Last year, the US had the highest number of pedestrian fatalities since 1981, with 7,508 people killed by vehicles, according to a recent report by the Governors Association for Highway Safety.
Pedestrian fatalities have skyrocketed 77% since 2010, according to the report, which was based on state government data. Last year, about 20 people a day were killed walking on the street. (Oklahoma did not report data due to a technical issue, but the state averages 92 pedestrian deaths a year, so last year’s total is likely even higher.)
Traffic safety experts suggested several factors behind the trend: a pandemic-fueled surge in reckless driving, skyrocketing sales of trucks and larger vehicles, and higher rates of people moving to suburbs with roads. unsuitable for pedestrians.
Pam Shadel Fischer, senior director of external engagement for the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), said the 41-year high indicates a «crisis» in pedestrian safety.
“It’s been getting worse every year,” Fischer said. “We have been very focused on making vehicles safer for the people inside, but we have lost track of what we are doing to really address their safety for people outside the vehicles.”
Reckless driving habits persist after the pandemic
The pandemic brought an increase in reckless habits like speeding and texting while driving, experts said, as drivers were met with more open roads and fewer law enforcement officers. Although more people have resumed commuting and traffic congestion has returned, dangerous driving trends show no signs of slowing down.
In 2021, drivers were speeding in 8% of pedestrian fatalities, an increase from 6% to 7% before the pandemic, according to the GHSA. The average risk of death for a pedestrian struck by a car traveling at 58 mph is 90%, compared to 10% when struck at 23 mph.
The percentage of traffic accidents that involve text messages or calls is difficult to measure because drivers are often reluctant to admit that they were using their phones at the time of the accident, according to Cara Hamann, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the College of Education. Public University of Iowa. Health. But she suspects that phone use has played a role in the increase in pedestrian fatalities.
“We certainly see it in younger drivers, but I think driver distraction in general is a problem,” Hamann said. “More and more people have smartphones and use social media apps and things like that.”
He Traffic Safety Administration reported that 3,522 people died from distracted driving in 2021.
Sales of larger and more dangerous vehicles are up
After speed, the size of the vehicle is the next most crucial factor in determining whether a collision with a pedestrian becomes fatal. SUVs made up 3% of the vehicles made in the 1983 model year, according to a report provided to NBC News by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. By 2022, participation had risen to 57%.
Meanwhile, new passenger cars fell from 80% to 27% in the same period, the report shows.
The higher profiles of SUVs and trucks mean pedestrians are more often struck in the torso in a collision, increasing the likelihood of death, according to David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Roads.
Although more new vehicles have crash-avoidance technology these days, such as automatic emergency braking systems, Harkey said it will take a while to see the results of those technologies.
“The challenge is that these are new vehicles, and the average age of a vehicle these days is about 12 years,” Harkey said. «Therefore, it takes a long time for the fleet to come online before the vast majority of vehicles have this technology on the road.»
Over the past decade, the number of SUV crashes resulting in pedestrian fatalities increased 120%, compared to a 26% increase in crashes involving passenger cars, according to the GHSA report.
“We are a country that has an appetite for these vehicles,” Fischer said. “We have to recognize that we want these bigger vehicles, but we also have to think about operating them in the safest way possible.”
Fatalities on suburban highways are rising
Pedestrian fatalities are also linked to decades-old road design flaws in urban and suburban areas, experts said. As more people have moved to the suburbs, deaths on major roads, which are not freeways but still high-capacity, have become increasingly common.
About 60% of pedestrian deaths in 2021 occurred on arterial roads, according to the GHSA report.
Hamann said that as the cost of living in major cities increased, more low-income people moved to the suburbs. Those residents are less likely to have access to cars, so they may be forced to walk busy streets without sidewalks, he said.
The GHSA report found that 69% of pedestrian deaths occurred on roads without sidewalks in 2021, compared to 59% in 2017.
Many suburban arterial roads also lack sufficient crosswalks, experts said. If crosswalks only come every quarter or half mile, Hamann said, many people will choose to jaywalk on multi-lane roads.
“It’s kind of a mismatch between where we see more and more people on foot and how that infrastructure was never really designed for people on foot,” Hamann said. «Our suburbs are primarily designed around vehicles.»
Communities that were historically marked in red also report higher rates of pedestrian fatalities, according to a study published in March in the American Journal of Public Health. Relative to other urban and suburban areas, these communities were not designed with safety and functionality in mind, according to Dan Gelinne, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.
While the proportion of white pedestrian fatalities on the highway fell from 47% in 2018 to 41% in 2020, the proportions of black and Hispanic pedestrian fatalities increased slightly in those years.
“It reflects a history of historical underinvestment in neighborhoods that may be predominantly black or people of color or low income,” Gelinne said. “That underinvestment has actually resulted in increased risk of death and injury.”