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In early 2016, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released a report on pedestrian traffic fatalities by state. According to the report, in the first six months of 2015 an estimated 2,368 pedestrians had been killed in the United States, a 10% increase over the same period in the previous year. The GHSA also found that Florida was at the top of the list for most pedestrian deaths.Four states, Florida, California, Texas, and New York, which comprise 33% of the US population, accounted for 42% of all the pedestrian deaths in the first half of 2015. While California had more actual fatalities (347 compared to Florida’s 273), Florida had more pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents with 1.35 compared to California’s .89. Although this was a marked decrease from the 2.96 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents in Florida in 2014, the state has a long way to go in regards to pedestrian safety.In January, Smart Growth America, an organization that advocates for walkable cities, released their Dangerous by Design report. In it they rank 104 of the largest metro areas in the country on a “Pedestrian Danger Index” over a ten year span between 2005 and 2014. Eight of the top ten most dangerous metro areas in the nation are in Florida. The North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area claims the tenth spot.

Over the decade studied, there were 5,142 pedestrian fatalities in Florida, of the 46,149 throughout the country. The report states that between 2005 and 2014, Americans were 7.2 times more likely to be killed as a pedestrian than from a natural disaster. As pedestrian deaths have increased over the last ten years, they now account for 15% of all traffic related fatalities, the highest rate since 1975, when the federal system first started recording traffic deaths.

What makes Florida such a dangerous state for pedestrians? Who is most at risk? What can be done to make Florida safer for pedestrians?

According to the Dangerous by Design report, people over the age of 65 are 50% more likely to be struck and killed by a car than someone younger. Considering that the US Census reports almost 35% of the Sarasota population as 65 or over, that does put a large percentage of our community at risk. The report also identifies minority individuals as being particularly at risk of a pedestrian fatality. While minorities make up 34.9% of the national population, 46.1% of pedestrian deaths involve minorities. One possible reason for this, the report points out, is that minorities are less likely to be car owners.

Part of what makes Florida so dangerous for pedestrians are major design flaws in our streets and transportation systems. In a metro area like New York City, which scores a Pedestrian Danger Index of 27 (compared to North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton’s score of 148.2), only 23% of households own cars, and the majority of residents commute by walking or taking public transportation. According to the Sarasota County Citizens Opinion Survey, 91% of Sarasota residents admit to commuting to work alone in a car. Florida was designed for cars, and we have some work to do in order to make the streets safe for all of our citizens.

Fortunately, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is taking steps toward a more “context-sensitive” transportation network that works for all modes of travel. Working in collaboration with Smart Growth America, the FDOT released the “Complete Streets Implementation Plan” which is designed to facilitate better multimodal travel and delivery throughout the state. The plan will “implement policies and professional practices that will ensure streets are safe for all ages and abilities, balance the needs of different modes of travel (including motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and freight handlers), and to contribute to economic competitiveness, community revitalization, environmental preservation, and other state and local goals.”

The handbook for the Complete Streets Implementation Plan was released internally through the FDOT in October 2016, and after review and redrafting, an external review is scheduled for April 2017. In the meantime, for Sarasota to become a more pedestrian friendly city, we need more people to become pedestrians. Although our infrastructure is largely designed for automotive traffic, data from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey shows that 28% of trips are less than a mile in length, and 40% of trips are under two miles, what would be a 15 to 30 minute walk.

Imagine if more people opted to walk for those trips instead of using a car. Because walking as a physical activity helps reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, we would certainly have a healthier community. In addition, for every trip where a driver opts to walk instead of taking the car, there is one less vehicle contributing to traffic congestion, toxic emissions, and potential safety hazards. There is also an added financial incentive: walking is free.

As we strive to make Sarasota a more pedestrian-friendly city, there is one last consideration that can have the biggest impact on pedestrian safety: awareness. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that nearly three-quarters of pedestrian deaths occur at night, so if you are out walking after dark, be sure to wear bright clothing to make yourself more visible to drivers. And if you are driving at night, keep a sharp lookout for those traveling on foot, especially in areas that are not well lit. Awareness is the key to pedestrian safety, for pedestrians and drivers alike.