Six Reasons Native Americans Have the Highest Pedestrian Death Rate — Streetsblog USA
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Six Reasons Native Americans Have the Highest Pedestrian Death Rate — Streetsblog USA

Native American communities have long reported the highest pedestrian fatality rate in America. Experts say that fixing this horrific disparity will require radical changes to the way we build infrastructure and engage Native American communities.

During a recent webinar hosted by the nonprofit America Walks, a group of professionals working in three tribal areas explored how they address pedestrian fatalities in their communities, as well as the underlying reasons why American Indians and Alaska Natives are more likely to be killed while walking on U.S. roads.

A recent analysis by Smart Growth America found that Native people are 4.2 times more likely to be killed by a driver while walking than their white counterparts — the highest per capita death rate of any racial or ethnic group.

Six Reasons Native Americans Have the Highest Pedestrian Death Rate — Streetsblog USA
Graphic: America’s Smart Growth, 2024

Perhaps it is not surprising that most of the problem comes down to the overwhelming predominance of expressways with few sidewalks in indigenous communities, regardless of whether these routes run through rural reserves, suburbs where car traffic predominates or even urban areas.

“It’s clear that if we want to minimize fatalities, we need to keep speeds below 30 mph — and ideally below 20 mph in areas where people are walking,” explained moderator Ian Thomas, America Walks’ local and state program director.

“Unfortunately, this is not true on most tribal reservations in rural areas of the country, where vehicles travel at high speeds and there are usually no sidewalks. It is also not true in the urban and suburban areas of many cities where Native Americans live and have to contend with excessively wide roads and a lack of pedestrian designs.”

As America Walks notes, throughout American history, many Native Americans have been “forcibly relocated (to communities where) expressways were located near homes, schools, businesses, and other locations”—whether to rural reservations that would later be destroyed by highways or to similarly deadly urban areas, as was the case with the Indian Relocation Act of 1956.

Many of these deadly roads were built without much regard for the safety of nearby residents or their unique needs. cultural practices that may make them more vulnerable to car accidents. For example, the Hemish people of the southwest have a long tradition of running “for purposes of religion, communication, health, travel, sport, war, hunting, and to strengthen village ties,” and many of these traditions are still maintained today.

“For thousands of years, the Pueblo has always been very involved in running and traditional cultural activities that involve walking and active, non-vehicular transportation,” said Sheri Bozic, who works on the planning of the Pueblo in Jemez, New Mexico, where about 3,400 Hemish people now live. “So all the changes in the modern world have had a huge impact.”

State, local and tribal officials cut the ribbon on the Hemish Path to Wellness.Photo: Instagram New Mexico DOT

One such result was the construction of New Mexico State Road 4, which ran right through the middle of the largest continuous stretch of land in Pueblo. Bozic and her colleagues were able to build a multi-use trail called the Hemish Path to Wellness along most of its length earlier this year—but I don’t have However, funds were found to build a bypass road that would route extremely high-speed traffic past tribal areas rather than straight through them.

This lack of funds or jurisdiction to build or redesign safe infrastructure was a common theme among all three panelists, who turned to quick fixes when budgets were tight.

For example, on the Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma, public health officials like Hillary Mead have focused heavily on adding features like crosswalks, warning signs, curb extensions, and improved lane markings to keep pedestrians safe, especially in rural areas with lots of large, dangerous vehicles such as cattle wagons and hay trucks, and roads near schools. Young people were particularly open about their walking needs.

“Definitely, once we got our youth involved, they were very good,” Mead added. “They will tell you exactly what’s going on in their community and how safe they feel walking down the street.”

Such observations are particularly important in the context of underfunding tribal governments that have trouble collecting reliable data on general road conditions, not to mention qualitative data on the nuances of the pedestrian experience.

That’s why public health researchers at the University of Montana used an innovative app called Our Voice to help residents of the Flathead Reservation share their observations of walks around their communities. The app lets them take geotagged photos and write reviews, even while walking in remote areas far from a Wi-Fi router.

“Our goal is really to improve the safety of physical activity among older people, (which means) ensuring that they have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and enjoyable physical activity that not only meets their health needs but also promotes the physical and emotional well-being and social connections necessary for an active and healthy life,” explains Maja Pedersen, one of the researchers.

“What we found in our early work with community-based participatory research is that safety is a major concern for older adults participating in physical activity.”

While most Native American communities have a much shorter life expectancy and fewer The Flathead Reservation is actually older than the entire population AND higher the percentage of older people in the US is much lower, and people in this group are much less likely to drive.

Although the panelists did not emphasize this, other researchers stated that demographic differences in indigenous communities, such as higher levels of poverty that prevent vehicle ownership, higher rates of addiction leading to impaired driving AND walking and less access to health care can play a role.

Regardless of who they are or where they live, all three panelists emphasized that building better infrastructure and better community engagement can save Native American lives — and give them the time to do it now.

“(It’s not just rural areas;) we also have urban fatalities in cities where Native Americans also live,” Bozic added. “We just have to do a better job of road design; we have to mandate and include pedestrian facilities in every road that’s built.”