By Autumn Cafiero Giusti
If the projections turn out to be correct, pedestrian deaths could reach their highest level in more than 40 years, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
In a report issued in March, the GHSA estimated a 10% increase in the number of persons on foot killed in traffic crashes in 2015, compared to the previous year. The estimates are based on preliminary data reported by all 50 state highway safety agencies and the District of Columbia. With that data, the GHSA is predicting the largest year-to-year percentage increase in pedestrian fatalities since these national records were first kept in 1975.
“It’s really an alarming increase,” says Kara Macek, spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “We’re trying to understand why this is happening and what we can do about it,” she says.
For the first six months of 2015, there were 2,368 pedestrian fatalities, according to preliminary figures. In 2014, there were 2,232 fatalities. In addition to this increase, pedestrians now account for a larger share – about 15% of all motor vehicle crash-related deaths – compared to 11% a decade ago.
There are several factors contributing to the spike, according to the GHSA, and one is that motor vehicle fatalities overall are going up. That’s due to the fact that more people are out driving. That tends to be the case when the economy is stronger. “More people are out, which is good, but it also increases exposure,” Macek says.
Distraction for both drivers and pedestrians and the growing use of cell phones is another suspected cause, although Macek says there’s still limited data on the effects of distraction.
Vehicles are also becoming more “crashworthy,” meaning that the likelihood of drivers and passengers to survive a crash continues to improve. But at the same time, pedestrians remain just as susceptible to injuries when hit by a motor vehicle.
Another possible reason is increased motor vehicle travel, fueled in part by lower gas prices and improved economic conditions. “When gas is expensive, vehicle miles go down and fatalities go down. When it’s less expensive, miles go up and fatalities go up,” Macek says. “It’s just one of those economic trend lines.”
Dr. Guangquing Chi, associate professor of rural sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, has conducted studies on the relationship between gas prices and traffic crashes.
“When gas prices increase, crashes go down,” Chi says. “It’s good news for consumers, but not necessarily for crash rates. In examining traffic crash data in Mississippi from 2004 to 2012, he found a positive association between higher gas prices and safer roads. His analysis of the data found that overall, gas prices affected crashes nine to 10 months after a price change.
“Do we like higher gas prices or lower? That’s something up to you to interpret,” Chi says.
Rethinking road design and engineering
James Gallagher, spokesman for the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, says that design of city roads plays into pedestrian accidents. “We have roads that are three lanes in either direction with 45-mph speed limits. Then we put cross walks and bus stops between them,” he says.
There tend to be more crashes on these types of busy roadways when crosswalks are spread out too far. “People don’t want to walk half a mile up the road to a cross walk and then half a mile back,” he says.
Still crosswalks aren’t a 100-percent guarantee for safety, Gallagher says, adding that drivers hold part of the responsibility. “Drivers need to know they should be yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks,” he says. “Many drivers know this and don’t do this.”
Turning vehicles also produce a significant number of pedestrian crashes, says Charlie Zeeger, director of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. “Even though the pedestrian signal says ‘walk,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe to walk. It just means it’s the pedestrian’s turn to walk,” he says.
A driver may have a green light to turn right, but if there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk, the driver needs to stop and wait, Gallagher says. “The sidewalk is almost like another lane of traffic that you’re driving across when you make a turn,” he says.
Speed plays a significant factor in whether a pedestrian crash could result in injury or death. Gallagher cites a 2011 AAA study that found that a pedestrian’s chance of death increases exponentially with a vehicle’s rate of speed. The study found that the “average risk of death for a pedestrian reaches 10% at a speed of 23 mph, 25% at 32 mph and 50% at 42 mph.”
Senior pedestrians in particular are at risk, Zeeger says.
If an older person gets hit by a vehicle, their chances are dying are much higher than those of a younger person who might be in better health. Older people are also not as likely to react and get out of the way as quickly as younger pedestrians.
Education, enforcement, engineering
Nationally, pedestrian deaths increased from 4,735 in 2013 to 4,884 in 2014. Pedestrian deaths have reached nearly a 10-year high, with only 2005 recording more pedestrian deaths, 4,982, in those years, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Dr. Dominique Lord, a civil engineering professor at Texas A&M University, says that he is working on a research project looking at why there’s been a big increase in fatal collisions overall in the U.S. “We’re starting to see an increase in fatal collisions – not just with pedestrians, but with all types,” he says.
Lord believes something needs to be done to improve the attention of drivers and pedestrians. “This needs to be studied more, and more needs to be done, because distraction is a major factor in many crashes,” he said.
Education, enforcement and engineering rank among the leading factors that can help create a safer environment for pedestrians, Zeeger says. That includes traffic engineering improvements, enforcement of speeding laws and having a comprehensive education program on the citywide or statewide level.
Efforts continued in state legislatures in 2015 to increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, the report states. The most common approaches were to adopt or strengthen safe bicycle passing laws, refine bicycle operation requirements, improve pedestrian safety tactics and support bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure development, according to NCSL. (See list of state regulations below.)
There are also new developments in pedestrian safety that engineers and planners need to be aware of. For example, Lord mentions the HAWK beacon signal, which stands for High-intensity Activated crossWalK. It’s also known as a Pedestrian Hybrid Beacon. A pedestrian can push a button to activate the beacon, which resembles a traffic light. Like a railroad crossing, the beacon alerts motorists so slow down – with blinking yellow lights – and then stop – with blinking red lights – while a pedestrian is crossing.
The nighttime solution, Zeeger says, is to have pedestrians make themselves more visible to motorists and not assume that people in cars can see them.
Macek believes traffic engineering improvements such as better timing of signal lights and more crosswalks could greatly reduce pedestrian death rates. “Engineering is huge,” she says. “We really prioritize vehicles over drivers in our transportation infrastructure. We need to rethink that mindset and realize that pedestrians have just as much of a right to get around safely.”
Distraction is one issue that is plaguing safety efforts. Zeeger says distraction is especially concerning because it’s a difficult problem to overcome with traditional engineering improvements. “You can’t just change the roadway to make that problem go away,” he says.
But you can encourage motorists and pedestrians to alter their behavior, he says. If a motorist is going faster than 39 mph and driving with low beams, it’s virtually impossible to see a pedestrian and stop in time if the pedestrian isn’t paying attention or wearing dark clothing, Zeeger says.
For pedestrians who know they’ll be out at night, wearing bright clothing at night and carrying a flashlight can make a person on foot much more visible to motorists, Macek says.
“It’s not acceptable to see that over 5,000 people went out last year for a walk and never came home,” she says. “These deaths are preventable, but it’s really hard to change behavior. So we need to keep working at it.”
State laws regulating when motorists must stop or yield for pedestrians:
- In any portion of the roadway:
- Upon roadway / within one lane the vehicle is traveling:
• Washington, D.C., Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey (only marked crosswalks), Oregon, Washington
- Upon the same half of the roadway / approaching from the other side to constitute danger
• Hawaii, Illinois
- In any portion of the roadway:
• Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey (unmarked crosswalks), New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, Wyoming
- Same half / approaching from opposite side of the roadway:
• Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures