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February 17, 2022

Philadelphia confronts mounting pedestrian deaths as rise in reckless driving hits national tipping point

From more vehicular crashes to overwhelmed police, a reckoning looms for roadway safety and motorist behavior

Crime Road Safety
Philly Pedestrian Traffic Deaths Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Roosevelt Boulevard is Philadelphia's most dangerous roadway, where traffic crash fatalities have been among the highest in city for years. As crash deaths involving pedestrians and cyclists spike in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, transportation researchers and governments are looking for effective policy solutions.

Nearly two years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, a disturbing rise in deadly car crashes involving pedestrians — many of them hit-and-runs — has reached a national boiling point.

The Governors Highway Safety Association recorded more than 6,700 fatal pedestrian crashes in the U.S. in 2020 — up 5% from 6,412 the year before. The raw increase in deaths may be even more troubling than it appears, according to the non-profit group, which works with government transportation offices to address behavioral highway safety issues.

One of the defining features of the pandemic, especially during the early lockdown period, was emptier roads and fewer miles traveled by motorists. To a lesser degree, this has persisted with many workers remaining remote, but that doesn't mean the driving habits that formed during the pandemic have subsided. 

When factoring in the reduced number of vehicle miles traveled in 2020, the GHSA projected that the pedestrian fatality rate actually spiked about 21% over 2019, marking the largest year-over-year increase on record. The group's preliminary data for 2021 suggest this trend continued accelerating last year.

A New York Times article published this week examined possible reasons behind the rising number of pedestrian fatalities seen in so many states and municipalities. In New Jersey, for instance, more than 210 pedestrians were killed in crashes in 2021, reaching the highest number on record since 1989. Utah, Texas, New Mexico and Washington all saw similar spikes in fatal pedestrian crashes.

A handful of theories may explain what's making this problem so much worse.

On emptier roads, drivers are more inclined to speed because there is no physical obstruction to driving faster. Police may also be more tied up responding to widely documented increases in other violent crime, particularly in large cities, or could be limited in their tools and legal authorization to enforce traffic violations.

In Philadelphia, where violent crime has surged during the pandemic, a driving equity bill passed last year by City Council prohibits police officers from pulling drivers over for minor traffic violations, such as driving without an inspection sticker or having a broken tail light. Citations for these violations are instead sent by mail.

Combined with the city's "no pursuit" policy for traffic violations, officers are more likely to direct their crimefighting efforts to matters other than scofflaw drivers. The risk of increased contact with others during the pandemic doesn't help the situation, either.

Another dimension to changes in driver behavior could be a rise in "social disengagement," which produces more careless and selfish behavior on the road. A lack of interpersonal contact weakens the stigma attached to breaking rules, and it may also lead to more anger in the broader population.

“There’s a portion of the population that is incredibly frustrated, enraged, and some of that behavior shows up in their driving,” Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, told The New York Times. “We in our vehicles are given anonymity in this giant metal box around us, and we act out in ways that we wouldn’t face to face.”

Additional reasons suggested for more pedestrian deaths include an aging population that may have worsening road awareness, an increase in drunk driving, and a vehicle fleet that has shifted away from sedans toward pick-up trucks, vans and SUVs. Collisions involving these larger vehicle models tend to be deadlier. Their growing prevalence on America's roadways, beginning around 2009, also coincides with when the nation began to see more fatal pedestrian crashes after decades of progress in reducing them.

'It's Not An Easy Task'

Philadelphia has a bad reputation for aggressive drivers. The general road culture in the city — from brigades of ATV riders to some drivers who consider stop signs optional — puts all drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists at high risk of a crash. That risk increases if road users aren't hyperaware or strictly law-abiding themselves, compared to the worst offenders.

Unsurprisingly, the national hike in traffic fatalities is evident in Philadelphia over the last two years. The chart below shows Philadelphia police statistics on pedestrian fatalities, in addition to total crash fatalities going back to 2016 using numbers monitored by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia

 YearPedestrian Fatalties  Total Crash Fatalities
 201626  76
2017 46 99
 201847 103
 201930 90
2020 46 152
 2021 42133
 2022 (to date) 710 

"On average, Philadelphia has about 100 people who die per year from traffic fatalities, except for these last two years," Sarah Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia said. "The figure of pedestrians has been very high — like 30-40%. It's dramatically high compared to a lot of other jurisdictions."

