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Ten Most Dangerous Cities

For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, April 8, 1997

Pedestrians are nearly twice as likely to be killed by a stranger with a car as a stranger with a gun, according to a new report released jointly by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP).

Pedestrian fatalities averaged roughly 14% of all automobile-related deaths in the U. S. or about 6,000 deaths per year from 1986 to 1995. Yet, transportation officials only spend about 1 percent of federal transportation safety money to protect people who walk, even in high foot-traffic areas, according to the report.

"Pedestrians are not getting their fair share of the federal safety dollar," said Hank Dittmar, executive director of STPP.

Senior citizens are at particularly high risk. People over the age of 65 make up 13% of the population, but they account for 23% of all pedestrian deaths. In addition, an average of 1,000 children under the age of 18 are killed every year while walking. Of all people killed in car crashes between 1986 and 1995, one in seven were pedestrians, the equivalent of one large plane crash every two weeks.

Meanwhile, the highway lobby or the "road gang," including road builders, automobile manufacturers, truckers and some state Departments of Transportation, are lobbying to weaken ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act or "ice tea"), the landmark transportation law that enabled communities---not lobbyists or Washington---to spend their transportation tax dollars on innovations such as pedestrian-safe areas.

"Mean Streets," chronicles the 10 deadliest cities overall for pedestrians and also determines the 10 most dangerous and the ten safest cities based on the amount of walking activity in a given community.

"In general the most deadly areas for walking are the newer, sprawling western areas where transportation spending has been prejudiced in favor of the car," said Ken Cook, President of EWG. Part of the problem is how we define "transportation safety," according to researchers. Typically, we think of drivers and passengers, not walkers, thanks to public education about the dangers of driving drunk, better seat belt laws and mandatory crash testing. Traffic engineers who design roadways actually refer to walkers in the Highway Capacity Manual as "traffic flow interruptions."

"Pedestrian safety historically has meant getting out of the way," said Dittmar. "That has to change. When we think of increased transportation efficiency and safety, we automatically think in terms of cars, air bags and wider roads---not people, not better public transit, not safer sidewalks. We need to switch our priorities. People first, cars second."

As Congress re-writes ISTEA this year, pedestrian safety advocates are proposing among other improvements, that it re-authorize the law to allocate safety money proportional to pedestrian risk. Originally passed in 1991, ISTEA for the first time pried federal transportation money loose from the stranglehold of highway builders and allowed flexible use of money for community-determined transportation needs instead of just to build new roads.

ISTEA also democratized the decision-making process. Now, local people and local officials actually decide how to spend their transportation tax dollars, investing in public transit, bike paths and pedestrian safety. Still, almost all safety money goes to motorist safety programs.

"The U.S. spends almost no money on pedestrian safety as we pour billions of dollars yearly into questionable road 'improvements.' Much of the money spent to improve roads actually makes them more dangerous for walkers," said Cook.

In fact, National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) data indicate that 55 percent of pedestrians are killed on neighborhood streets and local roads, making the places we believe to be the safest for walking, actually the most dangerous.

Some communities have acknowledged the need for better pedestrian protection and implemented successful strategies. Seattle instituted a traffic calming program that reduced pedestrian accidents by more than 75%. Portland, OR. has a similar plan that reduced accidents by 50%.

But, the road gang is pushing hard for rival legislation. They support a measure circulating in the House and Senate called STEP 21 while the highway lobby is pushing for the Highways Only Transportation Efficiency Act (or HOTEA). These proposals would abolish environmental protection and safety programs to focus almost exclusively on highway construction.

The STPP coalition is calling on the federal government to recognize pedestrian safety as a national transportation priority on a par with automobile and railroad safety. It is advocating a variety of solutions including, expansion of the federal capital safety funding program; more local control over where and how federal funds are spent; and assurances that road-building projects don't add to pedestrian hazards.

The coalition includes over 200 environmental and community organizations. Their goal is to ensure that transportation policy and investments make communities more liveable, strengthen the economy, help conserve energy, promote social equity and protect environmental and aesthetic quality. EWG is a non-profit research organization in Washington, D.C.