Atlantic Cities

Why Seniors, Children, and the Poor Are at Greater Risk of Traffic Deaths

Why Seniors, Children, and the Poor Are at Greater Risk of Traffic Deaths
Transportation for America

It's no secret that being poor is bad for your health. Poor people in the United States run a greater risk of suffering from severe asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and many other illnesses.

They’re also more likely to get hit and injured or killed by drivers.

Those findings have been confirmed in recent studies, including one in Newark, New Jersey, that was the subject of a recent story on WNYC:

While a grad student at Rutgers, Daniel Kravetz starting sifting through data for several counties in Northern New Jersey.  “And I started to notice that all the roads that were most likely to have a lot of intersections with high crash counts, were in communities where the population was either highly African American or highly Latino,” he says.

So he dug a little deeper. And found what he calls “a statistically significant relationship” between low income neighborhoods and high pedestrian crash totals.

That correlation shows up everywhere. “The higher the income level, the lower the likelihood for crashes to occur in an area,” Kravetz says. “And that was found in almost any study that analyzed that relationship.”

Researchers are trying to hone [sic] in on why this is. One obvious reason: car ownership is out of reach for many low income people – so they’re walking more, literally increasing their exposure to cars. But poorer neighborhoods often lack even the most basic pedestrian infrastructure. And advocates are turning their attention to trying to improve intersections, one corner at a time.

But in some low-income neighborhoods, streets even lack corners to improve. A report released earlier this year by Transportation Alternatives, a New York advocacy group, showed that child traffic fatalities and injuries in that city are clustered near Manhattan public housing, and hypothesized that "superblock" design, leading to more midblock crossings, might be one contributing factor. The report, titled "Child Crashes: An Unequal Burden," [PDF] suggested that the areas near public housing should potentially be marked as "slow zones." It also called for stricter enforcement of traffic laws.

I wrote a few weeks back about the idea of instituting a "broken windows" policy for traffic violations. Too often, when law enforcement looks to solve a problem with pedestrian injuries and fatalities, they focus on the people outside of the cars rather than the ones inside. That’s what’s happening in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a spate of pedestrian deaths has prompted the police to crack down on jaywalkers, issuing 117 tickets for the offense since March.

One of the cases that prompted the ticket blitz in Fort Lee was that of an 86-year-old woman who was struck and critically injured by a driver backing out of a driveway. She wasn't jaywalking, she was just walking. Here’s part of what the Fort Lee police said in a notice about "pedestrian safety" posted on their website after the crash:

Pedestrians need to be aware of their surroundings and look for cars exiting driveways, as they are more concerned with watching for other cars rather than people on foot. 

But here’s what the law says:

When the driver of a vehicle, about to enter an alley, driveway, garage, or private road or driveway from a highway, shall find it necessary to drive upon the sidewalk, he first shall yield the right of way to all pedestrians on the sidewalk, if the pedestrians are so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.

Fort Lee is also apparently ticketing some drivers who get too close to undercover cops in crosswalks, but their emphasis on pedestrian responsibility is clear, despite the fact that many of the people recently hit when on foot were violating no laws.

The truth is, many Americans, including many low-income families, live in places where design favors cars to such an extent that following the law – not jaywalking – is incredibly difficult. And the attitude of law enforcement often seems to be that it's their own fault.

The case of Raquel Nelson, who was convicted of vehicular homicide for the death of her four-year-old son because she crossed the road with him outside of a crosswalk after getting off a bus, got national attention because it was so extreme. Nelson, who had traveled for hours on public transit with her kids that day, would have had to walk two-thirds of a mile out of her way to cross legally to her home in Marietta, Georgia. The people who designed that street apparently didn't think about the fact that the bus stop was directly across the road from an apartment complex, and that inevitably people would cross there.

If you can’t protect yourself with a metal shell – because you’re too young to drive, or too old to drive, or too poor to own a car – you are going to be at an increased risk. Sadly, we seem to be just fine with that.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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