Granite Geek: N.H. sees fewer pedestrian deaths than other states – is that significant?

Published: 08-03-2023 6:59 PM

I’m sure you’d like to hear a little bit of good news these days, so how about this: At a time when pedestrian deaths are soaring in this country, New Hampshire has the best record of any state by a pretty good margin.

Don’t get too carried away with your high-fives; there are statistical and procedural reasons to respond with a classic “Yes, but ...” Still, the news looks pretty good.

In 2021, the most recent year the U.S. Department of Transportation has released detailed data, New Hampshire had a pedestrian fatality rate per 100,000 residents of 0.58, the lowest of any state. Rhode Island was next best at 0.64, a full 10% higher, and our rate was one-quarter the national average of 2.23. You can see all the stats at crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov.

It’s a tragedy that 8 people died that year after being hit by cars or trucks while walking along streets and roads but it could have been a lot worse.

I admit I was surprised when I learned this fact. New Hampshire is not renowned for our community-friendly infrastructure; we seem to be more of a sorry-bub-you’re-on-your-own kind of state.

When I mentioned that impression to state traffic engineer Bill Lambert, he said I was overlooking some changes in the way New Hampshire designs and builds roads.

“There’s a lot more awareness to consider all modes in our projects,” he said. There are “complete streets practices” in highway safety plans and more consideration of traffic-calming methods of road design, even though they tend to irritate drivers, like you and me, who want to go as fast as possible without thinking.

As a small example, he pointed to Concord’s illuminated “no turn on red” sign at the intersection of N. Main Street and Loudon Road.

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I’m old enough to remember when turning right on red was a new thing on the East Coast, imported from California. It was sold as a gas-saving practice, reducing the amount of cars idling at intersections.

But it’s also dangerous to pedestrians.

We drivers come to a stop light, slow down and look left to make sure no car is coming. Then we pull into the road without looking right to see if somebody has begun using the crosswalk on the road we’re entering. I was almost hit once in Nashua when a driver did this. (I pounded on the car with my fist; boy, was the driver startled.)

This dangerous act is one of the reasons that pedestrian deaths in the U.S. increased 12% in 2021 to the highest point since 1981. It is made worse by the bloatification of SUVs and pickups, which have such high hoods that the driver can’t see what’s in front of them, as well as our general impatience that built up over the pandemic. A couple of cities have even begun to outlaw right turn on red as a result.

The variable no-turn-on-red sign at Concord’s busiest can help. Installed a few years ago, it lights up when somebody hits the crosswalk button which once just changed the stoplights. If nobody is waiting to cross, drivers can still turn on red. That’s a clever solution, partly because the lit-up “no turn on red” is much more noticeable than a static sign.

Nice. But let’s not get carried away. Other states have taken similar actions about signage and road calming to reduce pedestrian deaths and we’re not doing anything out of the ordinary. Why is New Hampshire leading the statistical pack?

This is where the “yes, but” comes in.

For one thing, we’re not absolutely the best. In 2020 and 2019, for example, we were one of the five best but not No. 1. Maine took the title one year and Vermont the other.

The fact that Northern New England does so well brings up another point: Climate and geography really matter. All the worst states for pedestrian deaths are in the south and southwest, where weather is more conducive to walking – at least, it was before the climate began to head off the cliff. So we benefit from that.

And then there’s a serious statistical question: Is “pedestrian deaths per capita” an accurate measure of how safe it is to walk on a road in New Hampshire?

Maybe not. Maybe our roads are so dangerous for pedestrians that few people even try to walk along them compared to other states. Not many people get hit by cars, which is good, but it would be a misleading result since it implies that we’ve built our roads well when in fact we’ve built them badly.

A better measure would be deaths per pedestrian mile, which would factor out the difference caused by climate-driven habits or people’s wishes. Road accidents and fatalities are measured that way, as in “so many deaths per 100,000 miles driven.”

The difficulty, of course, is that nobody measures pedestrian miles. The data doesn’t exist. So we use the data we have – total population – even if it may not tell us much.

One way to see how New Hampshire is doing would be to look at change over time, but that encounters another problem. New Hampshire is a small state and we have low levels of pedestrian deaths, meaning that just a couple of accidents can send the statistics soaring.

New Hampshire saw 8 pedestrian deaths in 2021, 16 in 2020 and 10 in 2019. It’s hard to see trends when there is 100% annual fluctuation.

Where does all this leave us?

It’s true that pedestrian deaths are pretty rare in New Hampshire, which is great, and it’s also true that they’re rare compared to the total population of the state. That is good news indeed.

But it doesn’t tell us whether we’re making the right transportation decisions as a state or a society. We need more detailed analysis, insight and the making of hard choices to get there.

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