Thousands of pedestrians are injured in N.C. each year. Can we make streets safer?

This story is part of our year-long series “Are We Safe?” To submit a topic for the series, follow the link at the end of this article.

People set out on foot for a variety of reasons.

Any morning on a city street, hundreds of people are walking to work. They may have parked somewhere and are walking the last blocks. Or they got off the bus and are walking to their destination. For some, it is the final leg of their commute. For others, it is the only way they get where they are going.

People walk on rural roads, too. And in the suburbs. But where or whether someone walks by choice, convenience or necessity, there are risks — often of being hit by a car.

According to an Elon University poll conducted in cooperation with The News & Observer, two-thirds of North Carolinians feel unsafe walking along a road without sidewalks.

Even on a sidewalk, only half of those polled felt safe walking next to a road.

In 2017, 197 pedestrians in North Carolina were killed in motor-vehicle crashes, down 4% from 2016, according to the UNC Highway Safety Research Center and the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. (The report looked at crashes on all government maintained roads and all private vehicular areas.)

The fatalities represented about 6% of all pedestrians involved in a motor-vehicle crash. Another 2,596 pedestrians were injured. Drivers and passengers in motor-vehicle-only crashes die at a much lower rate, less than 1 in 100.

North Carolina ranked 16th in pedestrian fatality rates at 1.93 per 100,000 population in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The national average was 1.84.

Because teenagers and young adults tend to walk more than children and older adults do, their rate of incidents is higher. Pedestrians age 16 to 34 had a crash rate of 4.7 per 10,000 people from 2012 to 2016, according to the Highway Safety Research Center. The rate for ages 35 to 64 was 3.1, while those under 16 and older than 64 had crash rates of 1.6 and 1.7, respectively.

Wake Tech student hit by car in a crosswalk

Mitra Hekmat Najib was hit by a car when she was crossing the street, in a crosswalk, in Raleigh.

It happened last fall when she was crossing Wake Forest Road at its intersection with Navaho Drive. Najib, a student at Wake Technical Community College, got rides to classes at Wake Tech but took the bus to a separate IT class she was taking. She had finished her final class and was walking to the bus stop. Wake Forest Road is eight lanes wide, and close to the on and off ramps of Interstate 440, the Raleigh Beltline.

Najib, 21, was walking to the bus stop around 5 p.m. when she was struck by a Cadillac in the crosswalk going 10 mph, according to the police report.

It knocked her down and her hand was broken, Najib said. She got a lawyer, and a settlement, through Benjamin Whitley of Whitley Law Firm in Raleigh.

Whitley’s personal injuries law firm, which was started by his father in Kinston, settled Najib’s claim with the insurance company. But Whitley said some claims are more difficult because North Carolina is one of four states that still has contributory negligence — which means if a pedestrian contributed at all to the accident, he or she is at fault.

Whitley said his caseload is about a quarter pedestrian-related.

“We’re more of a car city,” he said about Raleigh. The accidents involving pedestrians that he sees often occur when people cross Capital Boulevard and New Bern Avenue to get to bus stops. People cross where it’s convenient, he said.

Whitley also said he sees a lot of distracted driving cases, and pedestrian accidents happening at night.

In Kinston, where he grew up, there’s less infrastructure, Whitley said, and more people walking on rural roads without sidewalks. But the majority of pedestrian-vehicle crashes occur in urban areas. According to the Highway Safety Research Center, 78% of 3,192 crashes in 2016 occurred in urban areas. From 2012 to 2016, urban areas reported an average of 26% more crashes than from 2007 to 2011, whereas rural areas saw a smaller increase of 13% during the same time periods.

Making roads safer

Erik Landfried advocates for transportation that’s not by car.

“I just believe that it’s not sustainable to continue to have people drive so much,” he said. “Obviously it creates a lot healthier communities, safer communities, sustainable communities to use affordable modes, including walking, biking and taking transit.”

“The most important thing, especially early on, to shift people over from driving is to make people feel safe,” he said. “That’s sort of the baseline for just about anything in life: If you don’t feel safe, it’s hard to accomplish anything else.”

Landfried, who works for GoTriangle, the regional public transit system, says having sidewalks and lots of easy-to-cross intersections make pedestrians safer.

“If you’re walking down a street [you shouldn’t] have to walk a mile to a safe crossing,” he said.

But safety also must look at what’s coming down the street.

Rather than just speed limits, Landfried said cities need to consider “design speeds,” that is how fast a road itself entices drivers to go. The biggest factor, he says, is the number of lanes. Gregson Street in Durham, for example, has two lanes going the same direction and is one-way, he said. Drivers pass houses, apartments, commercial areas on their way to and from downtown Durham.

Once downtown, Landfried said, everything changes.

“If you’re driving down Main Street in the middle of downtown Durham, people are driving fairly slow there,” he said. “You’ve got two-ways, parked cars, activity and a feeling of enclosure” because of the buildings and street trees. Having more activity and things next to the roads slows drivers down, without them even realizing it.

