Some solutions for improving pedestrian safety

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Road with independent space for pedestrians, cyclists and cars in San Isidro. Photo: World Bank
We all have an intuitive sense that pedestrians are particularly vulnerable to road traffic crashes. After all, there is only so much the human body can take. At 30 km per hour, a pedestrian has a 90% chance to survive an impact. But if a vehicle hits you at 50 km/h while you’re walking down the street, that collision will have the same impact a falling from the fourth floor of a building.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that road crashes do indeed take a serious toll on pedestrians. In 2013, more than 270,000 pedestrians lost their lives globally, representing almost 1/5 of the total number of deaths.

In the United States, numbers from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reveal a 46% increase in the number of pedestrians dying on the road, largely due to the expansion of rapid arterial roads in urban and suburban areas.

In Peru, where we’re based traffic crashes data pertaining to pedestrians are just as startling. According to the Ministry of Health, almost half of pedestrians involved in a collision sustain multiple injuries, and 22% of them suffer from trauma to the head. The chances of a fatal outcome or other serious consequences are very high.

Let's put a brake on road crashes

One of the factors contributing to this is the urban environment itself, which has long been planned around the car at the expense of pedestrian mobility, with an obvious lack of safe crosswalks and high vehicle speeds.

Unsafe transit systems and practices also put pedestrians at risk. Minibus operations provide an interesting example: in the absence of designated bus stops, the vehicles tend to stop anywhere on the street to pick up and drop off passengers, often forcing them to weave their way through dense and chaotic traffic.

Yet walking remains the main mode of transport for many Peruvians, accounting for 25% of trips in Lima and Callao or even close to 50% in Cusco. Looking at these numbers, it is pretty clear that pedestrian safety needs to become a much bigger priority. We all have a responsibility to design transport systems that take all road users and not just motorists into account, from children to the elderly, pregnant women, persons with disabilities. etc.

As part of the search for solutions, we were excited to attend Peru’s 2nd National Road Safety Congress last February with several other representatives from the World Bank. One of them was Oliver Braedt, Leader of the Bank’s Sustainable Development Program, who highlighted the key risk factors impacting the safety of pedestrians (please refer to WHO’s manual on pedestrian safety to learn more):
  • Speed: The higher the speed, the higher the probability to suffer serious or fatal injuries. At 30 km/h, the probability of survival is 90%, while at 60 km/h, the probability is 25%. Similarly, higher speeds reduce drivers’ peripheral vision, increase the distance needed to stop completely, and decrease the available reaction time.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol adversely impacts the physical and mental capacity of road users. Drunkenness is considered especially dangerous when the driver is the one who’s intoxicated, as alcohol undermines their decision-making capacity, makes their reflexes slower, shortens their attention span, and affects visual acuity—all of which are essential to safe driving. In addition, several studies have shown that drunk drivers have a tendency to accelerate too much.
  • Lack of adequate pedestrian facilities: we see far too many roads and streets with poor or nonexistent pedestrian facilities. Periodic road maintenance typically stops at the curb, and crowded sidewalks with parked cars often force people to walk alongside traffic. Conditions are particularly critical on arterial roads and at intersections, where the risk for pedestrians increases. Urban development with long blocks that allow cars to reach high speeds and insufficient safe pedestrian crossings also contribute to higher risk.
  • Other factors include a lack of respect for road traffic regulations, distracted driving related with cell phones or headphones, poor visibility due to inadequate street lighting, vehicle headlights that do not work well, and driver fatigue.
Fortunately, there are several actions that have shown to be effective in reducing risk to pedestrians:
  • Creation of dedicated spaces for vulnerable road users, such as upgraded sidewalks, wide pedestrian paths, and even partially or completely pedestrianized streets and squares. Safe crosswalks are key, and should be signposted and positioned appropriately. Other important design features include good visibility, lighting, and the absence of visual obstacles.
  • Speed reduction, which involves establishing speed limits appropriate to each environment and ensuring they are respected. The speed in urban areas, for example, should be limited to 50 km/h, or even 10, 20, 30 km/h in some neighborhoods to encourage walking and non-motorized mobility. Adapting the road infrastructure—by narrowing the road, building refuge islands, curb extensions, raised pedestrian crossings and speed bumps— is key to achieve speed reduction.
  • Promotion of greater awareness through road safety education and training, and by ensuring that the traffic laws that prioritize pedestrians are widely known and properly enforced.
Clearly, pedestrian safety requires a multi-pronged approach that combines smart and inclusive road design, effective enforcement of traffic regulations, prompt post-crash response, and improved road safety education. Governments, planners, engineers, development partners, road users… we all have a part to play in this. By bringing all stakeholders around the same table to implement these solutions in an effective, coordinated way, we can make a real difference and save countless pedestrian lives.

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