Why Are So Many More Pedestrians Getting Killed at Night?

©. Ly Feng Li/Getty Images

90 percent of the increase in pedestrian deaths over the last 10 years happened at night. And it wasn’t because they were distracted by phones.

The latest Governors’ Highway Safety Associaton report on pedestrian safety is out, and the good news is that the number of drivers killed in car crashes continues to decline. However, the number of pedestrians killed is the highest since 1990, and is way up since 2008. That was the depth of the Great Recession, and as the economy has recovered, so has the number of miles driven and so has the number of dead pedestrians.

pedestrians vs other users


“While we have made progress reducing fatalities among many other road users in the past decade, pedestrian deaths have risen 35 percent,” noted GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “The alarm bells continue to sound on this issue; it’s clear we need to fortify our collective efforts to protect pedestrians and reverse the trend.”

There are a number of causes, according to the study; More people are walking, up 4 percent since 2007. But also we have drivers are acting badly:

Many unsafe driving behaviors, such as speeding, distracted and drowsy driving, pose risks to pedestrians, and alcohol impairment by the driver and/or pedestrian was reported in about half of traffic crashes that resulted in pedestrian fatalities in 2017.
cars vs SUVs


Here is one that we keep going on about:

The number of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) involved in pedestrian deaths has increased by 50 percent since 2013. By comparison, (non-SUV) passenger cars’ involvement in pedestrian fatalities increased by 30 percent over the same time period. Although passenger cars still account for the majority of pedestrian deaths, SUVs – which generally cause more severe pedestrian injuries – make up an increasingly large percentage of registered vehicles.
Increase in nighttime


And here is one that I thought was really suprising:

Most pedestrian fatalities take place on local roads, at night, away from intersections, suggesting the need for safer road crossings. Over the past 10 years, nighttime crashes accounted for more than 90 percent of the total increase in pedestrian deaths.

So what is happening that is causing almost all the increase in pedestrian killing to happen at night? The study doesn’t really get into it, suggesting only:

The growing prevalence of nighttime pedestrian fatalities suggests a need to prioritize engineering and enforcement countermeasures that can improve safety at night (e.g., improved street lighting, nighttime enforcement patrols).

I would have thought that nighttime crashes might actually go down, as new cars get brighter, more focused LED bulbs. In fact, according to the UK’s RAC quoted in the Telegraph
Some 15 percent of drivers have suffered a near-miss due to the brightness of some new car headlights, according to a new report by the motoring body.... “LED light is more directional. Rather than being big spread of light which comes from a halogen bulb, LED light is more focused. It is also a traditionally brighter light which appears as blue white, hence why it appears brighter in the dark."
12 inch screen

© Uconnect infotainment system/ FiatChrysler

I suspect also that the infotainment systems in newer cars are more distracting at night; one’s pupils can only adapt so quickly to changes.

I am always quick to blame the increasing numbers of light trucks on the road for everything, but one thing their owners say is so wonderful is their improved visibility that comes from being high up. But their headlights are higher up, too; does that reduce their drivers ability to see pedestrians? Or are their headlights blinding other drivers so that they, in turn, don’t see pedestrians?

That 90 percent of the increase in deaths happens at night raises so many questions. Is there more speeding, drinking and distracted driving at night than there used to be? There are so many variables, but as the report author Richard Retting notes: “Crossing the street should not be a death sentence.” Neither should be going out at night.

And bless the Governors’ Highway Safety Associaton once again for not falling into the distracted walking victim-blaming trap, noting that any impact that smartphones have is minimal and is spread out. "Although the surge in smartphone use coincides with a sharp rise in pedestrian fatalities during the same period, there is a lack of evidence to establish a definitive link." And let's not blame pedestrians for wearing dark clothing; Peak Goth was a decade ago. What people wear hasn't changed much in the meantime.