Grim milestone for walking safety

22 Jul 2022

People walking are in the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment, with the number of deaths in Victoria this year already passing the total for all of last year.

Road Policing Command Acting Assistant Commissioner Justin Goldsmith told it was a “tragic milestone.”

A reduction in road use during COVID lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 resulted in fewer fatalities than normal last year, but the uptick this year is still a major concern. Up to 20 July, 29 people have died while walking already, whereas the five-year average to this time of year is 19.6.

Transport Accident Commission CEO Joe Calafiore told the Bendigo News (paywall) that the rise in pedestrian deaths was “deeply concerning”.

“We are pleading with Victorians to look out for one another on the roads, particularly in busy, built up or shared areas like intersections and shopping strips.”

As always, older people are bearing the brunt of deaths. Almost a third of the people who’ve died while walking this year have been aged 70 or older. Sadly, that is actually slightly better than normal, with 36% of fatalities in the last five years being people in that age group. Typically, half of the people who die are 60 or older.

The over-representation of older people is mainly because of their comparative frailty, making them more likely to be injured or killed in a crash and take longer to recover from injuries. But for so many reasons, we need to make sure our streets are safe for older people to get out and about and live healthy, independent lives.

The story of one of the most recent deaths is sadly typical. On Tuesday an 85 year-old man was killed trying to cross Bell Street, a high-speed arterial road in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. There was no pedestrian crossing or even a median to help him get across the four lanes of traffic moving at 60 km/h. Three quarters of lives lost while walking are on roads with a limit of 60 km/h or higher, but few crossings are provided except at signalised intersections.

Our recent research on access to bus stops found that 60% of bus stops were on roads with a speed limit of 60 km/h or higher, but 95% of stops did not have a crossing within 20 metres.

Older people are often dependent on walking to get around, but it is not reasonable to expect people aged 85 to go a long way out of their way to find a pedestrian crossing. Deaths such as this could be avoided by providing more crossing opportunities so everyone can get where they need to safely.

One slightly encouraging aspect of the recent media coverage is that the road safety agencies seem to have recognised this is a problem with drivers as much as walkers, emphasising the need for both to take care.

“Inattention is a key factor in pedestrian fatalities – motorists need to remain focused behind the wheel and avoid distractions, and pedestrians need to look up, pay attention to the road and ensure it’s safe to cross before doing so,” Acting Assistant Commissioner Goldsmith said.

Victoria Walks would like to see a stronger emphasis on responsible driving given it is the drivers, in fast-moving, heavy vehicles, that create the hazard. 

So what is the answer, how do we stop walkers dying on the roads?

Apart from more crossings, especially on higher speed roads, key things we need include:

  • A walking-specific road safety action plan
  • Safer speed limits – check out our position statement
  • Government investment in safer street design
  • Better road design standards and guidelines
  • Review of road rules to provide consistent priority for people walking at intersections and in car parks
  • Driver education campaigns to improve understanding of road rules, particularly the situations where walkers have priority. 

Check out Victoria Walks’ submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Increase in the Road Toll for more detail.

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Note: this story was amended 26 July 2022