Webinar recap: “People are dying on our streets: Why is this happening and how can we talk about it responsibly?”

This August, we hosted “People are dying on our streets: Why is this happening and how can we talk about it responsibly?” the ninth installment in our monthly webinar series Implementation & Equity 201: The Path Forward to Complete Streets. A recording of the webinar is now available. You can also download the PDF of the presentation or read the brief recap below.

A discussion recap

Emiko Atherton, Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, kicked off the webinar by introducing the alarming rise in the number of people being struck and killed while walking despite an overall decrease in total traffic fatalities in the U.S. This conversation comes as we prepare for our flagship report, Dangerous by Design 2018.

Emiko framed the problem: in the face of this unprecedented rise of pedestrian fatalities, many in the media are taking a cursory, victim blaming approach that distracts from the actual problem, street design. Whether intentional or not, this narrative of victim blaming “in no way puts our cities, departments of transportation, and elected officials on notice that street design and vehicles are killing people. Not distracted pedestrians or marijuana legalization.”

We were joined by three journalists who’ve recently published articles addressing pedestrian deaths in constructive ways: “Death on Foot: America’s love of SUVs is killing pedestrians” by Eric D. Lawrence and Kristi Tanner of the Detroit Free Press (a third author, Nathan Bomey, was unable to join us) and “No, ‘Drunk Walking’ Is Not Causing the Rise in Pedestrian Deaths” by Angie Schmitt from Streetsblog.

Angie Schmitt, editor of Streetsblog and former newspaper reporter, shared why conscious media coverage maters and the common mistakes that reporters make when covering pedestrian fatalities.

Top mistakes reporters make:

  1. Calling the crash an “accident”
  2. Discussing the victim’s clothing
  3. Ignoring street design
  4. Using passive voice
  5. Naming the car as the actor, not the driver

“Those are all things that shift blame and make the issue appear unsolvable or more sterile and less violent than it is.”

Angie pointed out these common, victim-blaming mistakes with a real life example which she has since elaborated on in a new post on Streetsblog. She encouraged people to reach out to reporters directly when they spot these victim-blaming mistakes to make them aware of their errors and why it matters.

Turning to the Detroit Free Press article, Kristi Tanner expanded on the data while pointing out the variable definitions of “pedestrians” in data collection, which can lead to data discrepancies. Eric D. Lawrence described the design elements that make SUVs particularly deadly in a pedestrian collision. He also highlighted federal safety reports that clearly state the higher danger of SUVs for pedestrians. To wrap up, he reviewed street design and vehicle safety features that can increase safety for people walking.

Finally, all three speakers reinforced that advocates should reach out directly and regularly to their local journalists when they see victim blaming. Urge reporters to dig a little deeper, question police reports, and avoid car-centric biases when covering pedestrian fatalities.


We had so many great questions during the Q&A section of the webinar that we couldn’t get to all of them. We followed up with Angie Schmitt, Eric D. Lawrence, and Kristi Tanner to discuss answers to some of the questions we missed.

Is there information from crashes that you think is ‘missing’ from data that would be helpful in your analysis or writing about crashes?

Kristi and Eric: The main missing piece involves distracted driving, which has not been consistently coded and is often underreported. There are various reasons that good data are not available, many of which are documented in this report (PDF). 

In more recent studies that were done by IIHS [Insurance Institute for Highway Safety] or others, what percentage of crashes have been found to be attributable to driver distraction related to smartphone usage/texting, etc.?

Kristi and Eric: The NHTSA report referenced earlier estimated 13 percent of pedestrian fatalities were distraction affected in 2016.

With declining personnel in newsrooms, what can we do to get reporters, assignment editors, and news directors to not regurgitate the news releases from law enforcement verbatim without doing a deeper dive into what caused the crash?

Angie: Reporters expend a lot of energy covering every crash, but they don’t dig very deep. Coverage that just reports a few facts isn’t that valuable in my opinion. Instead of covering every crash in a superficial way, I think newsrooms should feel free to not cover every single one, but cover a select few in a more in-depth way.

Kristi and Eric: Part of our current strategy is to focus on stories of greater impact. You may see other sites following a similar path while others continue to chase more quick hits. But the industry is constantly evolving so it’s difficult to see how this shakes out. Our advice: Try to find the receptive editors and reporters to hear your points.

How can advocates work to bring better coverage to cases involving pedestrians of color? It sometimes feels like less attention is given to those cases, even when there are fatalities.

Angie: I think part of the reason we don’t have better coverage overall is because in many cases the victims are marginalized. It would be an improvement if some of these reports noted the racial disparities in these cases. Is it easier for reporters to “blame the victim” if the victim is lower status? Yes. I guess I don’t have a great answer other than in outreach to journalists you could point out that this issue has disproportionate impacts on people of color.

Kristi and Eric: If a news outlet knows more about the individual, it might be more likely to provide more details. Spot news might not report a victim’s race, while an in-depth report would. Perhaps being focused on watching for fatal pedestrian crash incidents and communicating with local media outlets about the larger patterns or the individual stories could help.

After a number of pedestrian deaths, our city participated in a “Walk Smart” campaign. Does this fall into the victim-blaming language we should seek to avoid? Is there an appropriate way to address safe walking on dangerous streets?

Angie: Yeah, I think it absolutely could. Why put the onus for safety on the most vulnerable group? I understand there’s a lot of political pressure, sometimes, but I’m not aware of any evidence that that approach is very effective.

Kristi and Eric: It does sound like something that could result in victim blaming. Perhaps a broader campaign (“Travel Smart”) that includes discussion about safe driving and how drivers can better watch for vulnerable road users would be better. Maybe encourage your city to examine its pedestrian infrastructure, too.   

What can city leaders do right now to make streets safer? Are there any low-cost, interim, measures that can be taken to increase pedestrian safety until larger projects can be taken on?

Angie: One thing they can do is retime signals to give pedestrians a “leading interval.” They can also map the locations where pedestrians are most at risk and then try to plan interventions. Those might include temporary design features like bollards that shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians. Adding bike lanes can also make things safer for pedestrians and is relatively cheap although sometimes it’s a big political undertaking.

Is there any legislative influence we can have regarding the issue of SUVs? Or is implementing further safety measures on the roads plus automatic braking the extent of what we can influence?

Kristi and Eric: NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] said it would overhaul the New Car Assessment Program and is working on a proposal related to protection against head and leg injuries for pedestrians. If those things come to pass, they may address some of these issues. Nothing would prevent legislators from also taking a look more closely at the impact of SUVs on pedestrian-fatality numbers.

Additional resources

Advocacy Complete Streets Transportation Uncategorized