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Pedestrian Deaths Make Up a Rising Share of U.S. Traffic Fatalities

8:59 AM PST on March 10, 2016

Pedestrians are making up an increasing share of traffic deaths in the U.S. Source: GHSA
Pedestrians account for an increasing share of traffic deaths in the U.S. Source: GHSA

Pedestrian deaths rose 10 percent in the first half of 2015 compared to the same period the year before, according to preliminary data released by the Governors Highway Safety Association. If that increase held up over all 12 months of 2015, it would be among the worst single-year changes since the GHSA started collecting data in 1975.

In a typical year, nearly 5,000 Americans are killed while walking. While fatalities for car occupants have been dropping, pedestrian fatalities have not. As a result, pedestrian deaths now make up about 15 percent of traffic fatalities, compared to 11 percent a decade ago, according to the GHSA.

The big question is "Why?" So far, no one has offered a compelling answer backed up with thorough research. The best we have are educated guesses. Of course, you'll also see some wild and irresponsible victim-blaming in the media. Here are some of the potential explanations that have been put forth and some thoughts on how seriously we should take them.

People are walking more. About 1 million more people walked to work in 2013 than in 2005, according to Census data cited by GHSA. That's a 21 percent increase.

Keep in mind, though, that the Census doesn't measure total walking volumes -- it just counts commuters. So while it seems like people are probably walking more overall, the lack of good data makes it difficult to know with certainty.

Vehicles are getting safer, while pedestrians remain as vulnerable as ever. Government traffic safety agencies like GHSA and NHTSA have historically focused on technology and behavioral strategies to improve safety for car occupants. Hence the emphasis on seatbelt campaign and vehicle safety standards.

So people are cruising around in air-bag equipped cars with anti-lock brakes, their children cocooned in the latest car seat -- and when they crash, they're more likely to survive. But vehicle technology hasn't adapted in ways that help pedestrians, who remain as vulnerable as ever. If you're a techno-optimist, self-driving cars are the innovation that will change this, but they're still several years away from hitting the market.

People are driving more. The more people drive, the more people are exposed to the risk of fatal crashes. This is a fairly unassailable contributing factor in recent years. Driving trips increased 3.5 percent in the first half of 2015, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Distracted drivers. Smartphones, in-dash displays, and other devices present more opportunities to stop paying attention to the task of driving. More than 3,000 people are killed in distracted driving crashes annually, although data more recent than 2013 is not yet available, so there's no way to firmly assess the role of driver distraction in the rise of pedestrian deaths.

Distracted pedestrians. Some media outlets have been very heavy-handed in assigning blame to "distracted pedestrians." This report from Indianapolis's WIVB is a great example. There's typically no evidence presented to support the theory except for anecdotes about people texting and walking. As Alissa Walker at Gizmodo put it, cell phones don't kill pedestrians, cars do.

"Forgiving" road design. Road design doesn't change much in a single year. But the engineering practice of using highway design standards in urban areas may have contributed to the long-term failure to improve pedestrian fatality rates.

Examples of "forgiving design" include wide traffic lanes and "clear zones" free of trees and other obstacles on the roadside. These features are designed to give drivers more room for error, but they also encourage fast driving and inattention, putting pedestrians at risk.

GHSA, for its part, does recommend road diets and other street design fixes to address the problem.

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