The Bicycle Coalition played an important role in increasing transparency around crash statistics, convincing PPD to release the data publicly on a regular basis.

It should be noted that the Bicycle Coalition's numbers, which come from Open Data Philly, have some year-to-year discrepancies with PPD data. This could be because police send their data to PennDOT for reconciliation before the stats are published, typically a year later. (The 2016 and 2022 numbers in the chart above both come from the Bicycle Coalition). 

"The point we are trying to make with our webpage is to document the figures to publicize the extent of it and give the victims the attention they deserve," Stuart said. "Incidents can get lost or mixed up as they move between police reports into police databases into Open Data Philly, and then into our our webpage."

What the pandemic numbers make clear, in the aggregate, is that more people are dying on Philadelphia's streets. 

"Everything in The New York Times article is absolutely on point and relevant to Philadelphia," Stuart said. "We have a good sense of the impact of the pandemic on crash fatalities, and the city certainly acknowledged that in its most recent Vision Zero Action Plan. 2020 was a terrible, terrible year — the worst Philadelphia has had in recent memory."

To better quantify the increasing rate of traffic deaths, Stuart compared the average number of combined pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in 2020-2021 to the average of the previous four years combined in those two categories. Together, there was a 30% increase in such deaths. For pedestrians alone, it was about 25%.

A smaller number of cyclists are killed in crashes each year, but they are dying at much higher rates.

"Bicyclists fared worse," Stuart said. "Deaths among cyclists increased 115% in the last two years compared to the four years before the pandemic. We recorded eight bicyclists who were killed in 2021, which is the highest number of deaths since 1985."

Though it's difficult to pinpoint what combination of factors make these groups more vulnerable in Philadelphia, challenges and quandaries in law enforcement reveal some of the conflict at hand.

Mark Overwise is the commanding officer of Philadelphia's Accident Investigation District (AID), a role he's held since 2018. He's been a police officer for the last 30 years.

"Anecdotally, there seems to be a correlation between the arrival of the pandemic and the incidence of vehicular crashes," Overwise said. "I think the explanations for the increase (in The New York Times article) are all valid points. Our resources are thinner, that's no secret, both in my unit and the entire department compared to two years ago. That goes for personnel and our ability to enforce traffic laws."

Every year, about 58,000 vehicular crashes are reported to Philadelphia police, a huge figure that included all crash categories from fender benders to deadly collisions. Among those crashes, AID investigates about 2,300 per year and processes about 3,100 DUI arrests.

In other words, police only investigate about 4% of crashes in the city.

When AID does have the resources to commit to a crash investigation, the job is made much harder by the fact that about one in four of the 58,000 crashes reported each year is a hit-and-run.

Stuart thinks the city's hit-and-run statistics are a telltale sign of aggressive driving.

"What convinces me that reckless driving is worse is that hit-and-runs rose by over 120%, if you compare 2020 and 2021 to more recent years," Stuart said. "Hit-and-runs have gotten out of control, for all of these different reasons. Social disengagement, the breakdown of norms, and the invitation of wide-open, empty roadways for irresponsible people to drive at excessive speeds."

Last Friday alone, two women were killed in hit-and-run pedestrian crashes in Philadelphia. The city's pedestrian fatalities already stand at seven in 2022.

Around 11:30 p.m, a 50-year-old woman was fatally struck by a Chevrolet Cavalier near Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue in North Philadelphia. The woman was crossing the street after getting off a SEPTA bus. The driver swerved onto the Broad Street median with the victim still on the hood of the car, at which point the vehicle's occupants fled the scene.

Overwise said he's optimistic AID will be able to locate the driver.

"We're getting there, but it's not an easy task," Overwise said. "We have direction on that case and we look forward to making an arrest."

Earlier that evening, around 9:00, a 46-year-old woman was fatally struck by a car on the 2700 block of Island Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia. The driver of the unidentified vehicle also fled the scene.

"We were able to recover that vehicle," Overwise said. "But just because we recover a car doesn't mean we can identify who was driving it at the time of the crash. It takes investigative work. I am confident that we'll have an arrest in that case, too."

