On Thursday evening in Hyde Park, a woman was hit and killed by a vehicle – adding one more death to a death toll that has risen dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Few would have predicted a link between an airborne virus and road deaths, but that’s exactly what happened: About 6,700 pedestrians nationwide died in car crashes in 2020, up by about 5% compared to the previous year, and deaths in 2021 also appear to have increased. .
Here in Massachusetts, 79 pedestrians died in crashes in 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, compared to 57 in 2020, according to state data.
Potential explanations for the surge abound, including the popularity of large SUVs, more opportunities to accelerate during initial lockdowns, frayed nerves from the pandemic, and a general breakdown in societal norms. (The Hyde Park crash is still under investigation.) But whatever the causes, the solutions to the problem must lie in designing safer vehicles and road infrastructure for all users, not relying on punitive strategies.
An example of the exact wrong approach is a new push by the legislature to increase penalties for jaywalking. Currently, fines in Massachusetts for illegal street crossing start at $1. Lawmakers have periodically floated the idea of increasing fines. The idea has always failed, and for good reason: jaywalking laws are essentially unenforceable and often go against common sense. It’s unreasonable to expect pedestrians to go to a level crossing that may be a hike instead of crossing an empty road, and we should look askance at the laws that most of us , if we are honest, know that we will infringe. There is also evidence of racial disparities in jurisdictions that have attempted to enforce their jaywalking laws.
While there is more justification for cracking down on motorists who drive too fast, text and drive or run red lights – and the app will always have a place – the reality is that we cannot punish our way to safer streets.
A better approach, reflected in former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s “Vision Zero” initiative, is to focus on road design itself. Adding speed bumps, removing parking spaces that block visibility, creating sidewalk extensions that make it easier for drivers to spot pedestrians at intersections, removing unnecessary lanes of traffic, and building crossings to Raised walkways and islands are all improvements that can create safer spaces for pedestrians. Other countries have even tried things like installing optical illusions to trick drivers into slowing down.
Of course, these types of upgrades can be a tough sell, as the uproar a few years ago over once-planned security upgrades on Center Street in West Roxbury showed. But studies show they work.
In the longer term, the federal government can help by moving quickly to mandate more safety features in cars, such as automatic emergency brakes (which most new cars already have) and technology to detect if the driver is intoxicated; Congress last year required new cars to include the feature, but it could be years before the rule takes effect.
Human error, whether on the part of drivers or pedestrians, is not going away and people will continue to make unwise choices on or across the road. But the rise in road deaths that has accompanied the pandemic should be the wake-up call for cities and the federal government to implement the technologies and road designs that can protect us from ourselves.
Editorials represent the opinions of the Editorial Board of The Boston Globe. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.