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Getting Away with Homicide

May 08, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

It's "The Perfect Crime." Run over someone with your motor vehicle and odds are you won't face any punishment.

A Freakonomics podcast this month explores this strange reality of our autocentric culture. National statistics on pedestrian fatalities tend to minimize driver blame while pointing to all sorts of incriminating victim behaviors ("wrong-way walking," "darting or running into road," e.g.).

But, as an insightful wag once observed, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Highway researcher Charlie Zegeer told Freakonomics host Stephen Dubner that it's hard to determine the real cause of many pedestrian deaths. 

"The information we have to make that determination is essentially on police crash reports," Zegeer noted. "Oftentimes the only witness is the surviving driver. And so the police officer only hears that one side of the story."

In 2012, the most recent year of complete counts, 4,743 Americans on foot died when struck by motor vehicles, 40 of them in Minnesota. The pedestrian injury toll was 42,000 nationwide and 874 in Minnesota.

Crashes involving pedestrians in Minnesota are eight times more likely to result in death than all traffic crashes. But even the survivors bear horrific physical and emotional scars, as an eye-opening report by New York Times executive editor Jill Abrahamson details. She recounts her own 2007 ordeal, plus those of three Times colleagues.

In New York City, pedestrians comprised 47 percent of all 2012 traffic fatalities, and that wasn't even the highest big-city share. California's San Francisco and Fresno racked up 48 percent, behind No. 1 Denver's 50 percent. These National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures covered only cities of a half-million or more, so none in Minnesota was included.

Minnesota crash reports, however, showed just seven deaths of people on foot, out of 19 total, in Minneapolis and St. Paul combined, but 435 injuries, nearly half the state total. Still, more than two-thirds of the pedestrian fatalities occurred in jurisdictions of more than 5,000 population, practically a mirror image of the two-thirds of all traffic deaths that happen outside the Twin Cities metro.

Generally, the more urbanized a place, the more pedestrians make up a share of all traffic fatalities. In Washington, D.C., it was nearly 47 percent, in South Dakota just 1.5 percent. Minnesota typically runs around 10 percent, compared with the 2012 national average of 14 percent.

In fact, Minnesota is one of the nation's safest states to walk in the vicinity of moving motor vehicles. NHTSA reported that our rate of pedestrian deaths, 0.71 per 100,000 population, was less than half the national average of 1.51 in 2012. Better numbers were posted by Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and South Dakota, which led all states with two pedestrian fatalities in all, or 0.24 per 100,000 residents.

Minnesota also is more likely to assign official blame to drivers in pedestrian crashes, finding their failure to yield, distraction or obscured vision as factors in more than two-thirds of incidents. Other driver faults, including speeding, disregarding traffic controls, unsafe backing or chemical impairment, are cited much less frequently.

But it's those seldom documented causes that are more likely to get you locked up. Criminal vehicular homicide, a Minnesota felony with stiff prison consequences, usually relies on proof of a driver's intoxication in a fatal crash. As we learned during Amy Senser's unsuccessful criminal defense against charges of killing a restaurant worker with her SUV in 2011, that can be problematical if the driver leaves the scene.

Another driver, however, got off scot-free when the state Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that prosecutors had failed to prove he knew he had hit anyone and reversed his felony conviction in a hit-and-run death. Legislators, however, just eliminated that loophole in a bill signed last week by Gov. Mark Dayton. Now "not knowing what was struck" no longer will provide a get-out-of-jail free card.

That's one small step toward erasing the easiest way to get away with murder in America. Drivers beware, but also be thankful. Remember, even you are pedestrians whenever you get out of the car.

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