You are here: Home / Communications / Our Publications / We Are Public Health

We Are Public Health - January 2016

We Are Public Health, January 2016

We Are Public Health

This story features the work of Feet First.

We are public health.
We pound the pavement to make walking safe for everyone.

The path to successful legislative advocacy can be long. Great bills often die in committee, so advocates work strategically to convey a bill's urgency. For Feet First, a non-profit in Washington State, this meant finding and collaborating with key allies to pass a bill that would review every traffic collision involving pedestrian injuries or fatalities and make recommendations for prevention.

Since 2001, Feet First has worked to make communities safe, inviting, and accessible places to walk for all ages and abilities. To make that happen, Feet First Executive Director Lisa Quinn said that advocacy is crucial.

The need for a bill was clear. In 2014 alone, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission estimated that there were 350 serious pedestrian injuries in Washington State, of which 67 were fatal. To make matters worse, pedestrian safety also has wide disparities. Highlighting a Governing Magazine analysis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Reporting System, Feet First's policy paper Walkable Communities and Equity noted that cities put more resources into pedestrian infrastructure in wealthier neighborhoods than in poorer ones, and pedestrian-traffic collisions are higher in low-income neighborhoods. Those collisions, the report states, "disproportionately affect seniors and people of color."

"I can't think of a better way to address equity than giving people opportunities to get safely where they need to get to by foot. It is a basic right and, for many people, a right that has been rooted out of communities," said Quinn.

The universality and right to safely travel as a pedestrian helped Feet First gain allies and find common ground for the bill. Equally important was finding a way to appeal across ideologies. "It was important for us to show both sides of the story and not vilify drivers or pit driving against walking," said Quinn. "While we were advocating for safer places for people to walk, we had to find ways to neutralize the information we shared so more people could talk about and explore different solutions."

Personal stories also played an important role in appealing to third parties. "These are people's lives we are talking about. This is someone's mother, daughter, and wife. This person was a teacher, a leader, who is no longer part of the fabric of our community," Quinn said. Pedestrian deaths and serious injuries are preventable, she told the Senate Transportation Committee. She testified: "In Seattle, a child was walking home from school with her sister and hit by two vehicles; in Kenmore a woman in her twenties was hit and killed by a person driving a truck; and a Kirkland man walking his dog was hit and killed in a crosswalk. Each of these communities has experienced tremendous loss. Unfortunately, they are not alone."

The personal nature of these tragedies also rang true with two of the bill's main supporters, hence "[the] bill's timing was critical to its success," Quinn explained. Senate sponsor and co-author Senator Marko Liias and House of Representatives sponsor Rep. Jessyn Farrell came from districts that had suffered recent pedestrian fatalities. Momentum was also growing internationally behind Vision Zero, a Swedish approach to road planning that aims to reduce fatalities to zero, on the premise that no loss of life is acceptable. Regions embracing Vision Zero realized that compensating for pedestrian mistakes requires what Quinn and other advocates call "forgiving streets."

Collaboration was also instrumental. Senator Liias, whom Quinn calls a "long-time champion of pedestrian safety," worked with Feet First to develop their strategy. Then, they finalized the bill's intention and wording with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, the Association of Washington Cities, and the Washington State Association of Counties. "We were very fortunate to have the right team in place and the issue on our side," said Quinn.

Even with experience, timing, strong partners, and a resonating issue, there was resistance from some legislators at first. Quinn reflected, "One of the challenges we had was making a case that pedestrian safety couldn't be addressed through other laws. We explained that a comprehensive approach to reviewing serious injuries and fatalities was not taking place, and most legislators understood our concerns." Feet First also clarified that the council's findings couldn't be used against jurisdictions in legal matters. "After adding this language to the legislation, we had full support from all parties," said Quinn.

On May 11, 2015, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law Senate Bill 5957, creating the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Council. The event marked a win for Feet First and its allies. Moreover, the process of working over the past four months to research, write, and push the bill through the Washington State legislature had laid the groundwork for next steps.

With the passing of a bill, crossing the finish line can be more a beginning than an end. The Pedestrian Safety Advisory Council managed through the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission recently hired a staff member who will be bringing together the different entities to review its scope and outline a process, and Feet First is compiling data about pedestrian safety. The research identifies where fatalities occur and highlights gaps in existing data and understanding. From a seat on the advisory council, Feet First will emphasize that filling those gaps is necessary for reaching Vision Zero. The data will also help encourage legislators to fund future pedestrian safety improvements. There's a long—but hopeful—road ahead.