Pedestrian and Cyclist Fatalities Increased 53 Percent in Ten Years

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Public Domain. Governors Highway Safety Association

The GHSA blames the switch to light trucks, bad road design, distraction and even climate change.

The US government recently refused to sign the Stockholm Declaration promoting road safety and Vision Zero, saying in its dissent that "the United States is committed to improving global road safety and is leading by example."

And what an example it is! The Governor's Highway Safety Association (GHSA) just released its annual report on pedestrian traffic fatalities, and they continue to rise, up a full five percent over 2018. The longer term is even worse:

During the 10-year period from 2009 to 2018, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 53% (from 4,109 deaths in 2009 to 6,283 deaths in 2018); by comparison, the combined number of all other traffic deaths increased by 2%. Along with the increase in the number of pedestrian fatalities, pedestrian deaths as a percentage of total motor vehicle crash deaths increased from 12% in 2009 to 17% in 2018. The last time pedestrians accounted for 17% of total U.S. traffic deaths was over 35 years ago, in 1982.
Pedestrian Fatalities Graph

Governors Highway Safety Association/Public Domain

The reasons for the increases are varied, but the shift from cars to light trucks (SUVs and pickups) appears to have made a big difference; in 10 years the number of fatalities involving SUVs increased by 81 percent, while the rate of increase involving cars increased by 53 percent. A lot of this has to do with vehicle design, as we have noted many times:

Pedestrians struck by a large SUV are twice as likely to die as those struck by car. Design changes such as softer vehicle fronts, pedestrian-detection systems and replacement of the blunt front ends of light trucks with sloping, more aerodynamic (car-like) designs can reduce the risk of pedestrian deaths in the event of a crash.

The GHSA also notes that cellphone use is a distraction for all road users, and that over the last ten years smart phone use has increased by 400 percent and wireless data consumption by 7000 percent. "Many of these injuries are sustained while the user is engaged in text messaging rather than conventional telephone conversation."

Most of the increases in fatalities happened at night, and even climate change gets a nod:

Warmer temperatures could contribute to the recent rise in pedestrian fatalities by encouraging more nighttime outdoor activity (including walking). These higher temperatures are also associated with increased alcohol consumption, which increases the risk of fatal pedestrian collisions.

The US dissent to the Stockholm Declaration claims that "the United States is focused on improving road safety especially for pedestrians and bicyclists through infrastructure design." Meanwhile, fully 59 percent of pedestrian fatalities happen on non-freeway arterials, those wide suburban "stroads." Not surprisingly, 74 percent of the fatalities happen outside of intersections. But the GHSA doesn't blame the victims:

Challenging crossing locations such as multilane urban arterials often have bus stops or land use patterns that require pedestrians to cross busy roads. Countermeasures such as rectangular rapid flashing beacons, pedestrian-hybrid beacons, curb extensions and pedestrian refuge islands have been shown to improve pedestrian safety in these environments... Most pedestrian fatalities occur at non-intersection locations. Although it is impossible to make all non-intersection locations safe or suitable for pedestrian activity, there are opportunities to improve pedestrian safety at midblock locations through speed enforcement and management, along with increased street lighting.

So, basically, most of the fatalities are happening through a combination of poorly lit, pedestrian-unfriendly streets where you have to walk a long way to a signal, and where people tend to drive their pickups too fast.

The GHSA report is on its face a total contradiction to the government's dissent to the Stockholm Declaration. It notes that "socioeconomic status (SES) — in particular, poverty — is another strong risk factor for pedestrian crashes" and that "a California study found that pedestrian crashes are four times more frequent in poor neighborhoods." Even as we see enforcement decline, the GHSA concludes:

States should also continue to work with local law enforcement partners to address chronic driver violations that contribute to pedestrian crashes such as speeding, impaired driving and distracted driving.

I do hope that the Governors send this document to the White House. Perhaps someone will read it.