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The Most Dangerous Cities for Walking—and How to Fix Them

walking down steps

— Tim Matsui Credit/Getty Images

On the morning of her 66th birthday, Verlene Benzing went out for a long walk through downtown Orlando, Fla., with her husband, Norman. Only one of them would come back alive.

They were strolling along South Orange Avenue—a major traffic artery full of cars zooming through the heart of the city—when they reached a spot where the sidewalk narrowed. Norman, always the gentleman, stayed to the outside, closest to the street.

In a flash, a car driven by a woman—later determined to be under the influence of drugs—jumped the curb and struck 67-year-old Norman from behind, running him over and killing him.

“She just clipped him,” Verlene Benzing said last week in recalling the October 2007 accident. “He went flying through the air and I didn’t get touched.”

Beware, pedestrians

The story of the Benzings—an active, physically fit couple beloved by scores of friends and neighbors—is just one of thousands of human tragedies buried within the statistics of a new national study released this week about what it calls an “epidemic” of preventable pedestrian deaths.

The report—titled “Dangerous by Design”—is a joint effort of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership and Transportation for America, two groups advocating for more federal transportation dollars to be dedicated to making roads safer for pedestrians. The project was guided by a steering committee that included representatives from AARP and several other organizations, including the American Public Health Association, America Bikes and Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership.

According to the study, older Americans are two-thirds more likely than those under age 65 to be killed while walking. In 2007 and 2008, persons over 65 represented 18 percent of all pedestrian fatalities, while making up just 13 percent of the population as a whole.

Most dangerous cities

The report ranked the Benzings’ hometown of Orlando as the most dangerous metropolitan area for pedestrians in the United States in the study period of 2007 to 2008. More than 9,000 pedestrians were killed on U.S. roadways in those two years.

Three other Florida regions captured the next three rankings, making pedestrian safety a special concern in the state with the nation’s highest percentage of residents over age 65 (17.4 percent).

The 10 most dangerous metro areas for walkers:

1. Orlando

2. Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.

3. Miami-Fort Lauderdale

4. Jacksonville, Fla.

5. Memphis, Tenn.

6. Raleigh, N.C.

7. Louisville, Ky.

8. Houston

9. Birmingham, Ala.

10. Atlanta

These Southern cities—many of them retirement meccas—don’t necessarily have the highest absolute numbers of pedestrian deaths. But they all score high in what the study calls the “pedestrian danger index” because they tend to have fewer pedestrians overall, meaning the risk is relatively higher for those who do choose to walk.

“These are places that tend to be dominated by lower density, auto-oriented development patterns, which include high-speed urban arterials that are particularly hazardous for walking,” the report says.

The study also suggests three factors that may be behind higher death rates for older pedestrians:

* They are less likely to survive a collision with a car or truck.

* They are less agile, making it harder to get out of the way of danger when it crosses their path.

* Existing safety measures—such as the duration of crosswalk signals—often ignore the needs of older walkers.

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