A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Mar 2, 2019

How Come Pedestrian Deaths In the US Are At Highest Level In 30 Years?

Pedestrian looking at smartphones and drivers watching screens in their cars both contribute to the rise in deaths. JL

Scott Calvert reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Pedestrian deaths now account for 16% of motor-vehicle crash deaths. All other traffic deaths grew by less than 5%. The report highlights the shift away from passenger cars to SUVs and light trucks, which cause greater injury to walkers than cars at the same speed. Distractions caused by smartphones—for pedestrians and drivers alike—are a growing concern. “I barely see a car anymore without a device mounted to the windshield or dashboard, including people watching movies."
The number of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. reached a nearly 30-year high in 2018, according to a report being released Thursday that points to smartphone distraction and the growing prevalence of SUVs as possible factors.
An estimated 6,227 people died on foot from car crashes nationwide last year, the most since 1990, according to the report. Pedestrian deaths now account for about 16% of motor-vehicle crash deaths, up from 12% a decade ago. In that span, all other traffic deaths grew by less than 5%.
“We’re killing way too many pedestrians. This has got to be a high priority,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway-safety offices and commissioned the report.
Transportation safety experts are alarmed by the rising toll of pedestrian deaths and many blame the legacy of road networks designed to maximize the speed of cars. They applaud many cities’ move in recent years to lower speed limits, redesign intersections and improve crosswalks, and think these pedestrian-friendly strategies should improve fatality rates.
Twenty-five states and Washington, D.C., reported an increase in pedestrian deaths in the first half of 2018, with Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas accounting for nearly half of all fatalities. Cities and states are trying to boost safety and make their communities more livable with a combination of engineering, education and enforcement measures.
“It’s very bleak,” said Richard Retting, of Sam Schwartz Consulting, who wrote the report. “We’re seeing a complete reversal of the progress that had been made in the 1980s and up until 2009.”
There are some bright spots in the data: Pedestrian deaths were down in nearly two dozen states, substantially in some cases. New York City and other large cities also have made notable safety gains for walkers in recent years.
Pedestrian deaths plummeted from 6,482 to 4,109 from 1990 to 2009, federal figures show. Fatalities then rose 45% from 2009 to 2017. The 2018 fatality estimate is based on half-year totals reported by all states, and previous projections based on midyear figures have closely mirrored final full-year totals.
The report highlights the growing shift away from passenger cars to SUVs and light trucks, which generally cause greater injury to walkers than cars at the same speed, Mr. Retting said. Cars are the biggest vehicle category in deadly pedestrian crashes, the report said, but the number of such deaths involving SUVs grew by 50% from 2013 to 2017, compared with a 30% increase for passenger cars.
Distractions caused by smartphones—for pedestrians and drivers alike—are a growing concern. “I barely see a car anymore without a device mounted to the windshield or dashboard, including people watching movies,” Mr. Retting said.
A large share of the increase in pedestrian fatalities involved crashes after dark. From 2008 to 2017, the number of nighttime pedestrian fatal crashes rose 45% compared with an 11% increase for those occurring during the day, the report said. Mr. Adkins said alcohol use is a likely factor. In 2017, about half of all fatal pedestrian traffic crashes involved alcohol impairment by the driver, pedestrian or both, he said.
While distracted or inebriated walkers endanger themselves, Mr. Adkins said, “as drivers we need to keep in mind we have a machine and a capability to kill someone else.”
A similar GHSA report last year examined the seven states and Washington, D.C., that legalized recreational marijuana use between 2012 and 2016. It noted a 16.4% increase in pedestrian fatalities during the first half of 2017 in those places. By contrast, all other states experienced a combined 5.8% drop in pedestrian deaths, but the report said it wasn’t clear if there was a causal link.The report notes that Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma and Wisconsin all notched double-digit declines in the number and the percent change of pedestrian deaths during the first half of 2018 compared with the same stretch of 2017. It also highlighted recent gains in some urban areas: In 2017 pedestrian deaths fell by 15% in the country’s 10 largest cities.
Officials can take a number of steps to improve safety for non-motorists, Mr. Retting said. Those include installing devices at midblock crosswalks that let a pedestrian or cyclist activate a red signal for drivers, improving street lighting and stepping up speeding enforcement in areas with a high number of crashes involving pedestrians. Education and public awareness initiatives are also key.

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