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From the New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tavernisi, and this is The Daily. A puzzling new pattern has taken hold on American roads, pedestrian traffic deaths, which had been on the decline for years, have skyrocketed. Today, my colleague, Emily Badger, on her investigation into why. It's Thursday, January fourth. Emily, you spent months investigating a very surprising trend, and that is, pedestrian deaths after decades of declines are now rising. We wanted to talk to you about that investigation and really look closely this question of why. But before we get there, tell me how you came to this story. Where did you begin?


I write about urban policy for the Times, which means I write about transportation, among other things, and how people use it and how we get around and how important it is to our lives. This one very apparent pattern keeps coming up over and over again, which is that there has been this traffic safety crisis in America affecting in particular pedestrians. For Years and years throughout the '80s, the '90s, the early 2000s, roads in America were becoming safer and safer for pedestrians. Then something changes around 2009. All of a sudden, roads start to become more dangerous year over year, to the point where more than 3,000 additional pedestrians died in 2021 compared to 2009. It's this incredible mystery for a number of reasons. One of them is that we don't see anything like this in other industrialized countries. We don't see pedestrian deaths rising. If anything, they're falling in other countries. In this mystery, there's something particular to the United States going on. There's something that starts around 2009 going on. Figuring out exactly what that is is not incredibly obvious. Even transportation researchers and regulators and engineers don't entirely know what's going on here.


Emily, what did you do? How did you try to solve this mystery in your reporting?


I worked on this project alongside a colleague of mine, Ben Blatt. But he spent a lot of time looking at federal fatality data in the United States. The federal government records a lot of data every time someone dies on American roadways. We know about what car was involved in the collision, how old was the driver? How old was the person who was killed? What time of day did this happen? Ben discovers, looking through this data, so many of these deaths that are happening among pedestrians in the United States are happening at night. In fact, the The vast, vast majority of the rise in pedestrian fatalities in America that starts around 2009 is occurring when it's dark out after sunset.


You're saying the overall increase is entirely because of these nighttime deaths. That is what's driving the change.


About 85% of the rise in pedestrian fatalities in America since 2009 is entirely attributable to pedestrians dying in the darkness. Ben and I set off to try to solve this incredibly difficult Bolt puzzle. I mean, it is basically like a three-sided Rubik's Cube where we're trying to find answers that fit three different criteria. What is something that starts around 2009? What is something that is particular to the United States that doesn't show up in other countries. What is something that would explain effects that are worse at night than during the daytime?


Okay, so let's dig into that. What did you start to find?


Ben and I go out and we start collecting lots of very different theories about what could be contributed contributing to this problem. Let's start with maybe the most obvious one, smartphones. This timeline lines up fairly well with the rise of the smartphone in America. Apple introduces the iPhone in 2007. It very rapidly becomes ubiquitous, and smartphones introduce new kinds of distraction into cars. They're also becoming ubiquitous at the same time as there is just this general proliferation of technology inside of vehicles. It used to just be that you had four or five dials that you could manipulate by touch that you had memorized. This is the one that controls temperature, and this is the one that controls the radio, and you didn't have to look at them.


Now you have to do five different touchscreens on five different buttons to try to figure out how to turn the heat up.


Yeah. Effectively, we have something like a smartphone, writ large, attached to the inside of the car in addition to the one in your hand. That's potentially introducing distraction as well.


But other countries have smartphones and have stuff on the dashboard like that, too. Why would it be different in the US?


Right. Then we have to start thinking about it a little bit harder. It's like, is there something about smartphones that suggests that they're being used differently by drivers in America than in other parts of the world? We encounter some evidence that I think that this is true. This appears in some data that tracks how drivers actually use their phones, whether or not they're picking them up, touching them, tapping them, moving around while they're in moving cars. It appears that American drivers are doing this more than they are in other countries. But there's also one other factor, and this is probably my favorite thing that I learned in the course of reporting on this, which is that if you think about the kinds of cars that we drive in America, overwhelmingly, Almost all of us drive automatic transmission vehicles. These are cars that require one hand to drive on the steering wheel, and the second hand for much of your time, many people can do other things with it, including picking up a smartphone. But this is not true in many pure countries that we would compare the United States to. In most of Europe, manual transmissions are far, far, far more common.


