Staying Safe in Increasingly Dangerous Streets: Navigating as a Pedestrian and Cyclist in 2024

A report from the Governors Highway Safety Association pointed out an alarming trend: There’s an increase in pedestrian fatalities during the first six months of 2010, reversing the general trend in pedestrian deaths over four years and a sharp contrast to an overall drop in traffic fatalities.

Bicycling, too, has become dangerous. In 2019 there were 846 cyclists killed, accounting for nearly 2.3% of all traffic fatalities that year. Of these 2019 cyclists’ fatalities, 58% included distracted drivers.

Unfortunately, recent data indicates that this dangerous trend has not only continued but also worsened.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released a detailed overview of the deadliness of our roadways in 2021. The report shows that in 2021 bicyclist fatalities continued their decade-long climb. From a low of 623 bicyclist deaths in 2010, eleven years later fatalities climbed to 966 people killed while biking, the highest number since 1975.

People are killed while riding bicycles in all 50 states, but the ten states with the most deaths account for nearly 65% of all bicyclist deaths. More than 50% of people killed while biking are killed in just the top five states: Florida, California, Texas, New York, and Arizona. Notably, there have been large increases in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, with a modest increase in California and a small decrease in New York.

For many years, California had the most bicyclist deaths, but Florida has now surpassed California and appears to be breaking away. Florida’s per bicycle commuter fatality rate is roughly three times higher than California’s, and that rate has increased at a higher rate between 2012-2016 and 2017-2021.

Massachusetts, ranked as the #1 Bicycle Friendly State last year, had significantly fewer bicyclist fatalities and a much lower per commuter fatality rate compared to Florida. This disparity highlights the variations in safety across states and underscores the need for targeted safety measures.

Graph of annual bicyclist fatalities

While it’s not possible to decide how many of these injuries are due to distracted driving, these facts highlight that people on the streets are part of the equation too. If you are walking, jogging, or riding your bike, you lack the armor that a car passenger gets from two tons of metal and plastic. Distracted drivers are a threat to you, and your only protection is to be prepared and mindful.

Be a defensive pedestrian

Because you’re relatively defenseless when walking or cycling, your chief resource is your awareness of the traffic situation. You must be prepared to exercise good safety procedures at all times. Look for motor vehicles approaching when you cross a street or enter a parking lot. Listen for oncoming traffic, of course, but the growing popularity of quieter electric cars no longer makes hearing your most reliable sense. Take action to increase your visibility to drivers: Wear brighter clothing — and, of course, reflective garments at night — and avoid obstacles such as parked cars or landscaping that could make drivers overlook you as you enter traffic lanes.

This is not a “blame the victim” moment — you, the pedestrian, are not at fault for the errors made by a distracted driver. However, common sense urges us all to take appropriate precautions whenever we’re walking or cycling. In a collision between you and a motor vehicle, you will lose the contest.

Practice basic bicycle safety

Just as you want to engage in safe practices while walking, you should take special care as a bicyclist, and for the same reason you are much more vulnerable to injury than a motorist is. Obey all traffic laws, signs and signals. Always ride in the same direction as traffic and signal all turns. Stay as far to the right as is safely possible. When approaching an intersection position yourself so that you are more visible and out of any blind spots.

Sometimes we all need a refresher course in safety practices. There are many online sources with additional tips on safe bicycle practices. You might wish to consult the National Bicycle Safety Network or the League of American Bicyclists for up-to-the minute tips. Both organizations take a serious approach to the dangers caused by distracted driving.

Remember, your distractions count, too

Distracted pedestrians and bicyclists are traffic hazards on their own, say some local police agencies. One report cites the hazards due to pedestrians “walking with headphones that drown out all other sounds, or cyclists more concerned with talking to one another than paying attention to the streets.” While many of the accidents caused by distracted walking are merely embarrassing rather than critical, more than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 after focusing their attention away from walking.

The solution is to cultivate awareness of your traveling, whether you are in a car, on a bike, or on foot. Turn off the distracting devices — yes, that can even mean taking off the headphones — and concentrate on the important task of getting to your destination safely.

If you don’t act on your own, you may be forced to jettison the distracting devices by law: Chicago and other cities are considering enacting laws banning ban on handheld cell phone use and texting while bicycling. Lawmakers in New York and Arkansas are looking at similar restrictions for pedestrians.

Make pedestrian travel a learning experience for when you’re the driver

As a cyclist or pedestrian, your new habits of sharp observation will soon pay dividends. The awful habits of motor-vehicle drivers will outrage you. You’ll witness drivers having heated cell phone arguments, or even a driver who has unfolded a map across his steering wheel. You’ll see preposterous things, such as — true story — a driver steering her SUV with her knees because she’s holding a salad bowl and fork in her hands.

This will make you angry.

Misanthropy is the habit of learning to despise other people for their bad behavior. We want to avoid that. But you can channel your fury at drivers’ bad habits in more productive ways.

Make this a learning experience. Let your outrage at poor driving behaviors reinforce your own commitment to being a safer driver.

Oh, and you’re also allowed to feel a tiny bit of self-righteousness about your own safer habits. Don’t get smug, but it’s okay to feel a little justified pride in your own good behavior.