Think roads are dangerous? Sometimes we aren’t even safe on pavements

Some pedestrians. Image: Getty.

Our pavements are supposed to be a safe haven from motor traffic, aren’t they? Well, yes – except when they aren’t. 

New analysis of 15 years of road collision data in England, Scotland and Wales, revealed that 548 pedestrians have died in collisions on pavements or verges – roughly 40 a year – between 2005 and 2018. 

Most were killed by drivers who lost control of their vehicles through dangerous driving, momentary inattention, inexperience, or a medical episode, all with devastating consequences. Six of those – around 1 per cent – were killed in collision with cycles. 

The research is part of Project Pedestrian, a year-long journalistic investigation into pedestrian safety I launched with the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy in January. Through it we have uncovered examples of some of the most dangerous driving on Britain’s roads over the past 15 years.

Our analysis of historic data, based on a road traffic collision form used by police, found most fatal collisions on footways were apparently avoidable - most took place in fine weather, on well-lit streets, with no hazards on the road. In police parlance sometimes drivers simply “run out of talent”, driving above their ability, or above the speed limit, say. Most fatal footway collisions were beside urban roads, but some were on the pavements or verges of rural roads.

While walking is safe, and its upsides, from physical and mental health boosts to social benefits, far outweigh any risks, this research raises questions around how we tackle dangerous driving. Broadly, road casualty numbers have remained broadly unchanged since 2012, and although it rarely makes the headlines, pedestrians represent 23 per cent of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. As we all use pavements for at least part of most journeys, this affects us all. 


Some cases, identified via historical news reports, are more shocking than others – not least how the UK’s legal system deals with killer drivers. 

In 2017 Richard Frost embarked on an 18-hour drug-taking binge before a prolonged bout of dangerous driving in Cambridgeshire, travelling at up to 117mph, using laybys and hard shoulders to undertake, as well as overtaking into oncoming traffic. Mr Frost hit 19-year-old Thomas Fletcher and Thomas Northam, 22, from behind on a verge on the opposite side of the road, killing them both. Mr Frost drove another 50m along the verge, before abandoning the car in a field and fleeing with £72,000 of stolen money in a briefcase. Police found him that night asleep at his mother’s home. Although police described it as the worst driving they have seen, or will probably ever see, Mr Frost will likely drive again, receiving a ban of just 11 years and 7 months, as well as a prison sentence of 12 years and one month. 

The oldest and youngest in society are disproportionately killed by drivers on pavements, with 28.1 per cent of pedestrian deaths of under-fives occurring on pavements. In 2016 a van driver ushered four-year-old Esme Weir and her pregnant mum across the road in Liverpool before mounting the pavement to park, killing Esme. The driver said he didn’t see Esme, and was cleared of any wrongdoing

By far the highest number of pedestrian fatalities, 104, were among those over age 75. Older people are potentially less able to get out of the way of out of control drivers, and are less likely to survive being hit. Young people were next highest fatality group, with 77 16-25 year-olds killed on pavements. The age groups 46-55 and 56-65 were 150 of the pavement fatalities. 

Donald Sharpe was 89 when 24-year-old Sian Phelps reversed her Land Rover Discovery Sport out of her drive across the pavement, hitting and then reversing over him, only stopping when she drove forward 10 metres and saw other motorists gesticulating at her and sounding a horn. She had checked her mirrors and looked both ways but didn’t see Sharpe, she says. Mr Sharpe, a well-loved man known for helping others, died six days later in hospital. Sian Phelps was cleared by a jury of causing death by dangerous driving.

Young drivers aged under 35 were overrepresented in collisions. Men are far more likely to be killed as pedestrians on our roads than women – in 15 years 3,902 male pedestrians were killed, compared with 1,943 females – but pavement fatalities were split evenly between genders, with 273 males and 275 females killed in 15 years.

What is the solution?

Many road safety experts see more and longer driving bans, rather than longer prison sentences, as the best deterrent, even for lower-level driving offences – sending a message that driving is a licensed activity, instead of a right. That isn’t happening, however.  

Research by RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, found driving bans dropped 54 per cent since 2008, with 70 per cent of disqualifications for drink or drug driving; drink driving comes with a mandatory ban, though this doesn’t always happen. Of 559,000 driving convictions in court in 2018, just five lifetime driving bans were given, and only 35 disqualifications of more than ten years.

“Driving bans are a punishment that truly fit the crime,” says RoadPeace’s Victoria Lebrec. “Families who are bereaved cannot understand how the person who killed their loved one is allowed back on the road in such a short time.”

The charity believes the decline is because either magistrates are reluctant to disqualify drivers, or because of a drop in prosecutions due to policing cuts. As excessive speed is the main factor in around half of road crashes, bans for speeding drivers could arguably have the greatest impact on road safety. But again, this is not happening. RoadPeace found that, in 2007, one in 18 speeding motorists was taken to court; in 2018 the chances of a speeding driver seeing court halved, to just one in 40. 

Chris Grayling, then justice secretary, announced a review of sentencing guidelines for drivers who kill, in 2013. In 2016, with Grayling as transport secretary, the government released a consultation into road traffic offences but, despite the 9,000 responses it received, little happened, beyond life sentences for the worst cases of fatally dangerous driving, and more license points and fines for using mobile phones at the wheel. There was also a pledge to look at driving disqualifications, which hasn’t happened yet.

The Sentencing Council last month announced it was looking to reduce the use of ‘hardship’ claims for drivers who tot up 12 or more penalty points: those who dodge a ban by claiming they would lose their job if they lost their license. For the families of thousands of pedestrians, and other road users, who have lost their lives over the past decade and a half, much more is needed. As Tanya Braun from walking charity Living Streets, puts it: “The current justice system is simply not an effective deterrent to dangerous behaviour. We need an urgent review of how the justice system deals with mistakes, carelessness, recklessness and deliberately dangerous behaviour by all road users.”

The research was carried out as part of Project Pedestrian, a year-long collaboration started in January 2020, between the Active Travel Academy myself, investigating pedestrian safety on the roads. Throughout the year research and analysis will reveal where and why pedestrians are at risk, and what some of the solutions are. The project aim is not to scare people off walking – but to raise awareness and seek a way to safer roads. 

Laura Laker is a freelance journalist specialising in cycling and urban transport.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.