The car is king in the US – and pedestrian deaths are rising. Where is the outrage? | Arwa Mahdawi

Pedestrian deaths are at a 40-year high and the number of cyclists hit by cars has increased since the pandemic. The most astounding part? These are preventable tragedies

Lentils are a versatile legume that can be used to make a tasty stew or to incapacitate your enemy’s SUV. I know this because I recently Googled “How do you deflate someone’s tyres?” and found a Guardian article about eco-activists deflating SUV tyres by jamming lentils into the tyre valves: Which some might see as possibly one of the most “Guardian” articles ever published.

For the sake of any local law enforcement readers, I would like to make clear that I didn’t act on the information: I have never weaponised a lentil. I was just rage-Googling; something I am increasingly wont to do.

You see, I live in Philadelphia, which was recently voted the most walkable city in America. Yet, despite its walkability, pretty much every time I stroll my kid the 10 minutes to daycare I find myself becoming apocalyptical because some arsehole of a driver doesn’t seem to realise – or care – that walkers exist. Traffic laws rarely seem to be enforced: cars are frequently parked on pedestrian crossings, for example. Or someone runs a red light.

Or – since the city is in the middle of a building boom – construction vehicles block the entire pavement, forcing you to walk into traffic. I once complained to a police officer about this and he just shrugged and told me to walk in the road. Can’t have pedestrians inconveniencing illegally parked trucks, after all. Four wheels good, two legs bad!

Again, Philadelphia is one of the most walkable places in the US. Across a lot of the country you take your life in your hands any time you go outside to stretch your legs. That is not hyperbole: pedestrian deaths are at a 40-year high in the US. According to a report released by the Governors Highway Safety Association, more than 7,500 pedestrians were killed by cars last year – the highest number since 1981. This doesn’t even include statistics from Oklahoma, which was apparently “not able to provide data”. Riding a bike is similarly treacherous: the number of cyclists hit by cars has been increasing since the pandemic.

These, I should note, are American statistics. The US is well behind other countries in the rich world when it comes to pedestrian safety. This is partly because the car is king in the US. “Motor vehicles are first, highways are first, and everything else is an afterthought,” the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board told the New York Times last year.

The car isn’t just king, it’s a bloody big king. American cars are built like second world war tanks these days. Nobody in the US seems to drive a small car any more. Partly, that is because it is increasingly difficult to buy one. A combination of consumer demand, unusually cheap petrol, and more favourable profit margins for auto manufacturers means that large cars have become the norm. Even if they are far more likely to hurt or kill pedestrians than smaller vehicles.

I’m not saying everything is wonderful for non-motorists across the Atlantic. It might not be as pronounced as in the US, but the normalisation of pedestrian and cyclist deaths is a global phenomenon. Last year, for example, a man who was driving while disqualified killed a cyclist while doing 80mph in a 30mph zone in West Yorkshire. He then fled the scene. His punishment? Just under five years in prison and a ban from driving for five years and three months. The guy had already proved that he can’t be trusted behind the wheel of a killing machine and yet was only banned for a few years.

Why isn’t there more outrage about all this? It is astounding that we seem to have decided that the entire world should be centred around cars, and anyone without a vehicle should be treated like a second-class citizen. What makes all this particularly enraging is that reversing pedestrian deaths is incredibly easy in the grand scheme of things. We don’t need to invent new technology. We don’t need to spend gazillions of dollars on research and development to come up with a miracle cure. We just need to implement some commonsense policy solutions and stop prioritising car culture over everything else. We have all the answers – we just don’t have the political will to implement them.

• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist


Arwa Mahdawi

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