PACIFIC COUNTY — Fred Warden, 60, was killed by a car while riding his bike near Chinook Valley Road in August 2015. Gary Mauro, 55, was killed by a car while walking on U.S. Highway 101 in September 2016.
These two seemingly isolated tragedies appear to be part of a troubling nationwide trend. A new study by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) found that the number of pedestrian deaths has sharply increased.
In the last couple of years, “there has been a pretty sharp spike in traffic deaths,” Scott Waller, a member of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission said. The commission oversees the “Target Zero” project, a plan for eliminating traffic fatalities by 2030. “What we need to do is really figure out what’s going on with that spike, and figure out what it takes to get to zero.”
While GHSA only looked at people who walk, deaths and injuries are on the rise for all kinds of Washington pedestrians, including those who skate, bike or use wheelchairs or other forms of “active transportation.” From 2012 to 2014, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 5.2 percent and the number of serious injuries increased by 3.5 percent compared to the previous three-year period, according to the 2016 Target Zero report.
GHSA also found a disproportionate number of these deaths appear to be happening outside of big cities.
In early April, Waller and Charlotte Claybrooke, who manages pedestrian programs at the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), explained why places like Pacific County can be uniquely dangerous for pedestrians, and what could be done to make local roads safer.
Hazards in the country
In Washington, more than 60 percent of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries occur in cities, where people and cars are concentrated. However, GHSA found that overall, cities are gradually becoming slightly safer, while less-populated places appear to be getting more dangerous. From 2014 to 2015, the number of pedestrian deaths in America’s 10 biggest cities decreased by 3.5 percent. But nationwide, they increased by almost 10 percent.
“Even in some rural areas, the number of people walking is increasing,” Claybrooke said. However, sidewalks, bike lanes, traffic islands and other features that separate pedestrians from vehicles are less common outside of cities.
“We definitely look at that, in terms of what infrastructure is available for pedestrians to be able to transport themselves safely,” Claybrooke said.
Rural roads often lack traffic signals, speed bumps and other things that moderate the speed and flow of traffic. Rural communities may also have fewer streetlights, higher speed limits and fewer police. Together, these factors create low-visibility situations where speeding drivers are far too close to pedestrians, Waller said.
Factors in local deaths
Between 2014 and 2017, Pacific County had 17 pedestrian-involved collisions, according to WSDOT. Only Warden and Mauro died, but several others suffered significant injuries.
Both fatal collisions involved factors that are common in pedestrian injuries and deaths. According to the Target Zero report, more than 60 percent of injuries and deaths happen while the victim is trying to cross the road, or otherwise in the roadway. Warden was at a “T” intersection when he was hit. Investigators determined that the driver did not have time to stop when he suddenly pulled into oncoming traffic.
People tend to think winding country roads are dangerous, Waller said. In actuality, researchers have found that drivers pay less attention and drive faster on straight roads.
“One of the things that happens [in rural areas] are long stretches of roadway. Off to one side, a ditch,” Waller said. “A lot of those stretches are unlit, and there is really no place to get off the roadway.”
Pedestrian incidents are also more common during hours when there is little light.
Mauro’s death illustrates how deadly these factors can be when combined. At the time of his death, he was walking on a long stretch of Highway 101, near the historic church in McGowan. One side of the narrow two-lane highway is bordered by a rock seawall. The other side has little shoulder. There are almost no lights, and the collision occurred at about 11 p.m.
Changing attitudes, changing roads
After World War II, gas was cheap and cars were huge. For a few decades, pedestrians’ needs went by the wayside, as engineers and planners focused on figuring out how to accommodate millions of autos.
Historically “Our approach has been getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as you can,” Waller said. “That means you make the road straight, and you make the road as wide as you can to keep traffic moving.”
Now, communities are beginning to design roads with more than cars in mind.
“If you’re really intentional about what you’re doing, and you’re planning for multiple uses of the roadway, you can keep pedestrians safer,” Waller said. This requires a multi-faceted approach that includes better road design, more enforcement, and fostering new habits and attitudes in all road-users, he added.
“In Europe, for instance, they don’t have the pedestrian crash problem that we do,” Waller said. “They don’t have that because they share the road.”
Waller and Claybrooke outlined a number of strategies that are proving successful.
“The number one thing you can do is, in places where there are concentrations of people, slow the traffic down,” Waller said. Engineers have come up with a variety of ways to do this, including new kinds of signals. Right now, there’s a big focus on replacing traditional intersections with roundabouts, because they keep traffic flowing, and can’t break down the way traffic lights can. This summer, WSDOT plans to install one where Highway 101 meets State Route 6 in Raymond.
“Initially, there is almost universal disdain [for new roundabouts],” Waller said. “In the short term, there’s actually almost always an increase in crashes, because people have to figure out how to do this thing. It doesn’t take long. Once they figure it out, the crashes go down, the speeds go down, and the road is dramatically improved.”
“Traffic islands” give pedestrians a refuge while crossing wide roads. “Road diets” make less space for cars, and more space for pedestrians. Building curves into formerly straight roads can slow people down.
“If you cause the vehicle to turn, you cause the vehicle to slow down,” Waller explained. “Every time you slow a car down, you make it safer for pedestrians, and safer for the car.”
Saving people on the cheap
Few small cities or counties have enough money to maintain all of their roads, much less revamp them. However, the first step to preventing deaths — committing to planning for all road users — is free. Waller said some Washington communities have already made “very small” changes that offer big gains in safety.
In Seattle, “They’re actually going to delay the light turning green until pedestrians are at least half way out of the crosswalk,” Waller said. By making cars wait an additional two to three seconds, “You’ve moved all of those pedestrians completely out of harm’s way before you move the drivers.”
Claybrooke said education and outreach programs can help in a variety of ways. For example, the national Safe Routes to School program helps communities create sidewalks and crosswalks where necessary. It also teaches citizens how to use “Walking School buses” and other practices that keep kids safe on their way to and from school.
In recent years, Oregon and Washington have both sponsored TV, internet and print campaigns that urge drivers to look out for pedestrians. These have led to some modest improvements, according to GHSA.
Zero fatalities? Really?
Waller and Claybrook said pedestrian fatalities are one of the biggest obstacles to achieving the ambitious goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2030. Nonetheless, Waller “Absolutely” believes it’s possible.
“That’s not just smoke. We have made remarkable progress in the state and across the country,” Waller said. He pointed out that fatal car crashes were once extremely common. Improvements in car design, road design, better laws, more enforcement, training for emergency responders, and driver education all contributed to “a terrific downward trend” in the number of deaths.
“This is a long haul problem, but we’re actually pretty optimistic that we can make a serious dent in this,” Waller said.