From Prevention Diaries, Chapter 7, “Injuries Are Not Accidents”
My colleague Sandra and I were driving on a stretch of Buford Highway near Atlanta that’s notorious among our fellow injury prevention advocates. We could tell from the billboards and storefronts that this area, which is just outside the upscale Atlanta suburbs, was home to low-income Latino and Vietnamese families. As we travelled late one evening, we saw many older adults and mothers with young children walking in a dirt footpath that shouldered the road and served as a makeshift sidewalk. The occasional bus stop was nothing more than a pole in the dirt, with people squatting on rocks by the roadside, waiting. The hilly terrain limited visibility in many key areas, though this didn’t slow the rushing traffic. We had to dodge careening taxis and private vans that were competing to fill the high demand for transportation in an area where residents were too poor to afford cars.
Neighborhood stores, markets, and restaurants lined the road, but without crosswalks or stoplights, sometimes for up to a mile, the only way people could access them was to walk, or rather run, “seven lanes of fear.” The “middle suicide lane,” as it’s ominously called by locals, was swelling with people trying to manage kids and parcels as they waited for a break in traffic to attempt the second half of the crossing. People who live in communities like this have to defy death many times a day just to go to work and school and live their lives.
In the 1980s, pedestrians in New York City faced similar problems along Queens Boulevard, where a particular intersection had become among the city’s deadliest. Media dubbed the street “Boulevard of Death” and “Killer Boulevard.” Richard Retting, safety office director in the transportation department, began identifying problematic patterns. He first discovered that most of the victims were older and unable to cross the street within the time allowed before the light changed. He also noted that residences were all on one side and commercial areas on the other side, just as they are on Atlanta’s Buford Highway, making the dangerous crossing a necessity. The road had obviously been designed with only cars in mind, without consideration for pedestrians. “One only needs to see the roadway itself to realize something is terribly wrong here. Disaster is waiting to happen,” said Retting.[vii]
Retting met with traffic officials, older adult residents, and community leaders, and together they pushed for comprehensive change. Most importantly, his team lengthened the time for the walk signal, made the countdown box more visible, and illuminated roadway markings. They worked with law enforcement to reduce speeding and held safety presentations at senior centers. [viii] These improvements represented an important milestone in acknowledging that it’s important to safeguard all people’s lives, including vulnerable ones. Like much of injury prevention, none of these changes was hard to figure out. It was simply a question of attention and political will. Of course, it cost some money initially, but far, far less than the financial and personal costs of the injuries and deaths that would have occurred. After the project was completed, the number of annual pedestrian deaths predictably plunged. [ix]
Streets belong to everyone. Where they have been co-opted as roads—oriented towards cars and trucks—it’s because decision-makers with vested interests in the auto industry exercise a mentality that fails to consider how vehicles affect the physical and community environments of non-drivers. A big step in lessening our cultural dependence on cars is constructing environments in which all modes of travel are safe, including walking, biking, navigating a wheelchair, pushing a walker or stroller, and getting safely to and from public transit. People are already walking and biking more than in recent years, but bicyclists and pedestrians suffer disproportionately from traffic injuries in the U.S. In fact, the number of pedestrian fatalities is equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing monthly.[xi] Polls have consistently shown that many more people would walk regularly if they had access to safe, designated paths.[xii]
[vii] Cohen, L. (2011) For Want of a Crosswalk, a Life was Lost. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry/for-want-of-a-crosswalk-a_b_913582.html
[xi] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pedestrian Safety. Retrieved January 9, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/pedestrian_safety/
[xii] America Bikes. (2012). National Poll: Americans Support Funding for Sidewalks and Bikeways.