Even though, “[t]raffic fatalities are a substantial and preventable public health challenge in America,” the reality is that not all traffic fatalities are equally distributed. Last week the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a new study, Disparities in Activity and Traffic Fatalities by Race/Ethnicity, which found that fatality rates are systemically higher for Black and Hispanic Americans for all modes and notably higher for vulnerable modes.
This is especially troubling given that while traffic fatality rates have fallen over the past 20 years, there is a troubling pattern, wherein fatalities for “vulnerable road users, namely pedestrians and cyclists” are greater combined with higher fatality rates for people of color as opposed to their White counterparts.
ABC News reported, Latanya Byrd, a resident of Philadelphia, experienced this disparity firsthand when she lost her 27-year old niece Samara Banks along with three of Banks’ sons, when they were struck and killed by a speeding driver in 2013 crossing a 12 lane road that passes through some their city’s most diverse and lowest-income neighborhoods. “It was just so devastating…We lost two generations in one swoop. I mean, just an instant snap of the finger,” said Byrd.
This new study partially debunked previous findings, including last year’s by the Governors Highway Safety Association and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which “underestimated both the traffic-related risks and deaths that Black and Hispanic Americans experience” due to utilizing different methodology that took into account varying travel distances “among racial/ethnic groups when walking, cycling, or driving” and time of day.
Researchers state that “[t]hese findings may also point to structural racism within the US transportation system.” Matthew Raifman, doctoral candidate and the study corresponding author, says “We have created a system where walking and cycling are more dangerous than driving, and where Black and Hispanic Americans are at greater risk of fatality per mile traveled than White Americans.”
Raifman continued, “It’s important to consider these disparities in traffic fatalities within the context of a transport system that suffers from racial bias—from the placement of roads, to traffic stops, to the way that ride-hail applications pair riders with drivers.”
Ernani Choma, research fellow and study co-author, echoed Raifman’s sentiments. She said, “Our results strengthen the case for investing resources in communities of color facing the highest traffic fatality risks.”
In May, at the federal level, the U.S. Department of Transportation created the Safe Streets and Roads for All program to allocate federal transportation funding to cities and local governments. Recently, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The legislation will provide $550 billion for roads, bridges, transit and more.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of locales at the state and local levels are turning to Vision Zero, which is a “strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. First implemented in Sweden in the 1990s, Vision Zero has proved successful across Europe.” Vision Zero operates under the principles that traffic deaths are preventable.” It is also a system wide approach, and believes that saving lives is not expensive.
Progress needs to be made on this critical issue, which impacts the lives of everyone who accesses our nation’s streets, particularly for Black and Hispanic communities. As Raifman said, “We have these two big challenges. We have structural racism, and we have traffic fatalities, and they’re related. They’re interlinked…Instead of just investing in reducing traffic fatalities, why not do it in a way that’s also addressing the systemic, structural racism challenges in our society?”