If you’ve ever walked or biked alongside a Western highway, you know what it is to feel small, slow and vulnerable. Cars and trucks rip by, often without slowing or moving over, at outrageous speeds, their resulting wind gust threatening to knock you down, or worse, sucking you under a big rig’s wheels. Rural highways often don't even have paved shoulders, not to mention bike lanes. It can be terrifying.
Statistics released earlier this year by the National Highway Safety Administration suggest that your fear is perfectly rational. In 2012 — the most recent year of data — more than 1,300 pedestrians and cyclists were killed on Western roads. And Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico had unusually high pedestrian fatality rates, putting them among the top ten most dangerous in the nation for walkers.
Meanwhile, being safely ensconced inside a hurtling can of death — er, a car — isn’t so safe, either, particularly in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, where motor vehicle fatality rates were about twice the national rate. While that’s likely due to the fact that folks in those states drive more miles, on average, than just about anywhere else in the U.S., there’s also a correlation between fatalities and energy booms: Many of North Dakota’s fatal crashes were clustered in Williams and McKenzie counties, home of the Bakken oil rush, and that state has seen a major jump in the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks.
As has long been the case, Native Americans are killed by car accidents — both as occupants and as pedestrians — at a much higher rate than other races and ethnicities. New Mexico's poor ranking (number 2 in the nation) in pedestrian safety is partly driven by a high pedestrian death rate in McKinley and San Juan counties, both of which have a high population of Native Americans. An analysis by Governing magazine found that pedestrian fatalities also occur at a higher rate in poor neighborhoods nationwide, and New Mexico is one of the poorest states (the South outdoes the West, though, when it comes to killing-by-car).
On the brighter side, the nation’s highways are generally getting safer, for both motorists and pedestrians. The period from 2009-2012 was the least deadliest string of four years on the nation’s highways since 1966, and the fatality rate dropped from 26 deaths per 100,000 population in ’66, to 11 per 100,000 in 2012. Pedestrian fatalities have also decreased nationally over time.
Still, one death is too many, and hundreds is downright barbaric. It's time our state and local highway departments stepped up and made cyclist and pedestrian safety the top priority of road and highway design and construction. We simply should not have to fear for our lives when taking a simple stroll or ride down the road.