The science and art of health statistics involves collecting and analyzing data, and then figuring out the best way to communicate the findings to the public so they can make good decisions about their health.
Case in point: In the United States, 4,000 pedestrians are killed, and another 59,000 injured, in traffic crashes each year. What are the implications to public health, and how should we act on this information in our own lives?
First of all, we acknowledge the size of the problem - so many preventable deaths and injuries, and the effects on the victims, their families and friends and even on the drivers involved. Then we look for clues in the statistics for ways to make walking along roadways safer.
But before that, let's consider the alternative. Suppose we discourage or avoid walking because it can be dangerous to health and safety. Then we heighten our risk - already 100 times greater - of preventable death by obesity-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. That's right, 400,000 people each year die because of factors often linked to lack of physical activity.
So, the numbers tell us we can choose the relatively small risk of pedestrian fatality, or the much larger risk of slow death by the couch potato lifestyle.
Now let's talk about what we can learn from statistics on pedestrian injuries and deaths, published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2009, 4,092 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle collisions, accounting for 12 percent of the nation's 33,808 total traffic fatalities, even though pedestrians represent a tiny fraction of the people using roadways at any given time.
Three-fourths of the fatalities occurred at non-intersections, versus intersections, so crossing in mid-block areas where traffic speeds are greater and drivers are not looking laterally can put you at greater risk.
A majority of fatalities, nearly 70 percent, occurred at night, even though more people walk during the day. Clearly, wearing bright, reflective clothing and carrying a flashlight or flashing red LED light can improve your odds of being seen.
On the weekends, about a third of the pedestrian deaths occurred between 8 p.m. and midnight, and 48 percent of all pedestrian deaths involved alcohol either for the driver or pedestrian, two additional reasons to take special precautions if you must walk at night.
In summary, here are some pedestrian safety tips to follow and to teach your children:
when possible, cross the street at an intersection or designated crosswalk, obey all traffic rules and wait until you have a green light to cross at traffic signals.
increase your visibility by wearing light colors or reflective clothing and by carrying a light at night.
walk on a sidewalk or above a curb if possible, but if you must walk in the street or along the road shoulder, always face traffic.
Drivers also have a responsibility to look out for pedestrians, to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks and to drive carefully and at appropriate speeds, especially in residential areas, shopping districts, near schools and playgrounds and anywhere else where they are likely to encounter pedestrians. We all have our parts to play in making our streets safer for walking.
Editor's note: Ray Sharp is manager of Community Planning and Preparedness at the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, and is a competitive race walker and triathlete.