Road fatalities are disproportionate across both racial/ethnic and rural/urban lines

By Rayla Bellis

Recent research examines equity in road fatalities and finds significant disparities across racial/ethnic, income, and geographic lines. The study, from the University of Colorado, includes a spatial analysis of more than 970,000 U.S. road fatalities in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database over a 24-year period (1989–2012). It examines fatality rates, calculated as the number of fatalities per year per 100,000 residents.

In order to better understand impacts on various communities and populations, the researchers geocoded and analyzed crashes both in terms of where the crash occurred and the home zip code of the driver, a departure from previous roadway safety research that has focused exclusively on the crash locations. The study also separates vehicle occupants from pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities.

The findings of the research have significant equity implications. Notably:

  • Lower income neighborhoods (those with $20,000–$40,000 median household income) experienced vehicle occupant fatality rates 3.5 times higher than wealthier neighborhoods ($160,000–$200,000 median household income).
  • Residents of rural areas experienced significantly higher fatality rates than urban areas— more than 6 times higher when comparing the least densely populated rural areas to the densest urban areas. However, for pedestrians and bicyclists, the study found similar fatality rates in urban and rural areas, despite the likelihood of greater exposure in urban areas due to higher walking and biking rates.
  • While neighborhoods with mostly white residents saw the highest road fatality rates overall (in contrast with some of the existing literature on this topic), neighborhoods with high percentages of black or Hispanic residents saw significantly higher rates of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities compared to white or Asian neighborhoods.

This echoes some of the findings of research released earlier this year by the National Complete Streets Coalition in the report, Dangerous by Design 2016, which ranks the most dangerous metro areas in the US for pedestrians. Dangerous by Design found that people of color are overrepresented among pedestrian deaths nationwide. While non-white individuals accounted for 34.9 percent of the national population between 2005-2014, they made up 46.1 percent of pedestrian deaths during that time. In some states, this disparity is considerably starker.

Marshall and Ferenchak note that a number of factors likely contributed to their study results based on previous research on travel safety, including transit use, emergency medical care, alcohol consumption, and seat belt norms.

They also point to transportation design and land use as probable contributing factors to several of the findings, noting that the amount of driving people have to do to reach key destinations and the presence or lack of safe pedestrian and bicycle facilities both have safety implications and likely play a role in the disparities. In particular, they state that while they were not able to account for the relative levels of walking and bicycling, the results “…suggest inequities with respect to the provision of safe active transportation facilities in neighborhoods with high percentages of black or Hispanic populations as compared to neighborhoods with more white residents.”

They point out that in the U.S., road crashes continue to take the lives of at least 32,000 people annually, purging more productive years of life than any other disease, including cancer and heart disease combined. Yet we continue to treat road fatalities as a cost of doing business, rather than a public health failure. Unfortunately, Americans are not all bearing the costs of that failure equally.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.