Nighttime Traffic Deaths Are on the Rise

From 2010 to 2017, nighttime pedestrian and cyclist fatalities rose 46 percent while daytime deaths rose 15 percent.

Car speeding down the road at night.
(Shutterstock)
Pedestrians and vehicles travel together along stretches of U.S. 90 in Escambia County, just west of Pensacola, Fla. Six lanes of traffic moving at high speeds make a precarious adventure for people walking to nearby big-box retailers and restaurants during the day. Like other roadways, the highway is much more dangerous after the sun goes down. During the three-year period ending in 2017, some 70 percent of all pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in Escambia County occurred in dark, unlighted conditions. Those numbers aren’t all that uncommon in Florida or in many other parts of the country.

Pedestrian deaths have trended up nationally in recent years, and federal data shows that an alarming number are happening at night. Between 2010 and 2017, annual nighttime pedestrian and cyclist deaths climbed 46 percent in the United States. Daytime fatalities also rose, but only by 15 percent.

Governing reviewed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that showed the lighting conditions for all pedestrian and cyclist fatalities over the three-year period ending in 2017. Fatalities in dark conditions were several times more common in some jurisdictions than others. Areas in the South generally had the highest per capita rates. “What we were seeing in the crash reports was that drivers were just not seeing the pedestrian or the bicyclist,” says Trenda McPherson, Florida’s pedestrian and bicycle safety program manager.

 
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John Bullough, who leads transportation and safety lighting research at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says the usual factors creating dangerous environments for pedestrians, such as distracted driving, are exacerbated at night. “We’re not expecting pedestrians [at night],” he says. “It’s really that lack of expectation that makes it a larger problem in the dark than it is in the daytime.”

The commonly used lights positioned directly above crosswalks might seem like a solution, but often they are not. That’s because they mostly illuminate the tops of pedestrians’ heads rather than their full vertical silhouettes. Bullough recommends lights positioned in front of crosswalks at lower heights, as well as better maintained pavement markings. “There does seem to be a lot about the way we’ve been doing lighting that doesn’t cut it anymore,” he says.

Of all fatalities recorded nationally, NHTSA data shows that a third occur at night in unlighted conditions, while a slightly higher percentage happen at night in roadways with at least some lighting. But there are stark differences in individual jurisdictions’ crash statistics, largely reflecting their lighting systems. In Clark County, home to Las Vegas, the City of Lights, just 6 percent of all pedestrian and cyclist traffic deaths over the three-year period occurred in dark, unlit areas. Denver and Minneapolis reported similarly low tallies. The situation is much different in other large counties. Two-thirds of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in Greenville County, S.C., and 73 percent in Montgomery County, Texas, outside of Houston, occurred in dark, unlit areas. 

Research suggests illuminating crosswalks can save lives. Detroit, which has had one of the highest overall fatality rates, experienced a decline in the number of pedestrians killed at night following a major, multiyear street lighting initiative. 

But most accidents aren’t happening at intersections. In 2017, only 30 percent of nighttime pedestrian and cyclist fatalities occurred at intersections or other junctions. Stretches of roadway between intersections that lack crosswalk signals are particularly dangerous settings. In fact, places with high per capita rates of nighttime fatalities tend to be suburban, with roadways designed exclusively for cars. This is the case for U.S. 90 near Pensacola. Decades ago, it served as a primary throughway. But a new interstate to the north redirected traffic, enabling cars to travel faster. “They were designed to maximize traffic flow as opposed to accommodating pedestrians in the best way,” says Michael Lewis, a safety engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation. 

In response, the department has embarked on a $100 million improvement project that includes the installation of LED lights along sections of U.S. 90 in Escambia County, as well as lower-level lights in front of pedestrian crossings.

Lighting up roadways alone isn’t going to solve the problem, and it’s not feasible to place lights everywhere. So law enforcement officers in Florida are distributing bike lights and LED arm bands in high-crash areas. They’re hoping that by educating both drivers and pedestrians, they can prevent many potentially deadly scenarios from occuring in the first place.

Review traffic fatality data for counties and metro areas

Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.
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