Pedestrians wait to cross the street in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle. Although, Eastlake is known for its mixed use zoning and walkability, like all Seattle neighborhoods, streets remain heavily dominated by car traffic. Photo by author.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has released its annual Active Transportation Safety Report, and the news from 2018 is not good. Between 2014 and 2018, pedestrian and cyclist deaths in traffic collisions rose 50%, jumping from 82 in 2014 to 123 in 2018.

Similar to the data compiled by Seattle’s 2018 Vision Zero Progress report, statewide fatalities of pedestrians and cyclists failed to decrease between 2017 and 2018, revealing the difficult of reversing traffic death trends despite the State’s goal of eliminating traffic accident deaths by 2030. And last year’s traffic violence figures were already staggeringly high.

While WSDOT acknowledges that the loss of a human life is “incalculable to those who have lost a loved one,” the agency also attaches an economic cost to deaths and serious injuries. Using a federally provided tool of economic measurement called the Value of a Statistical Life (VSL), WSDOT estimates the societal cost of the pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in Washington state at $1.2 billion for 2018.

Serious injuries also continue to increase. The number of serious traffic injuries to people walking and bicycling increased 27% from 421 in 2014 to 535 in 2018, and unlike fatalities, serious injuries actually increased substantially between 2017 and 2018.

For pedestrians, the number of serious injuries increased 12%, from 360 to 403. While for cyclists, the number jumped a whopping 32%, from 100 to 132. Using the VSL measurement, the 519 pedestrian and bicyclist serious injuries in Washington state in 2018 cost society approximately $524 million.

Credit: WSDOT Active Transportation Safety Report 2018

Some more notable trends emerged from the report.

  • 59% of fatal and serious injury crashes occurred in census blocks that have higher poverty levels than the state average, highlighting the need for more safe infrastructure in low-income communities.
  • Since 2014, traffic fatalities involving pedestrians—including people in wheelchairs and those using other small rideable devices such as skateboards and scooters—have increased 42% from 76 to 108. 
  • Bicyclist fatalities have more than doubled during this same five-year period, increasing 150% from six in 2014 to 15 in 2018.
  • From 2014 to 2018, 87% of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities occurred on roads with posted speeds of 30 mph or higher.
  • In a rare bright spot, evaluation of Safe Routes to School/ Pedestrian and Bicycle Program projects found a 36% to 44% decrease in bicyclist and pedestrian crashes at project sites.
The success of programs like Safe Routes to Schools shows that it is possible to successfully reduce serious injuries and fatalities on Washington’s streets. Credit: Washington State 2016 Student Travel Survey
State Report

How does VSL calculate the value of a life?

The concept of the Value of a Statistical Life (VSL) dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, in which the Federal government decided to apply a cost-benefit analysis to saving lives. Measurements of statistical value are intended to take into account the victim’s expected earnings and additional products society may have lost as a result of their death.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is responsible for determining VSL, “These lost earnings were widely believed to understate the real costs of loss of life, because the value that we place on the continued life of our family and friends is not based entirely, or even principally, on their earning capacity.”

VSL assigns a single, nationwide value to lives lost, regardless of the age, income, or other distinct characteristics of the affected population, the mode of travel, or the nature of the risk they undertook. 

The most recently published VSL uses 2016 data to assign a price tag of $9.6 million per life lost.

What is WSDOT doing to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists?

While supporters of traffic safety camera bill HB 1793 were disappointed that it failed to to make it out of committee in the in past legislative session, a few other bills aimed at increasing safety for pedestrians and cyclists did succeed in Olympia.

One was Senate Bill 5710, which merges separate pedestrian and bicyclist councils into the Cooper Jones Active Transportation Safety Advisory Council. The ATSAC will continue to analyze data and make recommendations with the aim of reducing pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and serious injuries.

The legislature also passed SB 5723, an update to the vulnerable
road user law that defines safe passing and road use for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. It also increases fines for unsafe passing and uses the revenues collected from fines to establish a vulnerable roadway user education fund. The fund will support programs dedicated to increasing awareness by law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges of opportunities for enforcement of traffic infractions and offenses committed against vulnerable roadway users, which WSDOT defines as anyone who is not inside a vehicle, so riders of motorcycles or horses fall into the category, as do pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchair users.

Reducing speeds to beneath 30 mph has been shown to substantially decrease serious injuries and fatalities for pedestrians and cyclists; however, simply posting a reduced speed limit is not enough to deter drivers from driving faster. In many cases traffic calming measures are needed. (Credit: WSDOT Target Zero Report 2018)

WSDOT’s funding for pedestrian and cyclist safety improvements is awarded through two primary programs: the WSDOT Pedestrian and Bicycle Program and Safe Routes to School.

The agency expects to award approximately $41 million in funding for the two programs in the summer of 2019. However, demand for funding far exceeds the WSDOT’s budget for these programs. From January to April 2018, WSDOT received 255 applications requesting $187.4 million from the two programs—the highest total amount ever requested.

To better understand how to reduce pedestrian crashes, WSDOT has partnered with the University of Washington conduct an Advancing Multimodal Safety Through Pedestrian Risk Reduction study. This study assess both environmental and socio-economic factors that contribute to pedestrian collisions at crash-risk locations. It includes statistical modeling for both intersection and non-intersection locations. The study is expected to be completed in this month.

WSDOT is also still collecting data to update its Active Transportation Plan. The plan, which is updated every five years, is used to prioritize safety improvements, improve policies, secure funding, and development performance measures for safety infrastructure. Initially, WSDOT had decided to collect public comment through a survey; however, the agency decided to close the survey early over concerns that a number of questions did not invite “objective feedback.”

Readers who are interested in commenting on the public draft plan, which is scheduled to be released in December of 2019, should sign up for WSDOT Active Transportation e-news.

Article Author

Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.