Ministry Of Transport Pedestrian Blind Spot Costs Lives

Ministry Of Transport Pedestrian Blind Spot Costs Lives

Monday, 2 January 2017, 2:47 pm
Article: Lynley Hood

Dr Lynley Hood MSc LittD
Walking is one of the safest modes of travel available.”
NZ Ministry of Transport, Pedestrian Crash Facts, 2016

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
Rudyard Kipling, Epitaphs of War, 1922

It’s a war out there. According to Ministry of Transport statistics, between 2006 and 2015 almost four times as many pedestrians (348) as cyclists (90) were killed on New Zealand roads. 

Elderly pedestrians are at greatest risk. Thirty percent of pedestrians killed between 2006 and 2015 were aged 65 and over (i.e. they came from 13% of the population). Deaths among pedestrians over 65 (104) outnumbered total cyclist deaths (90) during that period. 

The escalating road toll among older pedestrians is a worldwide phenomenon. In some places the issue is being recognised and addressed:

• Highway Design Handbook for Older Drivers and Pedestrians, US Federal Highway Administration, 2001. 
• Older Pedestrians: A Critical Review of the Literature, Dept of Transport London, 2004.
• Safe Streets for Seniors, New York City Dept of Transport, 2008.
• Planning Complete Streets for Aging America, Public Policy Institute AARP, 2009.
• Older Pedestrians and Road Safety, Transport for London, 2013.
• The Next Big Infrastructure Crisis: Age-Proofing Our Streets, CITYLAB, 2013.
• Glasgow launches campaign to improve safety of older pedestrians, Road Safety GB, 2015.
• Safer Road Design for Older Pedestrians, Victoria Walks, Australia, 2016.

The NZ Ministry of Transport recognises walking and cycling as forms of active transport. Its initiatives include a Cycling Safety Action Plan and investments of more than $350 million in cycling infrastructure. But the Ministry has no Pedestrian Safety Action Plan and makes no designated investment in pedestrian infrastructure. 

So what’s going on? Is the Ministry’s failure to address, or even to notice, the high road toll among older pedestrians an oversight, or an attempt to minimise or ignore the problem? Comparing two of the Ministry’s annual crash facts publications - one for cyclists, the other for pedestrians - provides some insights.

The Risk section of Cycling Crash Facts 2016, highlights the vulnerability of cyclists:

Cyclists have a number of risk factors that do not affect car drivers. The main risk factors are decreased stability and a much lower level of protection than that provided by a car. In addition, a cyclist is less visible to other road users than a car or truck. These factors combined give cyclists a high level of risk per time unit travelled.

It should be obvious to the Ministry that pedestrians, the least visible and least protected of all road users, are also the most vulnerable. They too have a number of risk factors that do not affect car drivers - or cyclists. This is because walking suits people of all ages and abilities, including people who lack the strength, balance and skills to ride a bike or drive. Elderly and disabled pedestrians are at highest risk because they move slowly, often with the help of mobility aids, and their vision and hearing may be impaired. Also, like younger pedestrians, older pedestrians can be poor judges of speed and distance. They’re reasonably safe on footpaths because any collision between one pedestrian and another won’t do much damage. But in any collision between a pedestrian and a cyclist or a motor vehicle, the pedestrian will always come off worst.

It is therefore troubling to discover that the Risk section of the Ministry of Transport’s Pedestrian Crash Facts 2016 ignores these vulnerabilities. Instead it states:

Walking is one of the safest modes of travel available. It carries the second lowest risk of death or injury per time unit travelled on New Zealand roads.

This misleading claim is based on a false analogy arrived at by comparing the risk of road accidents involving vehicle users travelling on roads, with the risk of road accidents involving pedestrians travelling mainly on footpaths. For a valid comparison, the Ministry should compare the risk of injury and death by time and distance travelled on the road for all forms of transport, including walking.

The Hospitalisations section of Cyclists Crash Facts 2016 notes:

In 2015, 100 cyclists were hospitalised for over one day due to injuries received from crashes involving motor vehicles on public roads in New Zealand...

The total number of days stay in hospital by cyclists in 2015 was 552 from crashes involving motor vehicles....

There is no Hospitalisations section in Pedestrian Crash Facts 2016. Had the Ministry included that information, it would have shown that:

In 2015, 330 pedestrians were hospitalised for over one day due to injuries received from crashes involving motor vehicles on public roads in New Zealand (c.f. 100 cyclists).

The total number of days stay in hospital by pedestrians in 2015 was 4913 from crashes involving motor vehicles (c.f. 552 days for cyclists).

Though neither crash facts document compares police reports of serious injuries with hospitalisation data, a comment in Cycling Crash Facts 2016 - “hospitalisation data from the Ministry of Health can provide a more complete picture” - suggests that a comparison between the two could give a useful indication of the reliability of police reports. 

The table below compares police reports of the number of pedestrians and cyclists severely injured in motor vehicle accidents in 2015, with hospital discharge data for the number of pedestrians and cyclists hospitalised for more than one day as a result of motor vehicle accidents in 2015. The comparison indicates that, in 2015, the police over-estimated the seriousness of injuries to cyclists, and under-estimated the seriousness of injuries to pedestrians, by significant margins.

Serious injuries (police reports)145252
Hospitalised for more than one day (hospitalisation data)100330

The other topics in the 2016 pedestrian and cyclist fact sheets (Who gets injured?When do injuries occur?, Where do injuries occur?Types of crashWho was at fault?) are based on police reports, the reliability of which, in the light of the above comparison, is open to question. 

In Who was at fault?, police reports led the Ministry of Transport to conclude that: 

Cyclists have primary responsibility in 21 percent of all cyclist-vehicle crashes in which they are injured or die (Cyclist Crash Facts, 2016).

Pedestrians have primary responsibility for about half of all crashes resulting in the injury of pedestrians (Pedestrian Crash Facts, 2016).

These conclusions could be the work of honest public servants doing their best to comply with State Services Standards of Integrity and Conduct (“We must be fair, impartial, responsible, and trustworthy”), but the Ministry of Transport’s handling of an additional topic in Pedestrian Crash Facts 2016 (for which there is no equivalent in Cyclist Crash Facts 2016) does not inspire confidence. Pedestrian factors:

The most frequent pedestrian factors associated with fatal crashes are crossing the road heedless of traffic, wearing dark clothing, and/or being visibly intoxicated.

There can be no doubt about this statement. It’s biased. In every pedestrian/motor vehicle crash there are two parties. But this litany of blame is based solely on the words of motorists. They lived to tell their side of the story. The pedestrians did not.

According to Statistics NZ, the number of New Zealanders aged 65 and over is likely to double by 2036. These seniors are healthier, wealthier and better educated than any previous generation. They know that regular exercise is the best thing they can do for their health. They want to stay active and engaged with their communities. It’s in all our interests to make sure that they can. Most seniors gave up playing sport or going to the gym decades ago, so they do what they’ve always done: they walk. But they can’t walk far if it’s not safe to cross the road. 

Clearly, the time is long overdue for the Ministry of Transport to take a hard look at its own statistics, and to recognise and address the escalating road toll among older pedestrians.

About Us

Living Streets Aotearoa is the New Zealand organisation for people on foot, promoting walking-friendly communities. We are a nationwide organisation with local branches and affiliates throughout New Zealand.

We want more people walking and enjoying public spaces be they young or old, fast or slow, whether walking, sitting, commuting, shopping, between appointments, or out on the streets for exercise, for leisure or for pleasure.

JOIN US and help with our campaigns