Intersection design is important, too, he added, in terms of how cars approach it, when they can make a turn and the intervals of the crossing signals for pedestrians.

If cities want more people to walk, they should restrict drivers from turning at intersections, such as with more “no turn on red” signs, or not allowing left turns at certain intersections.

For Najib, who was hit in the crosswalk with the “walk” signal on, there is safety in numbers, and North Carolina just doesn’t have as many people walking as other places she has lived, including California and New York.

“New York City is made for pedestrians, because all the time people are walking around,” she said. “And also cars are very slow, because there’s always traffic.”

Najib has a car now, and doesn’t take the bus anymore.

“I don’t walk anymore because I’m really scared. Cars don’t pay attention to pedestrians here,” she said. “Even if I go to the store very close to home, I always drive.”

Some people would rather not drive

Jennifer McDuffie, who lives and works in Durham, commutes by bike about 13 miles from her Woodcroft neighborhood in southwest Durham to northern Durham.

“I am the type of person who believes that everyone if at all possible should carpool, take public transit, bike or walk. So I do my absolute best, even though I own a car, not to drive it,” she said.

McDuffie, who previously served on the city’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Commission, said cars turning right on a red light pose a risk to both pedestrians and bicyclists. Some drivers turn without even slowing down, she said, called a “right hook.”

McDuffie sees a number of issues adding to pedestrians’ risk.

“I think distracted driving is of course a problem. I think the quality of driver’s education has gone down over time with the lack of funding with our schools. ... I think people get complacent when they drive for years and years and years and don’t have any tickets,” she said.

“The other thing is our whole culture moves so quickly. Everybody is in such a hurry,” McDuffie said.

Volker Blum, who also works in Durham, doesn’t own a car. He is from southern Germany and has lived in Berlin, Boston and Boulder as well as California and England.

He lives in a walkable neighborhood, Watts Hospital-Hillandale.

“We walk more or less anywhere in Durham west of downtown. That’s our radius. Three to four miles in terms in errands. We walk there, we bike there, whatever we do. People think of walking here as recreation, but what’s underappreciated is walking is a way to get places,” Blum said.

He notices lack of sidewalks especially when he’s out walking with his children. Cars don’t always stop, even if they are in a crosswalk. Blum said they were visiting Boston, and his young son was surprised to see cars stopping. Blum thinks it’s a matter of enforcement.

“Berlin is not a very polite city. But they know [to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks] so they don’t do it at the same rate as here,” he said.

There’s also a difference between crosswalks with wide painted white lines that run horizontal across the road and those with two vertical parallel lines. The latter, “low visibility” crosswalks, don’t distract drivers enough, Blum said.

“It is a completely and utterly flawed design safety from an engineering perspective. Design it safely or don’t design it at all,” he said.

What does the law say?

Generally, motorists must yield to pedestrians. Here’s a summary of the state statutes by Watch for Me NC, a program run by the NC Department of Transportation.

  • Drivers are required to yield to pedestrians at marked crossings and unmarked crosswalks at intersections except where there is a traffic or pedestrian signal.
  • Pedestrians must use marked crosswalks when provided, and it is unlawful to cross a street outside a marked crosswalk if the pedestrian is between two signalized intersections.

  • When not at an intersection or marked crosswalk, pedestrians must yield the right of way to all vehicles.
  • At crosswalks with pedestrian signals, pedestrians should obey the “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” signs in the same way a driver must obey red or green lights.
  • Pedestrians walking along the road must use sidewalks when available.
  • When sidewalks are not available, pedestrians should walk to the far left edge of the road facing traffic. Walking in this direction gives pedestrians the best view of traffic.

The UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill, in collaboration with the NC DOT, collects and analyzes detailed motor vehicle crash data.

Libby Thomas, senior research associate at the center, says that despite some limitations to crash data (including that not all crashes are reported), they are useful for identifying crash patterns, location types, and conditions frequently associated with pedestrian crashes and injuries. (Editor’s note: Thomas’ title was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.)

“Roadways and intersections designed with multi-modal road users (drivers, pedestrians and cyclists) in mind can help prevent pedestrian-motor vehicle crashes if well-implemented” she said. “In fact, certain treatments can help reduce all types of crashes.”

Eric Rodgman, senior database analyst at the center, suggests all citizens, drivers and pedestrians follow these tips: “Be alert, respect the other driver, pedestrian or bicyclist, obey traffic laws and be defensive, especially for pedestrians. Don’t assume when crossing a clearly marked crosswalk that a motor vehicle driver will stop.”

Find details on all pedestrian and bicyclist crashes from an online map by the the NC Department of Transportation.

Correction made at 9:45 a.m. on June 7. Libby Thomas' job title was corrected from the original posting of this story.


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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.