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Report: Metro Detroit among top 20 most dangerous places for pedestrians

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Pedestrians cross Woodward Ave. in downtown Detroit, Friday, Dec. 19, 2008.

To the amazement of family and friends, Bobbi Roberts often preferred walking over catching rides to her destination. And on the night after Thanksgiving 2013, the 20-year-old opted to head home from work at a nearby restaurant walking a familiar route along Gratiot Avenue in Clinton Township.

She never arrived.

The college student known for her smiling selfies, unwavering optimism and flurry of activities was struck by a vehicle that never stopped, investigators said.

More than five years later, the driver remains unknown and Crime Stoppers of Michigan is offering a $2,500 reward for tips. Meanwhile, Roberts’ mother cannot forget the surveillance footage police showed her.

“It doesn’t get better. I live with it every day,” Carolin Roberts said. “You don’t think about it until it comes to your front door. Then it’s beyond devastating.”

Bobbi Roberts, a pedestrian who was fatally struck by a car on November 29, 2013.

That tragedy underscores what researchers describe as an increasing problem in Michigan and across the United States: pedestrians dying on the nation’s roads.

A newly released report, Dangerous by Design 2019, ranked the region including Detroit, Warren and Dearborn 18th among the top 20 most dangerous metropolitan areas for walking. Michigan placed 19th in its top 20 most dangerous states.

The study was led by the advocacy group Smart Growth America and its National Complete Streets Coalition. The authors analyzed national fatal traffic crash data and compiled rankings based on a “pedestrian danger index” that incorporated numbers of deaths, population and the share of people who walk to work.

Some officials say the findings point to a need for change.

“I think Michigan has some work to do as far as improving education for drivers,” said Harold R. Tarzwell, president-elect for the Michigan Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association. “Too many people are being killed or injured.”

Dangerous by Design examined deaths reported nationwide from 2008-17.

In that period, some 49,340 pedestrians were fatally struck, equaling more than 13 daily, or one every hour and 46 minutes, according to the report.  Metro Detroit tallied 757 fatalities in that time, with 1.76 annual deaths per 100,000 people, the analysis showed. Statewide, the figure was 1,409.

Nationally, such deaths have risen consistently in the last decade, the report noted. The authors attribute the increase to several factors.

“We continue to design streets that are dangerous for all people, not just because we keep repeating the same mistakes, but because our federal policies, standards and funding mechanisms that have been in place for decades produce dangerous roads that prioritize high speeds for cars over safety for all people,” they wrote. “Additionally, more people are driving cars that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has determined to be notoriously dangerous for people walking. According to a 2015 NHTSA report, SUVs and pickup trucks are two to three times more likely than smaller personal vehicles like sedans to kill people walking in the event of a crash.”

Among possible solutions, the report recommends funding dedicated to safer street projects that as well as federally endorsed street design standards focused on pedestrians.

Carolin Roberts, who returns to the spot where her daughter died for a candlelight vigil each year, seeks local enhancements.

“There needs to be more light in that area,” she said. “It’s so dark and there are people all day long, seven days a week, walking along that stretch.”

Some communities are working to address similar concerns while enhancing travel for walkers, bikers and others.

Last year, the city of Detroit unveiled a major four-year strategic transportation plan.

The city has already added speed humps in some neighborhoods and plans to expand the efforts this year, said Mark de la Vergne, the chief of mobility innovation.

Among other targets in the city plan: implementing an improved crosswalk program in high-priority areas, installing pedestrian scale lighting in key commercial districts, creating a pedestrian signal policy and developing bicycle lane standards.

Students at Detroit's Carleton Elementary show off light-up bracelets last fall during a Walk to School Day event coordinated through Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and other groups. SEMCOG has been promoting pedestrian and safety education.

“Part of this plan was to address and make it safer for pedestrians,” De la Vergne said. “It’s a focus from how we design streets to how we better educate the public to how we do enforcement.”

Other officials are focusing on changing behavior.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments has worked with AAA and partners on a Walk-Bike-Drive Safe campaign. It has included advertisements, public service announcements, and distribution of bike lights and arm bracelets, said Trevor Layton, a SEMCOG communications specialist. “We’re trying to get people to do something different.”

Tarzwell, a driving instructor who last year joined a state pedestrian and bicycle safety program assessment, also sees education as key.

He noted that former governor Rick Snyder signed legislation in 2018 requiring the state driver’s education curriculum to include at least one hour of class time on motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and other “vulnerable roadway users.”

Instructors also continually focus on the dangers of texting and other distracting habits that affect driving, Tarzwell said.  “Anything that can raise awareness…certainly can make a difference.”