Experts on Camera

Dr. Kelcie Ralph: Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities

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Pedestrian and cyclist deaths are sharply on the rise in many U.S. cities.

On Wednesday, May 25th, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Kelcie Ralph, an associate professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, where she studies transportation, safety, and public opinion. She discussed topics including: factors underlying the recent surge in pedestrian and cyclist deaths; how cities and states rank in rates of pedestrian fatalities; what steps cities can take to make our streets safer for all users (including new infrastructure, lower speed limits, and traffic cameras); why individual behavior changes are not enough to reduce the risk of crashes; and how local news outlets cover traffic collisions, and how this affects perceptions of blame and responsibility among readers, listeners, or viewers.

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KELCIE RALPH: I’m Kelcie Ralph. I’m an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and I study transportation—all kinds of things about transportation—but recently focused on identifying misconceptions about transportation and then fixing those misconceptions to improve safety.

Interview with SciLine

What are the current trends when it comes to pedestrian injuries and deaths?


KELCIE RALPH: The trends in pedestrian safety is so, so troubling in this country. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just released the most recent numbers for 2021, and in that year, 7,300 people died on our streets while walking. That’s 20 people every single day—one every 50 minutes—just our pedestrian deaths, so not the other crashes. That’s like a commercial airplane falling out of the sky 40 times a year. It’s really a staggering number and sort of hard to wrap your head around. And to make matters worse, these numbers are getting worse. So, the pedestrian safety fatality rates were 13% worse this year than last year. And, relative to 2009, the best year in the United States, they’re 80% worse.

What factors contribute to these dangers for pedestrians?


KELCIE RALPH: I want to start first with a factor that is not part of the problem. A lot of folks look at the intuitive connection between the rise in smartphones and the rise in these crashes and say, look; this must be about distracted walking. And I can be really confident after reviewing lots of experiments and lots of observational studies that this is not the cause. Smartphones are widely available. Lots of people use them while they’re walking. It doesn’t really change behavior all that much. I do want to point to three things that are related, though. That’s distracted driving, the rise of SUVs and unsafe infrastructure. We know that driving distracted is a problem. Lots of people do it. We know that SUVs are now the most popular vehicles on our roadways, and people who are hit by an SUV are 2 to 3 times more likely to die than someone who’s hit by a sedan. And finally, unsafe infrastructure—we’ve produced streets where an accident is basically waiting to happen.

Are there any noteworthy geographic patterns in pedestrian deaths in the United States?


KELCIE RALPH: There are two really clear geographic patterns about traffic safety deaths. So the first is sort of national in scope. We know for a fact that the Sun Belt, the South, the Southwest, these are the places that are most dangerous for pedestrians. And this is important because lots of people are moving to those regions. They’re the fastest growing in the United States. These cities were developed after the advent of the automobile, and so they really cater to the needs of drivers. The other issue, though, is that we have arterial streets, and these happen in all kinds of cities. Arterial streets are places where we’re trying to do two things at once on our roadways. First, we’re trying to move a lot of cars really fast, and we’re trying to offer driveways and entrances to things like restaurants and shops and things like that. These two competing needs, they conflict, though, and it means that there’s a lot of really high-speed crashes. Half of all the pedestrian deaths in the United States happen on these kinds of roadways. Now, we can think about a specific example—Denver, Colorado. Fifty percent of their pedestrian deaths happen on just a tiny share of their streets—5% of them. That’s 27 road segments. So, this concentration of deaths is actually really good news for traffic safety because, if we can target improvements there, we can save a lot of lives.

What steps can cities take to make streets safer?


