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Tackling America’s ‘Silent Epidemic’ Of Pedestrian Deaths — In St. Louis And Beyond

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Paul Sableman via Flickr
A man walks on Olive Boulevard in Chesterfield. Pedestrian deaths have soared nationwide.

In 2018, 6,283 pedestrians were killed in the U.S. by cars. That includes 44 people in metro St. Louis, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. Across the U.S., the number represents a 50% increase in the last decade. Pedestrians and cyclists now account for roughly one in five of all traffic deaths nationwide.

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We tend to think of those deaths — if we think of them at all — as accidents. We think they are simply part of living in a world with cars. Some of us even blame the pedestrians. We note that they died while crossing the street outside a crosswalk, or we assume they must have been looking at their phones. We use terms like “jaywalking,” or shake our heads at kids who we assume aren’t being watched by parents.

Angie Schmitt argues those responses are all wrong. These deaths aren’t something to shrug off, they aren’t accidents, and they aren’t the fault of the victims. She has statistics to show the pedestrians are far less likely to be on their phones than the drivers — and in many cases, the pedestrians actually have a legal right to cross the street. The problem, frequently, is that traffic signals fail to give all but the fastest walkers the time to do it. Or crosswalks are placed far from bus stops, shade or retail outlets.

Beyond that, she’s interested in what’s driving the increase in fatalities. She points to a host of factors, from migration patterns that have lower-income people moving to the suburbs to vehicles that are so big and sit so high off the road, the average walker doesn’t have a chance.

In Schmitt’s new book, “Right of Way: Race, Class and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths,” she details who is dying as a result. Pedestrian casualties are more likely to be people of color. They’re more likely to be poor, old or disabled. They’re living in environments made for cars even when they themselves are statistically less likely to own them. Their only crime in many cases is trying to run errands in an environment built without concern for their needs.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Angie Schmitt joined us to discuss her book — and the concrete steps we could take as a metro area to reduce the fatalities in our footprint.

We followed that conversation with Schmitt with Scott Ogilvie, a transportation policy planner for the city of St. Louis. We also heard from Tiffanie Stanfield, whose sister, Jameca, was killed by a hit-and-run driver on North Grand Boulevard in 2016.

Throughout the program, listeners added their perspectives to the conversation as well, and more than 200 people responded to a poll about the topic on Twitter.

Schmitt said that, as motorists, we need to consider “the moral implications of the way we drive” — and overall attitudes.

“Drivers have been a little bit coddled, even by the messages they’re getting from the media,” the author noted, “from car commercials, from the way we’re designing streets, even from safety officials [feeding] into this idea that they have like this uninterrupted right to the road — anyone who gets in their way and delays them for even a second has violated their rights somehow. And it’s a really dangerous concept. We really need to rethink that.”

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Stanfield opened up about what occurred 4½ years ago when she lost her sister to a hit and run.

“This driver was traveling 80 miles per hour down a main street, and my sister, like any pedestrian would do, was at the corner crosswalk,” Stanfield recalled, “she checked for cars, at least this is what witnesses state, she stepped off the curb, and that was the last of her.

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Tiffanie Stanfield
Tiffanie Stanfield (pictured) started Fighting Hit and Run Driving in the wake of her sister's death on a St. Louis street.

"This car hit her and drove off.”

The incident ultimately prompted Stanfield to start Fighting Hit and Run Driving, an organization devoted to raising awareness about this issue and providing resources to those affected by traffic violence.

“My path is to continue to speak on behalf of the families, support the families impacted by hit-and-run driving, the long-term impact, and also to be that voice in the room, that human voice. … My goal is to always say, ‘Hey, don’t forget this voice,’” she told St. Louis on the Air.

As the conversation turned to ideas for solutions, Ogilvie said vulnerable road users are top of mind for him and many of his colleagues these days.

He also put the onus on motorists.

“Take the responsibility of driving a vehicle seriously, and realize that being inattentive or driving too fast can have terrible impacts to other people and yourself,” the transportation policy planner urged in his concluding remarks. “And model good behavior.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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