Last February, Overwise testified before City Council at a Public Safety Committee hearing to discuss the city's troubling increase in traffic fatalities. In his public testimony, Overwise lamented that AID doesn't have the resources and policy support it needs to solve crimes.

"The reality is that AID lacks the capacity to investigate and follow up with the majority of the reported crashes, and the result is clearly visible," Overwise told the council committee. "It's demonstrated by the willingness of drivers to engage in dangerous, aggressive, careless and sometimes even reckless behaviors throughout the narrow streets of our neighborhoods, and then they leave the scene of the crash. Today, the risk of leaving the scene of a crash is overshadowed by the likelihood of getting away with it."

With 36 officers and supervisors, Overwise said that the laborious task of tracking down vehicles using surveillance video has become much more intensive. The limited manpower impedes the progress of investigations. Overwise requested that his staff be increased to 53 officers, about eight more than where it stood in 2000, but the request was denied. 

The stark increase in overall traffic fatalities during the pandemic has become impossible to ignore.

There was a roughly 75% increase in all traffic deaths in Philadelphia from 2019 to 2020, including a 211% increase in deadly hit-and-run crashes, from 9 to 28 year-over-year. About 36% of those 28 cases had been solved as of the date Overwise gave his testimony to City Council.

What frustrates Overwise most is that PPD's statistical reviews of traffic crashes involving injuries and deaths closely matches areas in the city where there is a high incidence of shooting victims. He believes the lack of enforcement is a missed opportunity.

"I talk often about how we can take crime statistics and overlap them with vehicle statistics — and guess what? They're all in the same place," Overwise told PhillyVoice. "The police department, City Council, we could take these violent crime funds and other grant funding and do traffic enforcement in these crime areas, which is not popular right now. Just by incidence, with (police) visibitility and stopping people, (we would) encounter some of the criminal element."

Overwise is referring to a law enforcement operational model called Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS), which is supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice. The model is controversial because critics contend it leads to discriminatory and biased policing that harasses communities of color with more traffic stops.

"The unpopular part of that strategy is that you're pulling people over in neighborhoods where Black and Brown people live and neighborhoods that are lower-income," Overwise said. "But that's where a lot of the crime is happening and it can be supported with statistics. It's something that should be investigated."

During his City Council testimony, Overwise pointed to positive results using a DDACTS pilot program under former police commissioner Charles Ramsey. In 2012, PPD saw a 38% decrease in crime and a 15% decrease in traffic crashes in the areas targeted for the pilot.

"I think those are results that we would all love to see today," Overwise told council. "This is a model that's based on statistical data. It's not based on traditional people-based police models."

Overwise said that densities of hit-and-run crashes show patterns that repeat year after year and align with violent crime. He believes this is an important consideration for deterring both forms of crime and catching those responsible as quickly as possible.

"I think we could use statistical information to decide where to target our enforcement efforts," Overwise said.

'Hyperlocal Buzzsaws'

Philadelphia's efforts to reduce traffic fatalities over the past several years are an extension of the city's commitment to Vision Zero, the widely adopted road traffic safety project that aims to adapt transportation systems to serve all modes of travel.

Vision Zero tracks the most dangerous and crash-prone roadways in Philadelphia using the High-Injury Network, a data-driven approach that identifies the most problematic corridors and tailors policy recommendations to address their most glaring hazards.

In its most recent annual report last October, Philadelphia's Vision Zero findings attributed 42% of all serious injury and fatal crashes in 2020 to aggressive driving, including speeding.

This conclusion was supported by the observation that although total crashes were down 13% in the city, the crashes that did occur resulted more often in fatal injuries. The rate of serious injuries remained about the same.

While everyone agrees that the number of deadly crashes happening in the U.S. is a sign of larger breakdowns, policy advocates and associations battle fiercely over what should be done about it. The more local the issue becomes, the more contentious the fight. 

From a wider societal perspective, creating consensus around action is likely going to depend on a closer analysis of why things have gotten so much worse during the pandemic. Which reasons point to issues that can readily be addressed by policy? 

