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Report: Why U.S. Pedestrian Deaths Continue to Rise

Woman crossing street in front of car.Walking on America’s roadway may be more hazardous for your health than at any time in the past two decades.

That’s because, according to a recent report, pedestrian fatalities in the United States have hit the highest levels in 2018 since 1990.

This is a big deal because it is happening at a time that roadways are generally getting safer. During the past 10 years, pedestrian fatalities have gone up 35 percent while other roadway fatalities have fallen by 6 percent.

“The alarm bells continue to sound on this issue,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director for the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. “It’s clear we need to fortify our collective efforts to protect pedestrians and reverse the trend.”

So, what’s behind this growth in pedestrian fatalities?

For one, there are just more people walking and biking now than there were in the past. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, around 3 percent of people get to work by foot, which translates to about 4 million people.

Walking is most common in walkable communities, such as Boston and Portland, as well as in college towns. But people all across the country rely on their feet for transportation.

States with declining pedestrian deaths

A glimmer of good news is that pedestrian fatalities were not evenly spread across the country, with 23 states seeing a decline in pedestrian fatalities.

Of the states that saw a decrease in fatalities, six states saw a double-digit fall in the number of walking deaths — Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

New Hampshire reported only one fatality in 2017.

Five states — Arizona, California, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, New York and North Carolina — accounted for about half of all pedestrian deaths in the country.

The typical pedestrian fatality happens at night and typically not in a marked intersection. Unsafe habits were involved in many of the pedestrian traffic fatalities.

Among those dangerous habits were speeding, drowsy driving and distractions, such as using phones. And it isn’t just the drivers who might be distracted. Distracted pedestrians was also a significant factor.

Another common factor was alcohol. In about half the cases of pedestrian fatalities, either the driver or the pedestrians were impaired by alcohol.

The size of vehicles on the roadway also comes into play here. While passenger cars kill the most people, fatalities involving SUVs have risen 50 percent in just four years. Experts point out that when a pedestrian tangles with an SUV, there are often more deaths.

One factor weighing in here is that while technology inside the vehicle has grown by leaps and bounds, technologies to protect pedestrians are still in their infancy.

It is tempting to think that the typical pedestrian death was someone wandering out into the interstate, but that is far from the norm. About 35 percent of all pedestrian deaths happen on local streets, while 25 percent are on state highways. Less than 10 percent of all fatalities happen on interstates.

Preventing pedestrian fatalities is a threefold process, which should include educating pedestrians, as well as drivers, but also should emphasize infrastructure improvements, such as crosswalks, sidewalks and other pedestrian-friendly improvements. Law enforcement officers also should be involved to uphold pedestrian-friendly laws, such as slower speeds around schools and pedestrian-heavy areas.

Engineering, education and enforcement key to pedestrian safety

Policymakers call this a “3 E approach” — engineering, education and enforcement.

Richard Retting of Sam Schwartz Consulting wrote the report for the GHSA, and he said that with some work, pedestrian fatalities can be prevented.

“Crossing the street should not be a death sentence,” Retting says. “We have a range of proven infrastructure, engineering, and behavioral strategies that we know can reduce pedestrian deaths. Critical improvements to road and vehicle design are being made, but take significant time and resources to implement.

“It is also important to conduct law enforcement and safety education campaigns now to ensure drivers and pedestrians can safely coexist. It’s crucial to do everything we can to protect pedestrians utilizing a broad approach.”