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Minnesota above average in pedestrian safety; rural areas deadlier

Crossing the street in Greater Minnesota can be more deadly than on the busier avenues of the Twin Cities. That's according to a report released this week by Transportation for America.

It says the pedestrian death rate was above the national average in Cass, Becker and Itasca Counties between 2000-2009. The report also includes an interactive map that allows searching for pedestrian deaths near any town in the U.S.

Pam Kramer, executive director Duluth Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), points out that for more than 50 years, roads have been engineered for optimum motor vehicle safety, while safety for others using the roads has been overlooked.

"The things we need to do to make our streets safer are so basic -- crosswalks, sidewalks and bike lanes -- that they are always a good idea. But now that more and more people are getting active and as gas prices rise this becomes critically important," says Kramer.

Meghan Bown, Get Fit Itasca Community Health Coordinator, is working at the local level on this issue, "Although we have strived to make improvement for pedestrians and will continue to do so, the City of Grand Rapids is not immune to accidents.  Last year on U.S. Highway 169 a pedestrian was killed by a truck. Currently the U.S. Highway has a speed limit of 30 mph, set back businesses, and four lanes. The accident happened approximately four blocks from the nearest controlled crossing."

Especially when combined with unsafe street and road design, vehicle speed presents a deadly threatto pedestrians. Nationwide, nearly 60 percent of pedestrian fatalities from 2000 to 2009 occurred on roads with speed limits of 40 mph or greater. Pedestrians have only a 15 percent chance of surviving a collision with a car traveling 40 mph.

"Roadway design factors affect traffic speeds. Drivers slow down where the road feels "hemmed-in" or there is noticeable street activity, and they speed up where the road feels "wide open" or street activity is less noticeable," says Bown.

Over the last decade, 415 Minnesotans have died on foot. But as the national transportation bill is being written in Washington, federal funding for pedestrian facilities is under attack. Nationwide, state departments of transportation allocate only 1.5 percent of available federal funds to projects that retrofit dangerous roads or create safe alternatives.

"We're spending the tiniest sliver of federal funds on pedestrian safety, even though they account for 12 percent of all traffic deaths," said Andrea Kiepe, Field Organizer Transportation for America. "Our tax money should be used to build streets, roads and highways that are safe for all users."

Ethan Fawley, Transportation Policy Director for Fresh Energy, says more funding is needed to make roads safer for everyone, by adding sidewalks, crosswalks and trails. On the national level, the Safe and Complete Streets bill is being considered; it would make money available to states for these types of projects. Minnesota already has a Complete Streets policy at the state level, though it is less than a year old.

"Mn/DOT and seventeen local Minnesota communities have already stepped up with Complete Streets policies to make their roads safer for everyone, including pedestrians. But there is still much work to be done to improve safety for people walking and we need the federal government as a strong leader and partner for that effort. This report drives home that need and offers concrete steps that deserve action," says Fawley.

Rochester Mayor Ardell F. Brede, says there is public support for improving pedestrian safety. "Safe and complete streets make sense at any time, but when gas prices rise we seem to pay more attention to our mobility choices.  Streets that are complete and safer allow and encourage walking and cycling -important factors to a society that is focusing more on healthy living."

Another federally funded approach is seen with the Safe Routes to Schools program. It encourages kids to walk, bike, skateboard or ride scooters to class for exercise.

"Human health is a major contributor to all aspects of life including job performance, and productivity and personnel costs.  Big business has long since realized that healthy employees do more for their companies.  As a country we need to follow the lead of the business community and improve transportation infrastructure. Making our communities more accessible for walking and biking will decrease our oil consumption, decrease our health care costs, increase our productivity, and boost our economy, says Bown.

The full report, Dangerous By Design, can be found at: