Why Are Pedestrian Fatalities in the United States Rising?

Over the past few years, the United States has seen a sharp increase in the number of pedestrian fatalities in traffic accidents. In 2017, more than 6,000 pedestrians were killed, marking a 25-year high, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Pedestrian deaths rose more than 27 percent between 2007 and 2016, and represent a bigger proportion of total traffic fatalities every year.

This news comes as traffic fatalities in other accidents are actually declining. So what could be responsible for this discrepancy?

Key Pieces of Information

We can look deeper into the statistics to uncover some trends. One study focused on the relative danger to different pedestrians. It studied hundreds of metropolitan areas to determine what the most dangerous cities in the country were. Eight of the top ten cities in the United States were in Florida (the other two were in Mississippi and Arkansas). The Cape Coral and Fort Myers areas were the worst offenders.

It also appears that people of color are disproportionately likely to die in a traffic collision. Non-whites in America represent 34.9 percent of the population, yet represent 46.1 percent of all pedestrian deaths. And in some places, the difference is even more pronounced; in North Dakota, for example, Native Americans make up just 5 percent of the population, yet represent 38 percent of pedestrian deaths.

Populations that are poor, those without health insurance, and the elderly are all at increased risk of death in a pedestrian accident. Children are also especially vulnerable.

The study also didn’t account for the rise in non-fatal pedestrian accidents. Survivors of accidents like these may be able to seek legal recourse with the help of a personal injury attorney, but may still face lifelong injuries and conditions due to the accident.

Motivations for the Increase

What could be responsible for the increase? Using these data, and observations of changes to traffic in the past few years, there are a few likely culprits:

  • Gas prices and cars on the road. Part of the problem is a booming economy and record-low gas prices (which sound like a good thing). Americans are feeling confident in spending money, and can afford to drive far more than they drove in the wake of the Great Recession. According to statistics from the Federal Highway Administration, drivers on American roads covered a record 3.2 trillion miles in 2016. All other things being equal, more drivers on the road means a higher likelihood of accidents, including pedestrian fatalities. However, this doesn’t account for the fact that other kinds of fatalities are going down; increased safety features in vehicles may be a counterpoint here.
  • Smartphones (drivers). Another culprit may be the presence of smartphones. Being distracted while driving significantly increases your chances of being involved in a collision, yet most drivers overestimate their abilities to drive while distracted. They text and drive, despite many large-scale campaigns meant to educate drivers on the dangers of these actions. Pedestrians are especially at risk, because crosswalks are often found in slow-moving intersections. Drivers at a red light take the time to check their phones, and when the light turns green, they assume they have a few more seconds to stare at their phones as they begin to accelerate—potentially missing someone crossing the road in front of them.
  • Smartphones (pedestrians). Let’s not discount the power of distracting technology on pedestrian populations, as well. Take a look around you on the sidewalk of any metropolitan area, and you’ll see hundreds of people walking with their heads down, eyes on their phones. If they aren’t paying close attention to their surroundings, they could miss a traffic signal, or fail to see an incoming vehicle, and find themselves in the middle of a crosswalk when a car screams by. You may also be more likely to cross where you aren’t supposed to.
  • Intoxication. Interestingly, in states that have recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana (i.e., Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington), there was an average increase in pedestrian fatalities of 16.4 percent. In other states, there was a decrease of 5.8 percent. Though the link hasn’t been proven, it’s possible that intoxicated pedestrians are wandering into traffic more often; after all, more than a third of all pedestrian fatalities involved a pedestrian with a blood alcohol content (BAC) above the legal driving limit.

It’s likely that some combination of all of these factors is responsible for the marked increase in pedestrian fatalities. Though for the moment it looks like the increase is tapering off, we still owe it to ourselves and our community members to pay especially close attention at pedestrian crossings, and work to cross safely when we’re the pedestrians in the equation.