I’ve never given much thought to pedestrian safety because I’ve never been in harm’s way or seen pedestrians at risk. That’s until two months ago. In February I attended a conference in Houston. Houston is notorious for its traffic, as is most any large city. I was staying at a hotel alongside the Katy Freeway, also known as Interstate 10, the major east-west interstate highway in the southern U.S. At one point the Katy Freeway stretches 26 lanes across. A frontage road runs parallel to the freeway giving access to local businesses. The conference was at another hotel about a mile away, so I walked along a sidewalk next to the frontage road to get there and back.

I’ve walked in many a city, even LA, but I’ve never been as intimidated as I was walking that mile in Houston. On my way back I got lost and ended up on the other side of the Katy Freeway from where my hotel was. That meant somewhere along the way I was going to have to cross at least ten lanes of rush hour traffic.

The freeway at rush hour roars like an airport runway, and the cars, trucks, vans, et. al seem to be zooming at the speed of a plane taking off. According to a ProPublica study, if you’re hit by a car going 45 MPH or faster you’re very likely a goner. Even on the frontage road no one was going 45. Maybe 50-60-even 70 MPH. I felt vulnerable, like a wind turbine climber without fall protection. And of course I was the only pedestrian on the sidewalk, foolish enough to a stroll along the main artery in Houston. No way was I going to make a mad dash across ten lanes of rush hour traffic to get over to my hotel. So I walked and walked and walked some more until I reached a stop light on the frontage road. Here I was able to cross the lanes, beneath I-10, which was an overpass at this stop light.

This little adventure called for serious situational awareness. I couldn’t image texting while walking or talking on a cell phone. One risk: I was walking the sidewalk and cars would cut in front or in back of me turning off the frontage road and into a strip mall or business park. The traffic noise was so loud I couldn’t hear these intruders. Second risk: even at the stop light vehicles were turning on red and whizzing around. The last thing they expected to see was a pedestrian in a suit and tie and backpack in their midst. When I got safely to the other side, near my hotel, it felt like I had tight-roped across Niagara Falls.

It’s an old theme: you don’t think about some remote risk that you haven’t been involved with before, until you are involved. That would be me walking by the Katy Freeway in Houston and realizing, man, this is dangerous. This is hazard recognition time. If you’re not paying attention, have your head on a swivel looking 360 degrees, you could easily get hurt or killed. In my case it wouldn’t have been by a drunk (which is often the case), just someone not expecting me to be there. Pedestrian safety has new meaning to me, no doubt.

Statistical perspective

Being newly enlightened, I looked up some stats. In 2015, 5,376 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). By comparison, in 2016, 5,190 workers were killed on the job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition, almost 129,000 pedestrians were treated in emergency departments for non-fatal crash-related injuries in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Booze is to blame for most crashes resulting in pedestrian deaths, according to NHTSA. Almost half (48 percent) of crashes that resulted in pedestrian deaths involved alcohol for the driver or the pedestrian. One in every three (34 percent) of fatal pedestrian crashes involved a pedestrian with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least 0.08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) and 15 percent involved a driver with a BAC of at least 0.08 g/dL, according to NHTSA.

Other risk factors include high vehicle speeds. Speeding increases both the likelihood of a pedestrian being struck by a car and the severity of injury. And most pedestrian deaths occur in urban areas, non-intersection locations, and at night, according to NHTSA.

Women and men of working age are not the most likely to get struck by a vehicle and die – unless perhaps they wear high-visibility vests in a highway work zone. (In 2015 there were 96,626 crashes in these work zones, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Every week, 12 work zone crashes result in at least one fatality. But only 15 percent of fatalities occur to pedestrians; 85 percent are drivers or passengers.)

It’s the old and the young who are at most risk. Pedestrians ages 65 and older accounted for 19 percent of all pedestrian deaths and an estimated 13 percent of all pedestrians injured in 2015, according to NHTSA. In 2015, one in every five children under the age of 15 who were killed in traffic crashes were pedestrians, reports NHTSA.

Case study

It’s scary how quickly these crashes can occur – like an accident at work – “I never thought it would happen.” On the last day of this past January, at about 6:52 am, an 80-year-old man was killed crossing a street in the marked crosswalk in Conshohocken, PA. An investigation revealed that a 31-year-old woman was driving her vehicle when the windshield fogged up. She was traveling at a speed of 32 MPH in a 25 MPH zone as she tried to clear her window. She failed to stop at the marked crosswalk and struck the victim, sending him airborne for 30 feet. The woman was charged with homicide by vehicle.

Pedestrian safety could be a good off-the-job safety topic. Take it from one who’s been “born again.”