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Community Design

Motor Vehicle Crashes

Motor Vehicle Crashes and Your Health

Transportation systems, such as buses, trains, and cars, carry people and goods to destinations. Choices in the design of a transportation system affect rates of fatalities. Among developed countries, the U.S. has one of the highest per capita rates of motor vehicle-related fatalities. Motor Vehicle-related injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults ages 3-34.

In 2008, a total of 37,261 people lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes. Of those people killed:

  • 72% were drivers or passengers in a motor vehicle,
  • 14% were motorcyclists,
  • 12% were pedestrians, and
  • 2% were bicyclists.

In 2008, an additional 2.35 million people were injured in motor vehicle crashes. Of those people injured:

  • 90% were drivers or passengers in a motor vehicle,
  • 4% were motorcyclists,
  • 3% were pedestrians, and
  • 2% were bicyclists.

The medical costs and productivity losses associated with motor vehicle crashes is nearly $100 billion per year.

Pedestrian safety is particularly important because of its impact on healthy behaviors. Walking is necessary physical activity, and if safety issues restrict walking, then it is difficult to have a healthy community. In the U.S. 9% of all trips are made on foot. But 12% of all traffic deaths are among pedestrians. This means that despite the health benefits of walking, the number of people who are killed while walking is higher than other types of transportation. This may be the result of community design favoring motor vehicle travel over pedestrian safety. If people in a community increase how much they walk and that community increased infrastructure to improve safety, the risks of walking could be reduced.

Pedestrian safety is important to everyone. Even people who drive or take public transportation usually have to walk from the parking lot or bus and train stop to their final destination.

Community design has a large impact on the number of motor vehicle-related injuries and deaths. Many Americans view walking and bicycling as unsafe because of traffic and lack of sidewalks, crosswalks, and safe routes for bicyclists. Cities that are designed to make walking and bicycling safe and easy, and provide access to public transportation, may have fewer motor vehicle-related injuries and deaths. Increasing safety for pedestrians and bicyclists may also encourage walking and bicycling, and help fight obesity.

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Exposure and Risk

Community design can influence both how much people walk and bike, and their risk of injury. More and more Americans are living in suburban areas that are widely spread out where traffic death rates are higher. These areas generally have:

  • wide major streets with fast-moving traffic,
  • few sidewalks and crosswalks, and
  • businesses that are only easy to get to by car.

When the rate of pedestrian deaths is compared across cities, the most dangerous places to walk are cities that are widely spread out. Cities with more compact designs and higher numbers of people walking have lower rates of pedestrian injury and death.

Streets that are designed for high speed motor vehicle travel make it dangerous for pedestrians. Faster speeds increase the likelihood of a pedestrian being killed in a collision. A pedestrian hit by a vehicle traveling 40 miles per hour has an 85% chance of being killed. The chance of death drops to 45% at 30 miles per hour and to 5% at 20 miles per hour. Increased numbers of crosswalks, sidewalks, traffic control devices, speed bumps, and 20 mile per hour zones, and other walking and bicycling facilities may reduce the chance of fatalities.

Pedestrians who have the highest risk of injury or death related to traffic crashes include:

  • older adults. In 2008, 18% of all pedestrian deaths were among pedestrians ages 65 and older, and an estimated 10% of all pedestrian injuries; and
  • children. In 2008, one in five children between the ages of 5 and 9 who were killed in traffic crashes were pedestrians.

Bicyclists who have the highest risk of injury or death related to traffic crashes include:

  • adults age 45 to 54. In 2008, 25% of all bicyclist deaths were among bicyclists age 45 to 54; and
  • children age 10 to 15. In 2008, 20% of all bicyclists injured were children age 10 to 15.

Drivers or passengers who have the highest risk of injury or death related to traffic crashes, include:

  • teenagers age 16 to 19. In 2009, eight teens aged 16 to 19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries. Teen drivers are four times more likely than older drivers to have car crashes.
  • older adults. Per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase starting at age 75 and increase significantly after age 80.

Motorcyclists who have the highest risk of injury or death related to traffic crashes, include:

  • adults age 40 and over. In 2008, 51% of all motorcyclist deaths were among motorcyclists age 40 and over.
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Community design has a large influence on safety issues. Communities have a choice in how they design their transportation system. Individuals may also take additional safety steps such as obeying traffic laws and wearing bright clothing when walking or bicycling.

Community design approaches to reducing motor vehicle-related injury and death include:

  • changes to the interstate, roadway, and community design that promote traffic safety, such as:
    • lower speed limits and
    • roads that include infrastructure for bicycling and walking;
  • Complete Streets that are designed with all users in mind, including bicyclists, pedestrians, public transportation users, and drivers of all ages and abilities. Common features of Complete Streets include:
    • sidewalks,
    • bike lanes,
    • wide shoulders,
    • plenty of crossing opportunities,
    • raised crosswalks, and
    • audible pedestrian signals; and
  • Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) programs to help make walking and bicycling to school safer and more appealing. SRTS programs can include:
    • increased traffic enforcement around schools,
    • programs to improve sidewalks and pedestrian crossings near schools,
    • programs to teach students safety skills for walking and bicycling, and
    • "walking school buses" in which parents or volunteers escort a group of children on the walk to school.
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