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Pedestrian Deaths Driven to Highest Number in Three Decades

The Governors Highway Safety Association has estimated that pedestrian deaths on U.S. streets and highways numbered more than 6,200 in 2018, accounting for 16 percent of all traffic-related deaths.

Pedestrian deaths from motorists are on course to reach the highest level in three decades, with some of the most dangerous communities in the southeastern United States.

A new report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) estimates more than 6,200 pedestrian fatalities occurred in 2018, based on statistics gathered in the first six months of the year, a 4 percent increase from 2017.

It’s a trend that has been on the rise, even as motor vehicle crash deaths have been on the decline. From 2008 to 2017, pedestrian fatalities increased 35 percent in the United States, growing from 4,414 deaths in 2008 to 5,977 deaths in 2017, according to GHSA statistics. Pedestrian deaths on U.S. streets and highways accounted for 16 percent of all traffic-related deaths.

“There’s no single factor we can blame for the increase in pedestrian deaths. Generally, we have seen an increase in vehicle miles traveled over the past few years, and are seeing more people choosing to walk, so exposure is very likely at play,” said Madison Forker, communications manager for the GHSA.

In 2017, in about half of the deaths alcohol impairment — by the driver or the pedestrian — was believed to have been in play, said Forker.

“Most pedestrian fatalities occur in the dark, on local streets, away from intersections, so unfriendly street design is also a critical factor,” she added.

Poorly designed streets — lacking basic infrastructure like sidewalks or crosswalks — and roads designed only for autos have contributed to numerous pedestrian deaths, particularly those occurring in suburban locations, said Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America, an urban design research and advocacy group.

“Because you’re seeing transportation systems and roads that are designed for high-speed, high-volume travel, you’re not seeing the street design include pedestrians because they don’t really go hand-in-hand,” said Atherton, calling to mind the sort of post-WWII neighborhood and highway design which saw the rise of suburbia across much of the Southeast in what are known as Sun Belt communities.

These places, said Atherton, were designed almost entirely for autos, with little regard for accommodating other users.

“So you’re essentially building car-oriented communities that are not friendly to pedestrians, and you’re combining highway design for suburban land use, which is a recipe for failure,” she added.

Many of the cities experiencing some of the highest pedestrian fatalities, as a percentage of the population, are in Florida, followed by Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, New Mexico, Arizona and even Delaware, according to the 2019 Smart Growth America report titled Dangerous by Design.

“The most dangerous roads that you get are these arterials,” said Atherton, noting their many entry and exit points, combined with fast speeds. “And that’s where (we're) seeing a lot of those fatalities and crashes happening.”

The vehicles themselves seem to also be contributing to pedestrian deaths, with sport utility vehicles (SUVs) involved in pedestrian deaths increasing 50 percent since 2013, according to the GHSA.

“We are seeing more SUVs on the roads, which tend to cause more serious injuries in a pedestrian-motor vehicle collision,” said Forker. “Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet here, so our solutions need to be comprehensive, involving engineering, enforcement and educational approaches. 

“Pedestrians struck by a large SUV are twice as likely to die as those struck by a small car, so having more SUVs on the road does present a potential danger to pedestrians,” Forker added.

In the last 10 years, some 90 percent of pedestrian deaths occurred at night, with many of them taking place on local roads, away from intersections. Smart Growth America research has also pointed to the growth of the “suburbanization of poverty” in the last decade where populations with the most need for mass transit or biking and walking amenities have a shrinking access to it. A 2017 report by the Brookings Institute found that U.S. suburbs accounted for 48 percent of the national increase in the poor population from 2000 to 2015.

“Through the suburbanization of poverty, we’re putting people that need good transit, walking and biking the most, in the most unsafe positions,” said Atherton.

“You do not want to be walking on those roads unless you have to. It’s not like those people are out there walking for leisure,” she added. “They are usually trying to access a job, or health care or school. These are not people who are choice walkers.”

Many communities have turned to technology and robust methods of data collection to help zero in on where to place resources to aid in improved and safer environments for walkers and bikers. Data collected by third-party partners such as bike-share operators or ride-hailing can offer a detailed and granular look into not only how streets and highways are being used, but also who’s using them.

However, tech does not fix the problem of poorly designed streets, said Atherton. In the end, that heavy lifting has to be done by cities.

“I don’t think that tech is going to tell us something we don’t already know,” she added. “I like tech a lot. But it’s just new tools to help us solve the problem that we already know exists. And we already know the best solutions are, like, better street design.”

In many cities — urban cores, particularly — walking seems to be on the rise, said Forker from the Governors Highway Safety Association. In fact, research shows the number of Americans walking to work increased 4 percent from 2007 to 2016.

“Cities like New York City have seen success in reducing pedestrian fatalities by implementing Vision Zero concepts to make the city more walk-friendly, so we know these improvements can go a long way,” she added. “But behaviors also need to change — drivers need to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings. And we have to make sure that if people are impaired, they have — and choose — options to get home safely.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.