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Pedestrian Deaths Soared Even as Pandemic Driving Waned

Driving was down last year nationwide and locally due to the pandemic, but drivers killed 39% more people walking in Richmond region in 2020, with Black and brown pedestrians being killed at a much higher rate. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the pandemic meant fewer cars were on the road last year.

But even as driving decreased, the number of pedestrians killed by cars increased 20% nationwide in the first half of 2020. Deaths are  on pace to reach a record high, according to a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. 

National numbers also show people of color were killed at a much higher rate, said Gersh Kuntzman, of StreetsBlog USA.

“In most cities, the vast majority of the roadways in communities of color are poorly designed,” Kuntzman said. “That's a function of most city governments, frankly, lack of concern for communities of color. And that's a historic problem. And it's a current problem.”

A report from Smart Growth America notes the “fatality rate in the lowest income neighborhoods was nearly twice that of middle income census tracts (in median household income) and almost three times that of higher-income neighborhoods.”

The report also states many low-income communities are “significantly less likely than higher-income communities to have sidewalks, marked crosswalks, and street design to support safer, slower speeds.”

Richmond Region Numbers

Early this week, Brantley Tyndall, director of outreach for Bike Walk RVA, issued a report with numbers and figures from both the Smart Growth report as well as the Virginia DMV. He says the national numbers reflect what’s happening locally.

“We've seen over the past four years, just bigger numbers, like almost inexplicably, just the jump that has maintained that high level of record setting pedestrian fatalities in the country, in Virginia and in the Richmond region,” Tyndall said.

Tyndall says local numbers related to deaths of pedestrians of color aren’t available yet. 

He said intersections with no crosswalk and a lack of sidewalks on busier and wider streets played a big part in traffic deaths. 

“Pedestrian fatalities, those went up 39%, from 2019 to 2020, which seems to coincide very heavily with the speeding activity, which was also a 35% increase in the Richmond region,” Tyndall said.

The major factor in both national and local numbers is speed. With less cars on the road, drivers ramped up their speeds well above posted speed limits.

Tyndall says Chesterfield County saw a 200% increase in the number of fatalities related to speeding. 

How to Reduce the Deaths

Both Kuntzman and Tyndall agree there are many ways to reduce deaths related to speeding. Those include adding roundabouts, narrowing streets and building safety buffers, something as concrete planters by crosswalks. Anything to  force drivers to slow down would help. 

“Some people have called it self-enforcing streets,” Tyndall said. “. Those streets can be designed so that it's really not practical to be able to drive more than is the posted speed limit.”

Kuntzman said it is up to government officials to make redesigns happen. 

“It just takes government officials to say, ‘We're going to reduce the level of service for drivers,’” Kuntzman said. “But at the end of the day, if they don't reduce the speed limit, if they don't redesign the street, then it's not safety first, it's safety third, fourth, fifth, I don't know where they want to put it.”

In Tyndall’s report, he says a legislative proposal from Del. Betsy Carr to let localities set speed limits as low as 15 mph is “one solid step toward reducing speeds.” The previous minimum in residential and business districts was 25 mph. That bill was signed into law by the governor on March 26.

Beyond that, Tyndall said VDOT and “localities can continue to lower speed limits, shorten crossing distances, mark crosswalks, and build dedicated biking and walking infrastructure that is removed from car travel and proximity to drivers.”

*Update: Del. Carr's bill was signed shortly after publication.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.