Massachusetts pedestrian deaths jumped 35 percent last year, a recent study by advocacy group WalkBoston found, increasing from 75 to 101 fatalities between 2021 and 2022.
The increase, which WalkBoston’s deputy director Brendan Kearney called “extremely troubling,” sparked calls from experts and advocates for state and local efforts to improve pedestrian safety.
But what could actually help to reduce fatal pedestrian crashes in the Commonwealth? Here are five possible solutions, according to experts.
De-incentivize SUVs and other heavy vehicles
Experts say SUVs and large cars pose a more deadly threat to pedestrians due to their size and weight, causing more extensive damage in collisions. SUV ownership is increasing rapidly in the United States and the vehicles are unquestionably unsafe for pedestrians, said Peter Furth, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University.
SUVs “hit you so much higher, and that’s damaging to your body,” Furth said.
“It throws you down to the ground with way more force,” he said. “SUVs are killers.”
Furth added that SUVs have blind spots that make them more likely to hit pedestrians when turning corners and, though lauded for their safety for occupants, are much more unsafe for people outside of the car.
To stem their popularity and lower fatal pedestrian crashes, Jim Aloisi, a lecturer of transportation policy and planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says legislators can de-incentivize SUV ownership.
“We need to think about how to charge people for the social cost of the heavy weights and the size of vehicles,” Aloisi said, adding that both state and federal policies should discourage SUV use. “It’s not necessary, and it’s hurting people.”
Aloisi suggested the state add a proportional size and weight charge to vehicles at the time of an annual inspection and dedicate the revenue to municipalities for street design investments.
Install crossing islands and raised crosswalks
Pedestrian and vehicle collisions are more frequent at intersections where there are no traffic lights, Furth said. Crossing islands, or raised islands in the center of a street dividing two-way traffic, protect pedestrians and make it easier and safer to cross heavily-trafficked roads compared to crosswalks.
“From US statistics, we know that [crossing islands] reduce fatality rates by 36 percent,” Furth said. “They’re phenomenally effective. They’re not expensive.”
Crossing islands can make it safer to cross a street by providing a place to stop in the middle, Furth said, and they slow down traffic.
He said thousands of crossing islands could be deployed across the state fairly easily and at low cost if prioritized by the state government.
Similarly, raised crosswalks reduce vehicle speeds by functioning as a type of speed bump, said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LiveableStreets, a transportation advocacy organization.
“It’s the ideal condition,” Thompson said. “It forces the car to slow down, otherwise they’ll bottom out.”
Increase sidewalk width, bike and bus lanes
Dedicating more space on roads exclusively for pedestrian, biker, and bus use simultaneously narrows streets, which experts say helps reduce fatalities by preventing cars from driving straight down roads at dangerous speeds.
“Rather than have the cycling lane in the roadway, take that portion of the roadway and elevate it and then separate it out so that it’s at sidewalk level and protected from traffic,” Aloisi said. “Give everyone who wants to walk and cycle a better chance to do it safely.”
Bike lanes also provide better sightlines for pedestrians and drivers to see each other, according to Thompson.
Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief of streets, told the Globe the city aims to beef up public, non-vehicular transport options to increase safety.
“Part of our goal ... is to shift more of our trips out of private automobiles, onto transit, onto bikes, on foot,” Franklin-Hodge said. “Part of the effort around safety is really allocating space in a way that makes people feel comfortable with alternatives to driving a car.”
Improve speed limit enforcement
According to a Northeastern study conducted by Furth, “if the traffic speed is more than 27 miles an hour, then cars just won’t stop” for pedestrians trying to cross the street. Thompson called reduced speed limits in densely populated areas “a good starting point,” but Aloisi said decreasing speed limits would not help slow cars without better speed enforcement.
“From a behavior perspective, if someone sees a sign once they pay attention to it, if they drive the same route and see that same sign 10 times, it becomes part of the landscape,” Aloisi said. “You need to enforce it.”
Automated enforcement can take many different forms, Franklin-Hodge said. Though he added that it shouldn’t be the primary way to keep people safe on the street, it can “play a role in helping to reduce the kind of dangerous driving behavior that can result in injuries and fatalities.”
When speed cameras detect a violation, he explained, a photo is taken, the license plate is identified, and the car’s registered owner receives a ticket in the mail.
“It has an established track record in other parts of the country, when deployed properly, in reducing the incidence of unsafe behavior,” Franklin-Hodge said.
Allocate funding for cities and towns’ capital projects
One barrier towns and cities face when seeking to add infrastructure to protect pedestrians is funding, Aloisi said.
In Massachusetts, cities and towns “don’t have the unfettered ability to raise tax or tax revenues, all the money they need for projects,” he said. Instead, they must ask the state Legislature for permission to enact certain changes.
“If we’ve got enough money that [the state is] offering a series of tax cuts, then it sounds to me like we’ve got enough money to give cities and towns more funding to protect people’s lives by helping them redesign the urban public realm,” Aloisi said.
Thompson also urged the Healy-Driscoll administration to allocate additional funding to help municipalities prevent pedestrian fatalities.
“They have the power to provide preventative technical assistance, support, funding, and really set a mandate for the entire state,” Thompson said.
Furth argued that the risks pedestrians face on streets can’t be fixed on a case-by-case basis.
“The thing about pedestrian deaths is they’re not happening in one or two places. It’s endemic, they’re everywhere,” Furth said. “We need systemic solutions.”
Sonel Cutler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cutler_sonel.