On Vegas’ Unforgiving Roads, Homeless People at Risk


Pedestrian traffic deaths by residence status in Clark County, 2008-2011. Source: Southern Nevada Health District.

It’s no secret that pedestrian deaths are on the rise—not just here, but nationwide. But a new study by the Southern Nevada Health District turns up this startling statistic: Homeless people in Clark County are about 22 times as likely as non-homeless residents to be fatally struck by a vehicle.

While researchers didn’t pin down a cause, they did point to a few troubling, if not entirely surprising, factors. Among them: Nearly two-thirds of homeless victims in the study had blood-alcohol concentrations of at least .08 (the legal standard for impairment), compared with about one-third of victims overall. Since local homeless shelters typically turn away those who appear intoxicated, it’s possible those pedestrians were unable to find a bed and left to wander the streets at night, when most fatalities took place.

“We need to do more research to understand why homeless persons are at higher risk and look at interventions to try and protect that vulnerable population,” says former SNHD epidemiologist Kaci Hickox, the study’s lead author.

The study, published July 18 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, drew on county death certificates and coroners’ records from 2008 to 2011 to calculate pedestrian death rates per 100,000 residents, visitors and homeless people. Driving those numbers, safety experts say, is a built environment that can be hostile to homeless and non-homeless pedestrians alike, including broad thoroughfares with lanes numbering in the double digits, and traffic lights up to a mile apart that only allow walkers enough time to get halfway across.

“We’ve unintentionally designed intersections to be unfriendly to pedestrians and encourage them to engage in risky behavior,” says Jennifer Pharr, an assistant professor in UNLV’s School of Community Health Sciences who studies pedestrian safety.

The homeless deaths were clustered in the northeastern part of the Valley (see map above), home to several shelters and largely bereft of the kinds of pedestrian-protecting overpasses and barriers found on the Strip. Even if more safety devices were in place, public health advocates would still face the challenge of educating pedestrians about using them. “It’s hard to reach the homeless population with radio and TV advertising, because they’re not watching,” says Erin Breen, director of the Safe Community Partnership at UNLV’s Transportation Research Center.

With the rising death toll sparking renewed attention to pedestrian safety in the Valley, researchers are looking at a number of solutions that could help homeless walkers, including creating pedestrian safety zones on dangerous roads with increased fines for drivers, and installing traffic lights that “dwell” on red until a car approaches. Pharr and her colleagues are visiting pedestrian-accident hot spots and measuring variables such as the duration of the walk signal in hopes of diagnosing what went wrong.

“It’s always difficult investigating deaths, because you can’t talk to the person to get a better idea of what they were doing,” says Hickox. “It makes it really challenging to get to the bottom of these little details that might end up making a difference.”

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