Deconstructing the Pedestrian Injury/Death Narrative

The “conventional wisdom” presents the following combination of narrative plot elements in its creation of a typical pedestrian injury/death:

  • It’s dark outside and the victim is wearing dark clothes
  • Victim stumbles drunkenly into the street
  • This stumbling occurs far from a legitimate crosswalk

And there are plenty of cases where this combination of narrative elements is true. But, as demonstrated in Burque’s last two such incidents, there’s an exceptional number of exceptions.

To wit the unremittingly depressing story of Richard Sisneros, killed, allegedly but with confession, by 14-year-old Matthew Jaramillo. Yeah, when you do something so heinous as to run a guy over and drag him 200 feet “trying to detach the male from his vehicle” you get your name in the paper, even as a 14-year-old. This story hurts in so many ways, and, as a former middle school teacher, hits (sorry for word choice) close to home on that score as well.

The Sisneros killing happened in broad daylight, and the victim was anything but “stumbling,” blocking Jaramillo’s path as he told the kid to get out of the parking lot, one that has been used for nefarious purposes over the years. In an almost unprecedented example of blaming the victim, some commenters on the killing have snidely laughed at Sisneros for blocking the vehicle. There’s also the data collection consideration of whether we should “count” Sisneros as a pedestrian death. Honestly, BetterBurque can be overly cynical, but we’re not that cynical.

And yesterday, it appears a pedestrian was struck around Noon near Los Altos Skate Park. I write “appears,” because the only mention of such an incident is found on the KOB website, as news organizations here evidently have a “you take it, no, you take it” approach to covering pedestrian injuries/deaths. Nothing beyond a “pedestrian condition is unknown at this time” can be found for this case, but we at least know it also happened in broad daylight.

So what about that conventional wisdom narrative? Anecdotals are helpful, and when it comes to pedestrian injury/death very depressing, but let’s go to statistics for a better idea of what’s really going on for each bullet point in the narrative:

  • It’s dark outside and victim is wearing dark clothes: 2013 data (most recent available) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for pedestrian fatalities does show that 70% occur during times of day that might very well be dark. That said, 30% don’t. Note: with the times below, especially given that Summer is understandably the season with the most fatalities, we’re being conservative in assuming some level of sunlight. The actual percentage of daylight fatalities might very well be higher than 30%.

pedtimeofday

  • Victim stumbles drunkenly into the street: This piece of the narrative is especially compelling to many in Albuquerque, so let’s go there for our data. As shown below, the percentage of pedestrian-involved crashes in which the pedestrian was “alcohol-involved” is far lower than commonly assumed. Data from 2009-2013 compiled by the Traffic Research Unit at UNM shows 16.7% pedestrian alcohol involvement. Alongside it is age data, obviously tied to alcohol impairment in most cases where 14-year-olds aren’t picking up prostitutes and running over and dragging men in parking lots.

pedabqalcohol

  • Stumbling occurs far from a legitimate crosswalk: The aforementioned NHTSA put out a “National Pedestrian Crash Report” in 2008. The very interesting little table below from that report touches on several nuances in the pedestrian crash debate.

pedcrosswalkstats

Authors of the Report choose the following interpretation to lead exploration of what the data means:

Over three-fourths (78%) of the pedestrians were killed at non-intersections and less than one-fourth (21.2%) were killed at intersections over the past decade. Table 2 shows that roadways without crosswalks accounted for 42 percent of all pedestrian fatalities. The table also shows that the percentage of pedestrian deaths in crosswalks (near 9%) is less than deaths in roadways (80%). This indicates that using a crosswalk is the safest way to cross a street (BetterBurque emphasis).

Well, that’s one “true” way to look at it.  Another “true” way to look at the data would be to point out that 42% of the roadways where pedestrian fatalities occur don’t have crosswalks. Note also the authors have 16.8% “unknown,” which can be played with in various ways. BetterBurque would suggest the authors “play with” that figure next time by goddamn finding out whether there’s a crosswalk on the damn street or not.

How one interprets the crosswalk data above is fundamental to addressing the rising pedestrian injury/death epidemic. Positing that jaywalkers are somehow properly paying for their choice to cross roads without crosswalks is one way. Interestingly, in contrast, traffic engineers closely monitor motorist behavior and adapt roads to heighten safety in cases where motorists repeatedly make similar “stupid decisions.”

The “properly paying” interpretation foregoes altering roads to heighten pedestrian safety. Instead, it just, as the Crash Report does, tells pedestrians to “be predictable. Cross streets at crosswalks or intersections when possible. This is where drivers expect pedestrians.”

Nowhere in the report does it tell traffic engineers to create more crosswalks.

Nowhere.

One can hope the paradigm has shifted a bit at NHTSA since the 2008 report. Still, the number zero, as in “nowhere” above is perhaps the most illuminating number presented in today’s blogpost blizzard o’ numbers. The engendering of a misleading “conventional wisdom” narrative when it comes to pedestrian injury/death has been greatly helped by blaming the pedestrian, as NHTSA does above, instead of blaming, at least in part, the design of our streets.

Of course, changing that paradigm means spending money on traffic signals and crosswalks, and, slowing down drivers in the process. And who wants that, regardless of how many pedestrians get killed?

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