If you make the mistake of reading comments on reports about pedestrian crashes, you run into what takes no intellectual effort: victim blaming. It’s not kind, and it’s also inaccurate.
UConn’s Connecticut Crash Data Repository, which compiles crash reports from local police departments and the CTDOT, provides the public with access to information, though only the data that the agencies submit. One month into 2023, 42 collisions resulting in 43 pedestrian deaths during 2022 were entered into the database. There were at least 76 pedestrian and cyclist deaths last year.
Working with 57% of records for last year’s fatal pedestrian crashes, plus reviewing data from recent years, the patterns are evident, nonetheless.
When the filmmakers behind The Street Project received funding for their documentary, it was to cover the role distracted walking played in the surge of pedestrian deaths; however, they abandoned that angle because the theory was unsupported by factual evidence. Connecticut is no exception to this nationwide trend. Of those pedestrians/cyclists killed last year, none of the 42 published crash records indicate that the victim was distracted. Looking back at 2021, only two of the 58 victims were noted as being distracted, and the nature of it was described as being outside of a vehicle, not on a phone.
Instead of shunning victims of traffic violence for a split-second poor decision they may have made, we should look at how our system sets us up for failure. Of the 43 pedestrians whose deaths made it into the database, we know that five were on highways. These were individuals associated with disabled vehicles, either as the vehicle’s former driver, passenger, or tow-truck driver attempting to assist. In several of those cases, there was no breakdown lane on the highway. People crash their cars. Vehicles break down. Yet highways were not designed to accommodate this reality. Do you, after being in a minor collision, remain inside your vehicle while people drive by at 75 mph, or do you exit, hoping to be somewhere that seems safer?
There are those who point out how they would never cross a street mid-block, but crossing at an intersection does not guarantee safety. From available data, we know that at least five of the pedestrians killed last year were using marked crosswalks. One was in an unmarked crosswalk, which is a concept lost on many. This is a legal place for pedestrians to cross at an intersection, though there is no paint on the pavement.
At least six were killed while using the roadway’s shoulder. Consider the patterns shown in crashes causing injury or death to pedestrians and cyclists in West Hartford from 2015 to mid-June 2022. In almost half of those collisions, the pedestrian was noted as having taken “no improper action.” Reflected in those 237 crash reports, 49 pedestrians were using marked crosswalks at intersections when hit. Four were in marked, mid-block crosswalks. Three were cyclists using paint-only bike lanes.
All of this is to say that a splash of paint in a designated area is not a magic safety bubble.
The majority of deadly pedestrian collisions occur on stroads, which are bloated multi-lane roads that are often managed by the state, rather than town. Speed limits are typically higher and little-to-nothing exists in the way of pedestrian infrastructure. When pedestrian crashes are reported, you may hear how someone was walking in the road or not in a crosswalk, but what is seldom mentioned is why.
Usually, it is because there were no sidewalks in that area and the nearest marked crosswalk is several minutes if not miles away. In 13 of those 42 reported crashes, there were either no sidewalks at all, or none on one side of the roadway. That was the case when a 14-year-old was killed in East Windsor on Route 140: no sidewalks. A 92-year-old was killed in Willington on Route 320, where there are no sidewalks and not a single marked crosswalk on the 3.4-mile segment of this state route. In November, a female pedestrian was killed crossing Route 5 in Wethersfield. While a marked crosswalk had been recently installed, she still had to contend with crossing seven lanes where vehicles are permitted to travel up to 50 mph; there are no sidewalks.
Everyone makes mistakes, but the mistakes we should focus on are those that are pervasive – the repeated bad decisions made by those who choose to uphold these broken, dangerous systems. For those who insist on half-full glasses, let’s look at who is trying to change the deadly status quo.
On Monday, Jan. 30, the Transportation Committee is having a public hearing for House Bill 5917, the Vision Zero bill. While imperfect, one promising component is how municipalities would be required to have a Complete Streets ordinance or Comprehensive Safety Plan. Towns would have to actively rethink how their roads serve all users. Instead of the current norm of towns either doing nothing or making changes only in reaction to residents demanding improvements, this would push decisionmakers to be more proactive and intentional in revising streets.
The bill, which covers a lot of ground, would allow for automated traffic enforcement. The traditional model is a failure. Automated enforcement means that each time a driver is recorded speeding or ignoring a red light, they are issued a ticket. There is evidence that automated enforcement effectively reduces serious crashes. The Vision Zero bill should quell the fears of those who have opposed it for reasons of privacy, with care given to protecting financial information so that a speeding ticket does not wreck someone’s credit score.
Those worried about racial profiling can be assured that there is practical guidance for where cameras may be installed, but they should also take a glance at how BIPOC communities are disproportionately traffic violence victims. If asked to choose between hurting someone’s wallet or tacitly allowing the economically disadvantaged along with racial/ethnic minorities to bear the brunt of preventable collisions, I will vote for saving lives every single time.
The Vision Zero bill is not a cure-all, but it will move us in the right direction. Rather than waste time cajoling people into donning clothing that appears like it escaped a late 90s rave or looking thrice before crossing, we need to invest in system change. After the Vision Zero bill we could press for other common sense measures, like requiring special licenses for people operating oversized pickup trucks with dangerous front blind spots.