The rise in pedestrian deaths has prompted concern, and in some cases action, from policymakers and traffic safety advocates across the country in recent years. Despite that, fatality rates aren't yet going down.
The Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) released a study on Wednesday estimating that just under 6,000 pedestrians lost their lives last year, essentially the same death toll as 2016. The projected total, along with a spike in deaths in 2016, both represent the highest levels seen since 1990.
The new findings signal that higher fatalities experienced in recent years were likely not a temporary aberration.
“We’ve plateaued at a very bad place,” says Richard Retting, who authored the report. “This should not be a new normal.”
While pedestrian deaths have increased over the past decade, other types of traffic fatalities declined. Pedestrians accounted for 16 percent of all motor-vehicle related deaths in 2016, up from 11 percent in 2007.
GHSA compiled preliminary fatality data from all 50 states covering the first half of 2017. Although they suggest total pedestrian deaths dipped about 4 percent over the six-month period, fatality counts are expected to increase as states finalize their numbers. According to Retting, states’ preliminary totals have trailed final figures by roughly 4 percent in prior years, so they were adjusted to estimate a national tally that’s about the same as last year.
In Indiana, 63 pedestrians were killed during the first half of the year, up from 42 in 2016. The state’s pedestrian fatalities have been trending upward over the past several years, and the 2017 tally marked another recent high.
According to the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, which tracks traffic fatalities, more young people are being injured in crashes -- although older adults are more likely to be killed.
“We believe [the increase] is in large part due to distracted driving and distracted walking as well,” says Will Wingfield, the institute’s communications director.
Tennessee similarly experienced a sharp increase. An additional 25 pedestrians were killed last year, up 42 percent from only three years earlier.
Many of those deaths occurred in fast-growing Nashville. The Metro Nashville Police Department reported 23 pedestrian fatalities in 2017 -- the deadliest year on record. A pedestrian death registry launched by local safety advocates has catalogued each fatality.
California, Georgia and Texas were among states reporting significantly fewer deaths over the first half of the year.
States’ six-month totals, however, might not always be reflective of fatalities over the entire year. Louisiana, for example, recorded a 24 percent increase in the GHSA figures, but data reported by Louisiana State University indicates pedestrian deaths actually declined for the whole year.
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It’s hard to say exactly what might be driving the overall rise in pedestrian deaths.
One obvious reason is that there are simply more cars on the road. The number of miles traveled by vehicles increased 2.8 percent between 2015 and 2016 then rose another 1.2 percent the first half of last year, according to Federal Highway Administration data.
Retting suspects cellphone use by drivers and pedestrians could also be a culprit. The total number of multimedia messages sent has more than tripled since 2010.
“Those kinds of changes are very meaningful in terms of people’s eyeballs not being where we want them to be,” he says.
The report also suggests a possible link with marijuana use. In states that have legalized recreational marijuana, pedestrian deaths collectively increased 16.4 percent over the first half of the year, while they dropped among states that didn't legalize the drug.
It’s hard to gauge, however, how much of a role marijuana may have played in traffic accidents because states implemented policies at different times and other factors are involved. But one place to look is Washington state, where marijuana was legalized in late 2012 and the first dispensaries opened in mid-2014.
According to data from the Traffic Safety Commission, Washington state saw an increase in 2015 and 2016 in fatal crashes where THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana, was present in blood tests of either the pedestrian or driver. The totals, while higher, still remain relatively small. Additionally, THC levels can be detected days or even weeks after marijuana use, and Washington state’s data also indicates that between 70 and 80 percent of drivers found to have THC also tested positive for alcohol or other drugs.
Several other issues cited in the GHSA report are perennial factors in traffic accidents.
Either pedestrians or drivers had elevated blood alcohol content levels in nearly half of fatal crashes in 2016. Federal data also suggests nighttime collisions are a major problem -- three quarters of fatal crashes occurred after dark.
Although the picture hasn’t improved much nationally, several cities are reporting promising results from pedestrian safety initiatives.
Thirty-five localities have adopted “Vision Zero" strategies, a comprehensive set of policies aimed at eliminating all types of traffic deaths. New York and San Francisco, two of the first Vision Zero cities, recently reported substantial declines in fatalities.