In a radio interview on March 3, R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti was asked: “How does Rhode Island compare to other states on pedestrian injuries and deaths?” Alviti, poised for a third term as director, answered simply: According to the latest ranking, Rhode Island is “seventh in the nation” in terms of road safety.
The truth is much more complicated: Both pedestrian deaths and roadway deaths overall in Rhode Island have increased significantly while Alviti has led the transportation department, and they have increased faster here than anywhere else in the country.
Alviti is correct that in 2020, Rhode Island ranked 7th in the US for “Least Roadway Deaths per Vehicle Mile Traveled (VMT)” according to the NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). This is the latest year with available data.
But when Alviti became director in 2015, Rhode Island was No. 1 in that ranking and had the fewest traffic deaths the state has ever recorded. By 2020, traffic deaths per vehicle miles traveled in Rhode Island had increased by 72 percent. That increase was the biggest of any state in the nation over the same period.
Alviti was asked about pedestrians, but this ranking accounts for all roadway users, including drivers. For pedestrians and cyclists, the danger is starker. For each mile walked, compared to each mile driven, pedestrians face a greater risk of dying than drivers do.
In 2015, pedestrians and cyclists died at a rate of 0.76 per 100,000. In 2020, the rate jumped to 1.61 per 100,000. That increase was also the largest of any other state in the nation over the same period.
According to the data Alviti himself cited, a more accurate answer to the original question would be: While Rhode Island is 7th in the nation in terms of overall road safety, we are 28th in terms of pedestrian deaths. Our roads were already unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists, and they are becoming less safe more quickly than anywhere else.
Beyond citing limited statistics, Alviti is downright dismissive of those sounding the alarm on pedestrian deaths. Questioned at his reconfirmation hearing last week by transportation, housing, safety, and climate advocates, he responded:
“Unless these people actually experience the tragedy of losing someone, they should not use these kinds of unfortunate tragedies that are happening to families here in Rhode Island for some agenda that they may have.”
We should not have to wait for any more people to die on our roadways before we insist on safety for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for all Rhode Islanders.
Furthermore, the reason I and many others testified against Alviti’s reconfirmation is precisely because we or loved ones have been hit, injured, killed, or almost killed on unsafe streets. When one person did testify about a car hitting her while she crossed a RIDOT road, she was silenced.
There is a solution to the problem of road safety. When we design roads and policies well, streets become safer for everyone. Well-lit streets, slower speeds, connected walking and biking networks, and shorter and more visible crosswalks are proven ways to improve safety.
In his third term, Alviti could reverse the tragic trend of rising traffic deaths in Rhode Island by implementing policies and investments that prioritize safety.
Michael Kearney is a resident of Providence who gets around on foot, on bike, and on public transit.