The long read: For drivers, roads are safer than ever but for people on foot, they are getting deadlier. Car companies and Silicon Valley claim that they have the solution. But is that too good to be true?
In 2010, the small community of specialists who pay attention to US road safety statistics picked up the first signs of a troubling trend: more and more pedestrians were being killed on American roads. That year, 4,302 American pedestrians died, an increase of almost 5% from 2009. The tally has increased almost every year since, with particularly sharp spikes in 2015 and 2016. Last year, 41% more US pedestrians were killed than in 2008. During this same period, overall non-pedestrian road fatalities moved in the opposite direction, decreasing by more than 7%. For drivers, roads are as safe as they have ever been; for people on foot, roads keep getting deadlier.
Through the 90s and 00s, the pedestrian death count had declined almost every year. No one would have confused the US for a walkers paradise at least part of the reason fewer pedestrians died in this period was that people were driving more and walking less, which meant that there were fewer opportunities to be struck. But at least the death toll was shrinking. The fact that, globally, pedestrian fatalities were much more common in poorer countries made it possible to view pedestrian death as part of an unfortunate, but temporary, stage of development: growing pains on the road to modernity, destined to decrease eventually as a matter of course. The US road death statistics of the last decade have blasted a hole in that theory. (A similar trend has been observed with regards to the countrys cyclists: a recent analysis found that cyclist fatalities decreased through the 80s, 90s and 00s, but since 2010 have increased 25%, with 777 cyclists killed in 2017.)
Trouble, albeit of a less dramatic sort, has also been brewing in the UK and western European countries, long seen as bastions of pedestrian-friendly (and cyclist-friendly) conditions. Through the 70s and 80s, these countries fatality rates were just as bad as Americas, or worse. But, since then, their progress has been more substantial and more enduring. The problem is that, since 2010, that progress has mostly sputtered to a halt. In general, the fatality numbers are not going down. Theres immense frustration, says Philip Gomm, of the RAC Foundation, a UK organisation that studies road safety issues. Things were getting better, and now theyre not.
In almost every country in the world, regardless of national prosperity, it remains on average more dangerous, per mile of travel, to be a pedestrian than to be a car driver or passenger. Worldwide, more than 700 pedestrians die every day, disproportionately in poorer countries. At least four times that number are seriously injured. We talk a great deal about how cars congest our cities and pollute the atmosphere. We talk less about how they keep killing and maiming people simply trying to get from A to B on two feet.
Lately, our cultural conversation about road safety has been dominated by visions, sold by Silicon Valley, of vehicles that minimise or even eliminate the need for input from a fallible human driver. Every year, more cars come armed with pedestrian detection and avoidance systems; soon, these systems will likely be standard issue. And not long after that, we are promised, sensors and self-improving algorithms will take over the driving process altogether, eliminating human error from roads and ushering in a new golden age of safety for all their users, whether or not theyre cocooned by a cars steel frame. Since 2017, General Motors, the USs largest car manufacturer, has claimed that it is developing self-driving vehicles in the service of a triple-zero world: zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.