoods, with specifically targeting white people for the offenses to find out if they have weed, illegal guns, or other crimes.

    In other words, what if the police suddenly decided to enforce jaywalking just as arbitrarily as it enforced bicycle laws in some neighborhoods?

  • Lynn Basa

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen pedestrians waiting to cross at a crosswalk as one driver after another whizzes by. Doesn’t matter if the pedestrian is pushing a baby stroller, in a wheelchair, standing in the pouring rain…. I don’t understand why it is so difficult for Chicago drivers to take 10 seconds to show courtesy to their fellow citizens. You’d think by their behavior that they’ve never had to try to cross themselves before.

  • Carter O’Brien

    You can never be too cynical in Chicago.

    But jaywalking I would expect to be more prominent in higher density areas and those zoned for entertainment districts, like downtown and the North Side. So hell yes, speaking as a lifelong (if increasingly irritated) Cubs fan and North Sider, you’ve got my blessing to send CPD into Wrigleyville on game day and bust the knuckleheads wandering around in the middle of Clark St.

  • Frank Kotter

    ‘More likely to be hit by something’ A bat? A meteor? A rickshaw?

    Cars. The danger is cars. Car drivers need to take responsibility and yet we give them the pass each and every time.

  • Because the data shows you’re wrong?

    You want stupid, ignoring data…

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  • Michael

    @John Greenfield, The quote you pulled from the Tribune conveniently places an ellipse in place of key words, and destroys the Chicago Tribune’s much more fair and balanced actual quote regarding mobile phones.

    Your abbreviated, ellipse containing quote reads, “So why the jump in this category, even as road deaths overall decline? Among the reasons: More… pedestrians are distracted by mobile phones.” But in reality, the Chicago Tribune ACTUAL and full sentence has a completely different meaning than you imply in your article, and demonstrates that mobile phone usage of all involved are a key issue, not just bicycle riders.

    Here is the full line from the Tribune for those that are interested, “Among the reasons: More drivers and pedestrians are distracted by mobile phones. Deaths ticked up as surely as smartphone sales did.”

    Furthermore, another of the 3 reason listed in the same blocker where pulled words out of quote to changes its meaning for your article is this, “More people drive SUVs, which cause greater injury than cars do at the same speed.” And immediately follow those points the continue, “So yes, the typical driver is part of the problem. In the Almost-Goes-Without-Saying Department: Drivers never should text behind the wheel, should forsake speeding, shouldn’t drive recklessly.”

    Apparently neither of the actual quotes, nor the full article from the Chicago Tribune, fits the narrative of your article but that should not give you liberty or right to change the meaning of the editorial using tricky ellipses and pulling words out of the middle of sentences just to suit your objectives. You later admit further down that the editorial says texting by drivers is also to blame, but by them the damage is done and the twisted quote remains as point the editorial never made. If you want credibility on the topic of transportation safety, you may want to consider avoiding the twisting of other publications statements and changing their meaning to meet your needs.

    Lastly, it is irresponsible to imply that pedestrians do not need to take extra precautions to protect themselves from becoming a victim. While working to make streets and transportation safer for everyone, lets not toss aside a key tool – educating pedestrians to stop walking and move to safe location when texting. I would never even consider walking while texting anywhere… not even in the hallway of building, let alone in the street. It is rude and obnoxious and – as is evidenced by the stats – sometimes deadly.

    Perhaps you could write a piece about proper and safe phone edicate and use by all users – pedestrians, bicycles, drivers, etc. – and use your platform to help get people off their phones while in motion of any kind. Using your phone while in motion is just not a good idea and the sooner we can make it unacceptable the better.

  • Michael

    As the National Safety Council recommends – put the phone down while you are in motion.

    If you are in motion of any kind, put the phone down or stop moving.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Without carefully reading your entire (very long) comment, I did summarize the arguments the Tribune made about the responsibilities of drivers in my post. But the framing of the Tribune editorial implies that clueless pedestrians are a big factor in the surge in deaths, which isn’t the case. If the Trib had done their editorial in a responsible manner, it would have featured a photo of a driver using a phone, rather than a pedestrian.

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  • Beckola

    As someone who drives a lot through our neighborhoods, I’ve found that since the signs went up noting drivers must stop when pedestrians are in crosswalks it has had a side effect of some pedestrians not pausing prior to entering crosswalks. Regardless how close the approaching car is. I guess the whole ‘look both ways and cross when safe’ was never taught to them. I blame the vague wording of the signs more than I blame the pedestrians.

    So now I just anticipate a pedestrian approaching a crosswalk is not going to pause prior to entering. I slow to a stop. Then some keep going and others stop. They step off but of course the other lane is still moving. They wait in front of my car for the other side to stop. Those signs have caused this confusion and I’m sure have led to more crosswalk incidents than when all pedestrians assumed cars were not going to slam on their brakes just because a sign is there telling them (incorrectly) they have the right away to keep walking right into the road.

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Federal Report: Bad Street Design a Factor in Rising Ped/Bike Fatalities

A new report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office [PDF] examines why people walking or biking account for a rising share of traffic deaths in the United States. While the conclusions aren’t exactly earth-shattering, one culprit the GAO identified is street design practices that seek primarily to move cars. The investigation was ordered by U.S. representatives Rick Larsen (Washington State), […]