Media coverage of pedestrian accidents follows a standard pattern.
First is the assessment of whether the pedestrian was in designated crosswalks. If not, that fact is pointed out. There is rarely any question about where the nearest crosswalk is, or why there is not a crosswalk in the place of the accident.
The next detail reported is whether the driver was grossly negligent, such as driving while intoxicated or racing. There is little attention given to posted speed limit or other evidence about the driver’s speed at the time of the collision.
Then it’s reported whether the driver stopped. If the driver was not grossly negligent and stopped, then the standard line is to report the driver failed to see the pedestrian in time to avoid the collision. I have never read a report that questions whether the driver had a responsibility to see someone on the road, or on the shoulder, or even on the sidewalk.
Too often, the last detail reported is that the driver is not expected to face charges. Granted, the decision about charges is not the media’s to make, but I have yet to read a report that even challenges the validity of those decisions in any complete or responsible way.
Pedestrian fatalities are routinely dismissed as unavoidable or the fault of the pedestrian, yet evidence shows they are quite avoidable, as demonstrated by hundreds of communities around the nation. New York City Council recently passed an ordinance lowering the speed limit for most streets from 30 to 25 mph. Not only are there hundreds of examples of exceptional pedestrian safety around the country, there are three examples here in San Antonio.
Smart Growth America’s report Dangerous by Design 2014 mapped pedestrian fatalities nationwide from 2003-12. During this period, 373 pedestrian fatalities were reported in San Antonio. During the same period, Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base and Randolph Air Force Base (AFB) had a combined total of zero pedestrian fatalities. Not a single pedestrian fatality on those installations for 10 consecutive years or more.
As much as Fort Sam Houston, Lackland AFB and Randolph AFB stand out compared to the rest of San Antonio, they are not exceptional compared to any other U.S. military installation. Fort Bliss, Fort Hood, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, and Sheppard AFB in Texas, Peterson AFB and Fort Carson in Colorado, Fort Sill and Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, Keesler AFB in Mississippi; the same pattern is repeated over and over again. Zero fatalities during the study period on military installations around the county, yet dozens in the surrounding communities. The difference is so universal that I began to doubt the data included the military installations, until finding one exception. Beale AFB, California had one pedestrian fatality in 2007.
The city – and the nation – could learn something about pedestrian safety from the military. How has the military, for all practical purposes, eliminated pedestrian fatalities? The solution is simple: military installations have slower posted speed limits than civilian communities, and drivers on military installations are more compliant with posted speed limits. Speed limits on military installations are 30 mph in most areas and 20 mph in housing areas. Even though speed limits are strictly enforced on military installations and drivers are more compliant, data suggests low posted speed limits produce the same results in civilian communities.
During the study period, 73% of all pedestrian fatalities in the San Antonio metropolitan area occurred on roads with posted speed limits of 40 mph or more, and the remaining 27% of pedestrian fatalities occurred on roads with posted speed limits of 30 or 35 mph. No fatalities occurred on roads with posted speed limits of 25 mph or less. Clearly public policy can eliminate pedestrian fatalities by establishing and enforcing a city-wide 25 mph speed limit.
An enforced city-wide 25 mph speed limit would eliminate pedestrian, and most likely all traffic fatalities, but without a doubt would meet staunch public resistance. If asked, without hesitation any elected or appointed public official would almost certainly state that his or her top priority for traffic policy is safety. Yet public policy and ordinances in municipalities across the nation refute that position. Texas state law refutes that position. Public demand refutes that position.
The top priority for every stakeholder is clearly traffic flow, with the exception of the U.S. military. If safety were truly our number one concern, then the U.S. military shows that every community in the nation could eliminate pedestrian fatalities, and that what is safe for pedestrians is equally safe for all road users. The military obviously places a premium on the lives of those entering their installations, while civilian leaders clearly do not.
A city-wide 25 mph speed limit is feasible, but it would be a dramatic policy shift with consequences reaching far beyond saving the lives of more than 50 pedestrians and more than 200 motorists per year in San Antonio. Fortunately, those consequences also align neatly with commonly voiced community values and goals, including those stated in community master plans and planning documents such as SA2020. For example, reducing vehicle miles traveled, improving air quality, improving walkability, improving health and fitness, improving multimodal transportation, and improving land use.
Any one of us could anticipate the arguments against a city-wide 25 mph speed limit. First and foremost would be the argument about long commutes. Studies show people will commute 30 minutes, regardless of distance. I acknowledge that initially commutes would be long, but commute distances would likely adjust over time to return to an acceptable 30 minute commute. However, I’ll sidestep that argument altogether and return to the issue in this article. The tradeoff with higher speeds means more fatalities. We can have longer distance commutes at higher speeds, but doing so means people die. We have proven that.
Additional arguments against a city-wide 25 mph speed limit might include something about driving at highway speed being better for the environment, highway speeds being more fuel-efficient, or higher rates of speed being better for the economy. Before those arguments are even debated, the first debate should be whether or not those benefits, if the claims were even valid, are worth loss of life, because loss of life is part of the price to pay for higher speeds.
Pedestrian fatalities, and traffic fatalities in general, can be eliminated in San Antonio. Doing so doesn’t require some new technology or magic pixie dust, it could be achieved with an enforced city-wide 25 mph speed limit. Or, we can continue as usual knowing that the result will be more than 50 pedestrian fatalities per year. City and state public policies that prioritize traffic flow over safety guarantee dozens of pedestrian fatalities in San Antonio and over 4,000 in the state of Texas every year. Military leaders have prioritized lives over traffic flow, and eliminated pedestrian fatalities. Civilian leaders could do the same.
Traffic engineers, and TxDOT, will tell you that posting slow speeds on roads designed for high speed results in even more accidents. Of course, traffic engineers and TxDOT have done a spectacularly fine job of designing high speed urban roads that kill people, but even this failure can be fixed by redesigning our roads to communicate a speed limit of 25 mph. Wide, straight roads with a long line of sight communicate high speed. Narrow streets with a short line of sight communicate slow speed. Slow speed saves lives, and are also more welcoming to pedestrians and non-motorist road users.
This observation is timely, because a city built for 25 mph traffic has the qualities we often say we want, including walkability, improved air quality, better public health, and multimodal transportation. As we move forward with the comprehensive planning effort, I call for pedestrian safety to be the driving principle. Safety was no doubt part of the reason Olmos Park implemented a 25 mph speed limit in its municipality. With safety as our driving principle, we could follow the leadership of Joint Base San Antonio and eliminate pedestrian fatalities by implementing a city-wide 25 mph speed limit.
*Featured/top image: As you can see, some streets in San Antonio lack very basic pedestrian amenities. Photo courtesy of SAmetroplan.org.