A manual transmission vehicle is a vehicle that takes two hands to drive. Even if there weren't cultural differences and expectations around whether or not it's okay to use your smartphone while you're driving, you literally cannot use your smartphone while you're driving as much in many parts of the world where everyone is driving a stick shift.


Right, because physically, it's pretty difficult.


Yeah. Just to put this in perspective, the share of cars sold in America this year that have a stick shift is about 1%. The share of cars on the road in Europe that have a stick shift is 70 to 75%. The vast majority of cars on the road in Europe are stick shifts. The vast majority of them in America are not.


Interesting. Okay, so that's a big and very compelling theory. But what about the nighttime question, though, Emily? I mean, do most people use their phones distractedly when they're behind the wheel actually at night?


Yeah. This is another part of the puzzle that we have to think a little bit harder about. It's not like people are only using them once the sun sets, but we have a reason to think that people use them more in the night time. We came across some data from a company that actually tracks how people are touching and manipulating their phones while they're driving. Their data suggests that distracted driving is most common in the evening time. Interesting. Why? I think that's consistent with the idea that you get off of work and now is when you're coordinating with your significant other about who's going to pick up the kids or go to the grocery store or with your friends who you're making plans to meet at a bar. There's social activity and coordination and communication. Another theory that someone gave me was that this is also when a lot of people, particularly in the United States, are responding to after-hours work messages. We have this uniquely American, always work culture that says that when your work day ends, you're still responsible for paying attention to work and responding to things. This is a small thing.


I don't want to suggest that this is the overarching thing that explains all of this, but it's a small cultural thing that is different in the United States from other countries that we would compare ourselves to.


Right. Okay, so phone use checks a lot of these boxes, right? America's different in this way. There's a nighttime reason for it, and it coincides with the year that the trend really took off, 2009. What else did you in your quest to solve this mystery.


I think another big obvious thing that happens over the same time period is that American cars are getting bigger, and these bigger cars have higher hoods, and a higher hood smashes into a pedestrian, not at the legs, but at the chest, at the torso, at the head, in these more deadly pain points. It's also the case that bigger, heavier cars break slower. If someone driving one of these cars sees a pedestrian getting ready to cross the street and they hit the brakes, that car may still collide with that pedestrian. Researchers will tell you that a large part of the reason why the overall fatality rates in the United States are so much higher than they are in other countries has to do, among other things, with the fact that the vehicles that we drive here are so big.


But I guess I thought, Emily, that American cars had always been big. I remember going to Europe for the first time and thinking all the cars there looked like little sneakers or skateboards or something. That American cars were so much bigger forever.


Yeah. If we come back to our three-sided Rubik's Cube, this is one element where cars getting bigger doesn't quite fit our puzzle. It's part of the picture, but it's probably not the central most important theory involved here because this is not something that starts in 2009. I mean, American were driving SUVs back in the '90s. It's also clear to us when we look at this federal fatality data, smaller cars, sedans, they are killing more pedestrians today than they did 15 years ago. It's not just that there are fewer smaller cars, even smaller cars are killing more pedestrians now than they used to. If we really believed it was the case that most of this change over the last 15 years is driven by cars getting bigger, then we would think that fatalities would be rising during the daytime, too, right?


Right. Like a Ford 150 pickup truck is just as deadly at noon as it is at 10:00 PM.


Right. Now we have to start thinking about if the cars themselves don't explain this puzzle, if the behavior of drivers alone can't explain all of this puzzle, now Ben and I are starting to think, what has What's happening outside of vehicles? What's happening in the country around cars that's contributing to this problem?


