WaPo Blames “Distracted Walking” for Unexplained Rise in Deaths

Pedestrian deaths are up. That’s the news from a recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Almost 4,300 pedestrians were killed in 2010 — the most recent year for which data is available. That represents a four percent increase — the first in five years.

Apparently the mere sight of pedestrians on cellphones is enough to lead the Washington Post to blame the victims of traffic fatalities. Photo: Buffalotechno

What’s going on here? Well, no one knows. As Tanya pointed out last week, NHTSA did not present data that explains underlying causes. But that hasn’t stopped some press outlets from rushing to blame the victim. See: last week’s editorial by the Washington Post, “Pedestrian Deaths Show Need to Curb Distracted Walking.”

Network blog Wash Cycle says the paper should know better…

But they aren’t going to let a complete lack of understanding for the cause of a phenomenon stop them from proposing a change in law to counteract it. About the best they have is a study showing that over 1000 people were estimated to have been injured while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic device.

This is not to say that distracted walking isn’t an issue. I don’t know if it is or isn’t. I don’t see it a lot when I bike, but then I don’t commute along a route with many pedestrians. But it is odd that after an uptick in pedestrian fatalities – almost all of which involve cars, the Post immediately turns its glare onto the victims.

Especially when there are other possible explanations. Perhaps, there are more people walking and they’re walking more miles, in which case more fatalities is expected. Maybe the economic downturn means that more people are walking – because they can’t afford to drive, and they’re doing so in non-walkable areas like the suburbs and so they’re getting hit more.  Perhaps it is just a one-year blip. Who knows?

So it’s a pretty flimsy case to say that based on data we don’t understand, we think that a law that no one has ever tried should be instituted to address a problem that we can’t really prove exists.

Transportation for America’s Dangerous by Design report found that more than half of the pedestrian deaths between 2000 and 2009 occurred on major arterials — which strongly indicates road design is to blame for putting pedestrians at risk. A more enlightened discussion would focus on car-centric engineering standards, vehicle speeds, and other known factors that contribute to America’s exceptionally high rate of traffic deaths. Is that too much to expect from the press these days?

Elsewhere on the Network today: Portland Transport says “America’s Bike Capital” might get into the parklet business. Bike Portland introduces the “tiny house” bike RV. And Greater Greater Washington presents details on the bus rapid transit system planned for Montgomery County, Maryland.