Man vs. Car vs. Street Design: Why Are Pedestrian Deaths Increasing?

Studies aren't conclusive, but as we debate, the problem worsens

Illustration by Jon Estrada.

Illustration by Jon Estrada.

On a Friday night in early January, the driver of a Lexus sedan was heading east on Tropicana Avenue past Decatur Boulevard when a pedestrian tried to cross the street outside of a crosswalk. He was struck by the Lexus, taken to UMC and pronounced dead. It was one of the first auto-pedestrian accidents of the year in Las Vegas.

Of the 114 traffic-related deaths in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s district in 2013, 47 were pedestrians. This marks a 17 percent increase over 2012, and also brings attention to a troubling national trend.

Although traffic fatalities overall have been declining nationwide for nearly a decade, traffic-related pedestrian deaths have been on the rise since 2009. On average nationwide, a pedestrian is killed every two hours in a traffic collision, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A pedestrian is injured in a traffic accident every eight minutes, and 21 percent of children between 10 and 15 years old who die in traffic collisions are pedestrians, not passengers. Moreover, 44 percent of pedestrian deaths from traffic collisions happen mid-block, such as the accident on Tropicana, not at intersections.

Traffic analysts say many factors contribute to these rising stats, from poor street, sidewalk, signage and lighting design to distracted driving and inattentive walking. Studies abound, but definitive solutions are scarce. Kaci Hickox, a public health analyst at the Southern Nevada Health District, recently completed research showing that, of the pedestrian deaths in Clark County, a disproportionate share were homeless people. She’s following up with research into why that might be the case: More of those homeless who were killed had blood-alcohol levels of .08 or greater than other pedestrians had; plus, homeless tend to be walking near streets more often than the rest of the population.

On a larger scale, Las Vegas, like many Western sprawl cities, is not a particularly pedestrian-friendly metropolitan area, despite having one of the world’s most walked streets in the Strip. Pedestrian bridges at the major corners of the Strip decrease, but do not eliminate, auto/pedestrian collisions. Las Vegas is a city designed for an automobile-centric lifestyle, neighborhoods connected with freeways and six-lane thoroughfares. Even Downtown, where many are embracing a pedestrian lifestyle, the goal of “walkability” has yet to be achieved. As the Las Vegas Arts Commission recently debated further investment in the giant paintbrush artwork at the Arts District, critics suggested spending the money on a pedestrian bridge over Charleston Boulevard instead.

So it was with mixed feelings that I watched, in December and January, the construction of a pedestrian bridge on the western edge of town. It’s a big, arching footbridge over Far Hills Avenue just west of Interstate 215, and is part of a larger project: the 215 loop trail, which ultimately will feed into the Valley Rim Trail, made primarily for recreational hiking and biking. The 215 loop trail is funded by different sources at different sections; this section by the City of Las Vegas.

It’s a cool project. I’ll probably use it. But every time I drive past the Far Hills pedestrian bridge, where walkers are still relatively few, I think of Maryland Parkway adjacent to UNLV. There, traffic is snarled daily while pedestrians try to navigate the crosswalk. Nearly every time I’m there, I see a car plow through that crosswalk, or a pedestrian stranded on the median while multiple cars fail to yield.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could put the same energy and funding as the Interstate 215 loop into pedestrian safety in key inner-Valley locations?

At some point, most everyone is a pedestrian. Even if you drive virtually everywhere, you walk from parking lots to stores, or you walk to get your mail, or you walk from your car to your doctor’s office. The goal of walkability shouldn’t be confined to Downtown.

“As a community we need to say, ‘Wait a minute; this is getting worse,’” says Jennifer Pharr, a UNLV occupational and environmental health professor who has researched pedestrian accidents in the Valley. “What can we do? Pay attention.”