KELCIE RALPH: A city can take three key steps to try to make their streets safer. The first is to think about speeds and lowering speed limits. The second is to enforce those speed limits. And the third is to make changes to infrastructure. Let’s talk about each in turn. So, the first thing to keep in mind is that high speeds make crashes not just more likely but more deadly when they occur. If you get hit by a car that’s traveling 20 miles per hour, chances are you will survive. But if you get hit by a car traveling 40 miles per hour, your chances are 50-50. And they quickly decline as speed increases after that. So, if we choose lower speed limits in places that we know that a lot of people are dying on our streets and places where there’s a lot of people walking, with lower speed limits in those places we’re going to have a lot fewer people dying. The second step is to use automated speed enforcement to enforce those new rules. There’s a misperception that a lot of people oppose automated speed enforcement. And that’s not really the case. In poll after poll, the majority of Americans support this technique. There’s a small, a very vocal minority who opposes it. But it’s a really, really useful tool for slowing drivers down and saving lives. The final step, though, is to make sure that we use any money from those cameras to make pedestrian safety improvements. This is things like adding sidewalks, adding crosswalks and also just slowing drivers down through infrastructure. The goal here should be to make it so that we actually make the cameras obsolete, that we can make the streets sort of self-enforcing.

Is individual behavior change sufficient to reduce the risk of crashes?


KELCIE RALPH: I want to be really clear that reducing crashes requires a systems approach, not just an individual approach. And there is a totally natural tendency to focus on individuals. We like stories. We’re wired for that. But we’re sort of relying on this hope that if we just educate drivers a little bit, if we just enforce the rules a little bit better that that will solve our safety problem. But I want to be really clear that even if every driver followed the rules to a tee, we would still have a ton of crashes. That’s because our roadways are just designed to prioritize high speeds and high flow over safety. And if we want to get real about addressing this problem, we need to rethink that balance between flow/speed and safety.

Can you describe your research on how local news outlets cover traffic collisions and how this affects audience perceptions of blame and responsibility?


KELCIE RALPH: I’ve been researching the way that media cover crashes for several years now. And every time, we see a few prevailing practices. First is that articles are really prone to blaming the victim. It’s very subtle. It happens at the sentence level. And what we do is we see a pedestrian was hit instead of a very similar sentence, a driver hit a pedestrian. And this is important because decades of research from linguistics studies show that the focus of the sentence is the one who gets more blame. Incidentally, these sentences also tend to focus on the car, not the driver. So, this removes any agency or sort of responsibility from a person driving. And, as of yet, we don’t have very many autonomous vehicles, so it doesn’t make sense to refer to a car as an agent.

These word choices, they sound sort of trivial. But we know that they have a really profound influence on how readers interpret what happens in a crash. And I know this because I conducted an experiment. And we gave readers different versions of a story with the identical facts. And when readers encountered a story with these slight changes that I’ve discussed above, they reduced victim blaming by 30%. Now, it’s not just at the sentence level that victim blaming happens. We also find victim blaming in the types of facts that get included and excluded in stories. So, for example, we often see facts about the individuals involved. Were they in a crosswalk? Were they wearing dark clothing? And instead, we don’t see a lot of facts about the systems, the roadway. How many lanes are there? How fast was it? Was a crosswalk even available? Was there lighting? All of these facts are just as relevant as what the individual was doing, but they’re often omitted from a story altogether.

Are pedestrian injuries and deaths preventable?


KELCIE RALPH: There is this misunderstanding, I think, that traffic crashes are just—they’re unpreventable. We—it’s the price we’re going to have to pay to have a functioning road system. And I want to be really clear that that’s not the case. We can absolutely take steps that do measurably improve crash safety. And we can see this by comparing what’s happening in the United States to what’s happening in other countries. So, in the past 10 years, well, our traffic safety record has gotten worse. Eighty percent more people are dying on our streets while walking and biking. And folks in Europe are enjoying much safer streets, 36% safer streets, in fact. And we can look even more specifically at one country in particular, Sweden, who’s been a real leader in transportation safety. They’ve pursued what’s called Vision Zero since 1995. The goal is to completely eliminate traffic deaths. And if we could match their per capita number of deaths, we would save 30,000 lives every single year in the United States.

How are reporters doing covering pedestrian injuries and deaths?

(Posted May 25, 2022 | Download Video)

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