Six Reasons Why Native Americans Have the Highest Rate of Pedestrian Deaths — Streetsblog USA
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Six Reasons Why Native Americans Have the Highest Rate of Pedestrian Deaths — Streetsblog USA

Native American communities have long reported the highest pedestrian fatality rates in America — and it will take fundamental changes in how we build our infrastructure and engage Native American communities to correct this horrific disparity, experts say.

In a recent webinar by the nonprofit America Walks, a panel of professionals working in three tribal areas explored how they address pedestrian deaths in their communities, as well as the underlying reasons why American Indians and Alaska Natives are far more likely to die while walking on America’s roads.

A recent analysis by Smart Growth America found that Native Americans 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 ethnic or racial group.

Chart: Smart Growth America, 2024

Unsurprisingly, much of the problem comes down to the prevalence of high-speed roads with few sidewalks in Indigenous communities, whether these routes pass through rural reserves, car-dominated suburbs or even urban areas.

“Clearly, if we want to minimize deaths, we need to keep speeds below 30 miles per hour – preferably below 20 miles per hour in areas where people are walking,” said moderator Ian Thomas, state and local program director for America Walks.

“Unfortunately, this is not the case on most tribal reservations in rural areas of the country, where vehicles travel at high speeds and there are generally no sidewalks. Nor is it the case in the urban and suburban areas of many cities where Native Americans reside and must contend with excessively wide roads and a lack of pedestrian facilities.”

Throughout American history, many Native Americans have been “forcibly relocated to communities with high-speed highways close to their homes, schools, businesses, and other destinations,” according to America Walks — whether to rural reservations that would later be torn apart by highways, or to equally deadly urban areas, as under the Indian Relocation Act of 1956.

Many of these deadly roads were built without regard for the safety of surrounding residents or their own identities. cultural practices that could make them more vulnerable to car accidents. The Hemish of the southwest, for example, have a long tradition of running “for religious purposes, communication, health, travel, sport, war, hunting, and to strengthen village bonds,” and they continue many of these traditions today.

“For thousands of years, Pueblo people have been very engaged in running and traditional cultural activities that involve walking and non-vehicle-based active transportation,” says Sheri Bozic, who works on planning for the Jemez Pueblo in 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: New Mexico DOT Instagram

One such impact was the construction of New Mexico State Road 4, which was built directly through the middle of the Pueblo’s largest continuous stretch of land. Bozic and his colleagues managed to build a multi-use trail called the Hemish Path to Wellness along much of its length earlier this year — but they do not have They have yet to find funding for a bypass that would allow extremely fast-moving traffic to pass beyond tribal lands, rather than directly through them.

That lack of funding or expertise to build or redevelop safe infrastructure was a common theme for all three panelists, who turned to quick-build solutions when money was tight.

In the Cherokee Nation of northeastern Oklahoma, for example, public health officials like Hillary Mead have focused heavily on adding things like crosswalks, speed limits, sidewalk extensions and better lane markings to keep pedestrians safe, especially in urban areas. rural areas with lots of large dangerous vehicles such as cattle cars and hay trucks, as well as roads near schools. Young people were particularly explicit about their walking needs.

“Once we got our youth involved, they were very good,” Mead added. “They will tell you exactly what is happening in their community and how safe they feel walking down the street.”

Information like this is particularly crucial in the context of low-resource countries. tribal governments struggling to collect reliable data on the general condition of the roads, not to mention qualitative data on the nuances of the pedestrian experience.

That’s part of the reason why public health researchers at the University of Montana used an innovative app called “Our Voice” to help people on the Flathead reservation share their observations of what it’s like to walk in their communities, taking geotagged photos and writing testimonies even as they wander in remote areas far from a Wi-Fi router.

“Our goal is actually to improve ‘physical activity safety’ among older adults (and that means) physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and enjoyable physical activity to meet not only their health needs, but also to promote physical and emotional well-being and social connectedness for active and healthy living,” explained Maja Pedersen, one of the researchers.

“What we found through some of our early community-based participatory research is that safety is a major issue for older people participating in physical activity.”

Although most Native American communities have a significantly shorter average life expectancy and fewer older than the general population, the Flathead reservation actually has A upper The proportion of older people is higher than in the rest of the United States, and these populations are significantly less likely to drive.

Although the panelists did not point it out, other researchers said that demographic differences in Indigenous communities, such as higher poverty rates that put vehicle ownership out of reach, higher rates of addiction leading to impaired driving And walk, and less access to health care can all play a role.

No matter who they are or where they live, all three panelists stressed that building better infrastructure and engaging more community can save Native American lives – and the time to do it is now.

“(It’s not just rural areas); we also have deaths in urban areas of cities, where Native Americans also live,” Bozic added. “We just have to do better with road design; we have to require and incorporate pedestrian facilities on every road that’s built.”