We'll be right back. Okay, so Emily, you and Ben keep going. You look beyond the car, beyond the driver into the world outside. What do you find?


Yeah, so there may be other things happening in the country over this time that would mean that more pedestrians are in situations where they might be exposed to a deadly crash. So these are the exposure theories.


Okay, so explain that and give me an example.


Yeah. So one theory points to this broader demographic trend. Americans have been moving toward Sun Belt parts of the country, toward warmer parts of the country, Metropolitan areas in Texas, in Florida. And these are places that happen to have historically very bad had pedestrian safety records. Why is that? These are parts of the country that developed much more recently than New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago. They developed in the auto age after cars became ubiquitous, and they're fundamentally built around cars. They don't have strong transit networks. They don't have a lot of pedestrian infrastructure. They're built around the assumption that everyone drives everywhere they go. Maybe there are very few crosswalks or stoplights. There are a lot of high-speed arterial roads. These are these really wide high-speed roads that still occasionally have stoplights in the middle of them. These are the place where if you're a pedestrian and you want to cross the street, maybe you have to walk half a mile up the road to be able to do that. That type of development is extremely common in these parts of the country where people have increasingly been moving.


Okay, so in other words, exposure to danger is higher in a place that's built around the car, not the walking person. As more people move to places like this, and the Sun Belt is one of those places, then more people are actually exposed to that danger.


That's the theory. Just to give you an example, Florida, especially, really pops out in this data. Over this time period that we've been talking about since 2009, pedestrian deaths there are up by about 70%.


Wow, 70%?


Yeah. That's not totally surprising when you think about the fact that to come back again to the parts of the country that have really been booming in population, I'm thinking of places like Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Dayton Beach. These are places that in the top 10 of the most dangerous for pedestrian safety at the same time.


Right. But these are also places that I'm sure you know as a demographics reporter, and I know as a former one, are big for retirees. So does aging have to do with the trend at all?


Yeah, this is another demographic story that's happening in the background in America over this time period that we're talking about. I mean, the American population is just getting older. But what we see here is actually that it's not older people who are really driving this trend. It's more working age people. It's people aged 18 to 64 or so.


Okay, so what else are you seeing, Emily?


Another big shift that's happening in many American cities over part of this time is that homelessness is rising. With homelessness, we are literally talking about extremely vulnerable people living adjacent roads, living in highway interchanges in underpasses of major roads. This is a theory that fits another part of our puzzle in that these are people who are present on at night. But homelessness in America really starts to rise in many cities around 2016 or so. This isn't a story that begins way back in 2009 or that has some abrupt change in trajectory around that time period. But it is very clear in recent data, just over the last few years, that very large numbers of pedestrians who are killed in some cities have been homeless. Just to give you one example, in Los Angeles, when I look at their pedestrian fatality data there, it looks like about About 30% of their deaths recently have been among homeless people. Wow. That means that this has to be at least part of what's going on here.


Emily, you're talking about people being on dangerous roads at times when it's dark out. I remember when I was a national reporter, I started to notice that low-income people were actually moving out of expensive inner cities into much less expensive suburbs, and that many of those people I was interviewing and I was going to report on couldn't afford cars. They'd actually be walking down the street early in the morning when it's dark out to go to work. The street wouldn't be just a little country road. It would be a major highway. Is that part of what's going on here, too?


I think that has absolutely got to be part of the story as well. Here, what we're talking about is this national trend of the suburbanization of poverty. Lower income people moving into suburban environments, which are very similar to the Sun Belt environments we were just talking about. These are places that have very few crosswalks. They have no sidewalks at all. We're talking about people moving into those environments who, they may be doing shift work, working odd hours, they may be relying on busses that come infrequently. That is potentially increasing exposure as well of people who are likely to be out on the most dangerous roads in circumstances where they may be hit by a car. In Portland, Oregon, for example, there are these notoriously dangerous arterial roads on the Eastern side of the city where historically pedestrian infrastructure has been really lacking. Over the last decade or so, this is where people who have been priced out of more expensive neighborhoods in Portland have been moving to. There's research that suggests that this pattern that I've just described in Portland is apparent more nationally It appears as if pedestrian fatalities are actually declining in downtowns and where they're rising is in suburban environments like the one I've just described.


