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Keeping People Safe on the Road: Why I Do What I Do at the CDC Injury Center

Categories: CDC Injury Center, Injury Response, Motor Vehicle Safety

Photo: pedestrians in the street in Paris

On this Boulevard de La Madeleine, Paris France, Dr. David Sleet was struck by a car – his pedestrian story impacts the work he does for the CDC Injury Center.

Guest blogger: David Sleet, PhD

I was a graduate student in Paris in 1972 – my first solo trip to the city of light. It was dusk and a group of classmates and I made our way to Boulevard de La Madeleine to shop. The narrow, seemingly pedestrian-friendly boulevard was alive, and it was cluttered with tourists and Parisians taking in the last minutes of light.

As we strolled in the street looking at shops on either side, a car suddenly appeared behind us traveling right toward us blinking its headlights.  I was at the front of the crowd and the last one to take notice. The car, a 1965 Citroen DS-21, was traveling with only its parking lights on—as is customary for Parisian motorists. Everyone but me quickly peeled off toward the shops. As I looked back, the car was aimed right at me! I arched my back to avoid a direct hit, but I could not. My head hit the top of the car and I was thrown back into a florist shop.

The Citroen never stopped.  My friends picked me up and escorted me—bleeding— to the nearest policeman directing traffic at an intersection.  He didn’t seem to care in the least about the hit-and-run driver, but motioned them to take me to the nearest hospital where I received 20 stitches in the make-shift emergency department. Although my holiday was ruined, I became much more aware of the dangers faced by pedestrians, especially in a foreign city.  

Although I have my own personal “pedestrian story” and was lucky enough to tell the tale, many are not as lucky. Traffic injury prevention is not just about drivers and passengers.  It’s also about pedestrians. 22-35% of all those killed in road traffic crashes around the world are pedestrians. 

Walking is a major component of travel globally—every trip virtually begins and ends with a walk.  And according to the World Health Organization, between 150,000 and 400,000 people lose their lives in pedestrian crashes every year around the world.  In the US alone, one pedestrian dies every 2 hours, and a pedestrian is injured every 4 minutes.

Photo: high angle view of people walking on the street

Built environment strategies can protect pedestrians from vehicle traffic.

As an Associate Director for Science at CDC’s Injury Center, I try to understand the causes of injuries and what works to prevent them to keep people safe through research.  Such efforts include built environment strategies that can help reduce injuries by separating pedestrians from vehicle traffic, building pedestrian overpasses, reducing vehicle speeds, and setting aside space for more sidewalks.  Some cities have even established Pedestrian Safety Zones which are restricted to pedestrian traffic only – no vehicles allowed.

Countries such as Germany and the Netherlands have already figured out ways to reduce pedestrian-vehicle crashes and reduce injuries.  Their rates of pedestrian injury and death are much lower compared to the United States.  

For example: In order for vehicles to see pedestrians better, additional lighting is added around roads.  To reduce pedestrians being hit getting off buses, bus stops can be relocated away from intersections. Installing small roundabouts at intersections (with two or fewer lanes), speed bumps on residential roads, and four-way stops at intersections are all ways to reduce vehicle speeds.  These prevention methods are being developed globally to reduce vehicle speeds and will lessen the chances of a serious injury if a pedestrian is hit.   

Built environment strategies help us tell a different story about pedestrians – one that shows promise for changing the environment to protect everyone. I know that my pedestrian story could have turned out very differently if some of these road safety changes had been in place at the time. And through my work at the Injury Center, I am confident that we can use these activities to make roads safer for pedestrians, motorists, cyclists, and all those who use the road for transportation.

To emphasize the urgency of this problem, The United Nations General Assembly recently passed a resolution declaring the next ten years the “Decade of Action for Road Safety.”  CDC helps road safety partners worldwide by providing technical assistance and training as well as the tools and support to reduce pedestrian injuries.  And of course when we do that, we also protect American citizens who are traveling overseas.

Dr. David Sleet is the Associate Director for Science, Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC, Atlanta, GA.

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this blog is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. August 23, 2012 at 1:29 pm ET  -   Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH

    Although I am sorry that Dr. Sleet was injured as a pedestrian many years ago, if that incident helped shape his decision to devote his very productive career to preventing others from suffering the same fate and worse, then we are all indebted to that Citroen driver! Dr. Sleet and indeed all of his colleagues in the CDC’s Division for Unintentional Injury Prevention should be commended on their work to protect the most vulnerable road users – in the U.S. and around the world. They are valued partners in the UN’s Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020. Road crashes are killing 1.3 million people every year and that number is projected to quickly grow to surpass the number of people dying of HIV/AIDS within 2 decades. But with partners like the CDC and with your help, we can do something about it. Together, we can save millions of lives!

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  2. August 24, 2012 at 12:45 pm ET  -   Moshe Engelberg

    What a great story and compelling lead-in into what you do! Thank you David.

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