The National Motorists Association, often among the most vocal opponents of aggressive tactics to punish drivers, acknowledged on Wednesday that the pattern of crash fatalities during the pandemic has been concerning.

NMA president Gary Biller told PhillyVoice that he believes it's still too soon to definitively attribute these crash trends to an increase in bad behavior among drivers.

"Analysing the cause(s) with certainty is difficult because the most recent year in which National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has provided official (and granular) traffic fatality data is 2019," Biller said in an email.

Biller specifically referenced NHTSA data on pedestrian fatalities in 2019 to show that 72.2% of victims were killed in non-intersection areas and 72.3% of the pedestrian deaths that year occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

"Those numbers indicate that crossing in unmarked areas and visibility issues play a huge factor in the safety of pedestrians," Biller said.

To reduce pedestrian deaths, the NMA favors investments in education of both drivers and pedestrians.

"The answer is sweeping, advanced education of both drivers and pedestrians. The Infrastructure Investment Act has $14 billion for traffic safety programs. Little is mentioned in the Act about better educating road users on best safety practices and shared rules-of-the-road responsibilities," Biller said. "Education has a broad and lasting effect by teaching best practices. Enforcement does not, particularly since it only addresses the driver side of the safety equation."

Biller acknowledged the various statistics and theories that point to reckless driving as an explanation for the rise in all traffic deaths during the pandemic, but said they remain anecdotal until data can be better analyzed.

"The uptick in fatalities that NHTSA is projecting for the (last) two years needs to be better understood and corrective action taken," Biller said.

To Stuart and the Bicycle Coalition, there is ample evidence to support broader traffic interventions. Cycling and pedestrian advocates generally take umbrage at the idea these two groups should shoulder blame for safety problems that pit them against automobiles, for which they are obviously no physical match. It's why the Bicycle Coalition and Vision Zero advocates reject the word "accident" when describing crashes that result in harm.

"Accident sort of connotes blamelessness and inevitability," Stuart said. "Almost all crashes are avoidable in some sense, whether it has to do with road design or other factors."

In fact, the Bicycle Coalition has urged PPD to change the name of AID to Crash or Collision Investigation Division, among other changes it hopes law enforcement will make to improve the way traffic fatalities and injuries are investigated.

The Bicycle Coalition also advocated strongly for the installation of automated speed cameras to reduce crashes on Roosevelt Boulevard, by far the most dangerous roadway in Philadelphia. The cameras were installed in the summer of 2020 and underwent an initial warning period before they were fully activated.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority released a study last year on its findings from the first year of the Roosevelt Boulevard pilot, which includes 32 speed cameras at eight locations along an 11 3/4-mile stretch. Speeding drivers face fines ranging from $100-$150 for going at least 11 mph over the 45 mph speed limit.

In the first month after the 60-day warning period ended, PPA recorded 84,608 speeding violations along the stretch — a 63% reduction in violations from the first month of the warning period alone. As of February 2021, there had been a 93% reduction in recorded speeding violations.

Stuart says the swift impact of the Roosevelt Boulevard pilot is a point in favor of strategies that revolve around deterrence.

"Automated speed cameras need to be allowed on more roadways that are experiencing excessive speeding. What the Roosevelt Boulevard pilot is showing is that cameras have a dramatic impact on reducing speeding," Stuart said. "If speeding is accounting for over half of fatal crashes in Philadelphia, then cameras on more of those roadways could substantially reduce those kinds of crashes — and that would save lives. It is mind-boggling how much speeding was occurring before the cameras went up."

Stuart also believes the city must increase its use of traffic calming devices, such as speed cushions and deflective posts that flash lights to signal to drivers that they need to slow down.

Though she's pleased with the city's efforts and investments in Vision Zero projects, Stuart believes that addressing the stark dangers on many of Philadelphia's roadways will require more public buy-in at the local level, where people end up feeling the inconveniences from safety changes day to day. They may feel like a nuisance until residents are directly impacted by a crash, whether it's a totaled car or the loss of a loved one.

"Despite significant and fantastic efforts, I think what's happening is that a safety-first approach can run into hyperlocal buzzsaws and generally that's when politicians step in to make decisions against the advice of professionals," Stuart said. "I think that's unfortunate and it's happening in Philadelphia."