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L.A. Is Unsafe for Walkers. But How Unsafe?

I'm a ped. (That's the moniker stuck on the habitually pedestrian by Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, in a New York Times op-ed by Randy Cohen.)

And peds have it tough in Los Angeles.

That's the conclusion reached by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, according to an alarming story in the Los Angeles Times. Pedestrians in Los Angeles are struck and killed at a significantly higher rate than nationally. Of all traffic fatalities in Los Angeles, walkers account for about one-third. That's three times the national average of about 15 percent.

The Michigan study looked at 2,086 accidents in the city of Los Angeles that involved at least one death from 2002 through 2009. (The study also found that L.A. cyclists are killed at a rate higher than the national average, too -- about 3 percent of all highway deaths as opposed to 1.7 percent nationally. New York had the largest number of pedestrian and cycling deaths.)

Walkers in the city are the most vulnerable commuters, it seems -- flotsam in rivers of wheels. Pedestrians are not as nimble as a helmeted biker, not as armored and air-bagged as a driver. Safety features have sharply reduced deaths involving those who go on wheels. Wariness is the pedestrian's only shield.

But these statistics are not the whole story. As one commentator to Streetsblog noted about the University of Michigan numbers, "What you'd really want, to understand (the risks), would be some knowledge of how many miles are being traveled by foot or bike and the crash and fatality incidence per mile."

We do know, thanks to an earlier study from UCLA and the County Department of Health, that pedestrians make about 12 percent of all trips taken in Los Angeles and represent less than 5 percent of commuters, but pedestrians suffer 33 percent of all traffic fatalities.

Compared to California, walkers in Los Angeles are involved in twice as many collisions (per 100,000 population) and slightly more than three times the national rate.

The degree of risk for pedestrians in Los Angeles is startling, but its precise dimensions need to be measured. Policymakers, traffic planners, and the city's highway engineers need to know the number of pedestrian fatalities by miles traveled, by time of day, by age of victim, and by category of traffic maneuver that led to a death. As a ped, I'd like to know my chances of getting hit and being killed when I step off the buckled sidewalks of Los Angeles and on to its mean streets.

I'm concerned about by own skin. But everyone in L.A. is at least intermittently a ped. That means everyone is at risk.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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