This suggests actually that the people who are being killed are probably some of the most vulnerable in American society. The low-income people walking to work along a highway in the middle of the night, going to a shift, can't afford a car, and homeless people.


Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. I mean, the federal fatality data that we're looking at here doesn't tell us, for instance, what's the income of the person who died. But there's other research that suggests that these fatality hotspots, these most dangerous roads, are disproportionately occurring in low-income neighborhoods. That means that this problem falls the heaviest on the most disadvantaged people.


Emily, looking back on everything that you found, would you say that you've solved the mystery?


I don't think we solved the mystery in the sense that we didn't uncover one obvious thing that explains all of this problem. I think the best possible explanation is that multiple things have been happening over the same time, and those things are interacting with each other. They're amplifying each other. Darkness makes all of them worse. I think where Ben and I really land in thinking about this is that we have this fundamentally risky transportation infrastructure in the United States. We had this very clear example of this during the pandemic where many fewer people were driving. There were far fewer cars on the road. This was true all over the world. In most countries, fatalities declined because fewer people were on the road. You would think that the same thing would have happened in the United States, but it didn't. The opposite happened. Fewer people were driving, and still more people were dying. More people were dying in all kinds of traffic fatalities, including pedestrians.




I think that gets back to the same underlying idea here. During the pandemic, you take a lot of the cars off the road, you take a lot of the people away from the picture, and you can see really crystal clear what's left. It's this transportation system that we've built that is designed for speed. All of a sudden, when there were fewer cars on the road, the drivers who remained felt very comfortable driving fast, driving recklessly, and that had these deadly consequences.


Interesting. What does that mean, Emily? What are you take away from that?


I think this tells us that our system is not designed to protect pedestrians. It's not designed to prioritize safety. Thinking about this, this story really touched a nerve with a lot of our readers. I heard from hundreds of them, and many of them had their own theories, which are things that we didn't even touch on here. But some of them also told me, I think it's about pedestrian behavior. Pedestrians don't look both ways before crossing the street like they used to in the olden days. They no longer wear light colors at night. They're looking down at their phones and they're bringing this risk on themselves. I think the reality is that if we look at other countries, they are producing much safer outcomes, and they're not doing it by taking pedestrian cell phones away or making pedestrians wear reflective gear or spending a lot of money on public service campaigns that are teaching pedestrians how to avoid being hit by cars. They're doing it by fundamentally investing in how they design safe roads and making a fundamental commitment in their laws in their regulations to prioritizing safety over cars traveling as fast as possible.


What does that mean about the US and what's happening here?


What that means here is that if we want to see fewer pedestrian fatalities, we need to do those same things. We need to be changing our roads to make them safer. We need to be telling drivers that if you're running through red lights, the penalties for that are real, that we care about safety. But in order for us to do those kinds of things, that requires a big cultural change to how we have thought about and designed and used roadways in America for decades.


Emily, thank you.


Thanks, Sabrina.


We'll be right back. Here's what else you should know today. On Wednesday, more than 100 people died in Iran in a pair of explosions near the tomb of Qassim Suleimani, Iran's former security chief. The blasts, which left hundreds more wounded, happened on the four-year anniversary of Suleimani's death in an American drone strike. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hamani, issued a statement blaming the attack on Iran's malicious and criminal enemies, but stopped short of naming any group or country. Today's episode was produced by Muj Zady and Claire Tennis-Sketter. It was edited by John Ketchum, contains original music by Diane Wong, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Runberg and Ben Lansberg of Wunderly. That's it for the Daily. I I'm Sabrina Tavernisi. See you tomorrow.