Youth, in the popular imagination, is supposed to be a time of naivete and courage, all born from a sense of invincibility.
If Brown students ever subscribed to that feeling of invulnerability, it has been severely damaged over the past year. The shocking death of Avi Schaefer '13, halfway through his first year at Brown, was compounded this summer by the sudden death of Paige Hicks '11 while biking across the country to raise money for the homeless. Grim headlines have flooded in about the non-undergraduate population as well. Recent alum Erinn Phelan '09 was seriously injured in a drunk driving hit-and-run in New York, and Brown grad student Tam Ngoc Tran was killed when an oncoming car drifted over the central line in Maine. Whatever illusions about youth and death we once harbored, this stream of horrible events has attempted to disperse. It seems like Brown has had more than its fair share of tragedy lately.
Surprisingly, national statistics would seem to agree. According to official government statistics, the annual pedestrian fatality rate is 1.44 per 100,000; Brown, with its undergraduate population of 6,000, has had three pedestrian deaths in the past year. That yields a rate 35 times the national average, and although those statistics are distorted (Hicks was a cyclist, and the 6,000 is the undergraduate and not the alum population), there can be little doubt that in the past year Brown students have been struck by cars at rates far above the national average.
In the past year, there has been a spate of articles decrying Brown pedestrians for their poor street-crossing capabilities (for example, Mike Johnson's '11 column, "Shameful walking," Nov. 12). At first glance, this would seem to be an explanation for the aforementioned statistics. What was described in his column, however, is the well-known tendency of Brown students to attempt to pedestrianize their entire campus during the day… by force. While inconsiderate and probably nerve-wracking for drivers unlucky enough to have to cross Waterman, to my knowledge this has not actually produced any accidents, and certainly none at high enough speeds to cause serious injury.
The argument that this habit has made us bad pedestrians, and thus easy targets, also lacks support: Schaefer was struck by a drunk driver while walking in the break-down lane, and Phelan and her friend were in a crosswalk.
If it is not because we are bad pedestrians, then why? A look into the statistics on pedestrian deaths shows that we have other risk factors. To begin with, 40 percent of all pedestrian fatalities occur when the victim had been drinking; only 13 percent of the drivers in fatality cases had alcohol in their systems. (This is likely linked to "Freakonomics" authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt's infamous assertion that drunk driving is safer than drunk walking for the individual in question.) Even in cases where the driver is blatantly responsible, a sober person can still gauge whether a car is going to blast through a red light, for example, better than someone who has been drinking.
Additionally, nearly 22 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur from 9 p.m. to 11:59 p.m., with an additional 13 percent occurring between midnight and 2:59 a.m. A quick glance over the cases named so far shows that almost all of the occurred at night (with the exception of Hicks, who was cycling during the day). As college students, we are out at the most vulnerable hours, in the most vulnerable conditions, and we, unlike most of the American population, are on foot.
As we return to Providence this fall, I just want to remind everyone of what they probably already know: to be careful, especially when walking back to the dorms after a night out. To make matters worse, Providence was ranked 12th worst city in the nation by Men's Health on driving statistics such as fatal accidents and speeding. The problem may not be that we are darting into the street, but it's all we can control.
Michelle Uhrick '11 is an international relations and economics concentrator from Connecticut. She can be contacted at michelle_uhrick (at) brown.edu.