Florida’s pedestrian record could have been much worse

By Robbie Webber

Until recently, Florida had the dubious distinction of being rated the most dangerous state for pedestrians, but it now has competition from Arizona. However, a new study shows that things could have been even worse in Florida. Researchers writing in the American Journal of Public Health estimate that Florida’s Complete Streets law, passed in 1984, saved 3500 lives between when the law was passed and 2013. Florida’s pedestrian fatality rates decreased nearly 60 percent after Statute 335.065 was adopted.

The study also compared Florida with two groups: an aggregate of 13 states from the South census region that did not have a Complete Streets state law as of December 2013 and an aggregate group of all U.S. states and Washington, DC. Although pedestrian deaths have risen alarmingly across the country in the last few years, the researchers conclude that the routine accommodations required by the Florida law kept pedestrian fatalities lower in Florida than would have been expected by looking at both national averages and Sunbelt states.

As pointed out in the study, Sunbelt states have a particularly bad record for pedestrian safety. In 2015, 19 states had a pedestrian fatality rate higher than the national average; of those 19 states, 13 were located in the Sun Belt region. Many of the Sunbelt’s rapidly-growing metro areas have been built almost exclusively to accommodate driving, with dispersed settlement, few pedestrian-friendly connections between neighborhoods, and wide, multi-lane roads with high speed limits that make walking, biking, and transit use either uncomfortable, unsafe, or inconvenient. And Florida has followed that pattern.

Even though the AJPH report cites improvements in pedestrian fatality rates in Florida compared to the rest of the country, they also point out that there were significant barriers to implementation of the 1984 law. The researchers interviewed current and former staff at Florida transportation agencies. The experts pointed out other elements that supported the law: sufficient funding, other state policies that reinforced the goals, and committed and well-trained state agency staff and leadership.

But the current and former agency staff also pointed to barriers that meant the law was often not well followed: local land use and zoning laws, poor oversight in some regions of the state, state performance metrics that prioritized motor vehicles, and local staff and elected officials that were more eager to chase development gains than improve safety for pedestrians.

However, even with these barriers, the study shows that requiring traffic engineers and planners to consider people walking and biking can have a big impact on safety. The state still has a long way to go, but it is making progress and taking steps to shed its bad reputation, as a 2017 SSTI webinar on their context classification and Complete Streets implementation shows. They have a new design manual that won acclaim from the National Complete Streets Coalition and a robust FDOT webpage just to highlight their Complete Streets successes.

The study concludes that although between 1984 and 2013, Florida’s annual pedestrian fatality rate decreased significantly—from 6.36 to 2.56 per 100 000 population—there is still much room for improvement. Florida’s pedestrian fatality rate remains significantly high, consistently exceeding the average rate of most states and the country as a whole. As one agency staff interviewee told the researchers:

We should be farther by now. We shouldn’t be in last place anymore. We shouldn’t be killing and maiming pedestrians and cyclists at the rate we’re doing it. And I’m sure many people would say, “Well, wait a minute. That’s not because the statute failed; in fact it might be a lot worse if not for the statute.” But we have a long way to go.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.