A dangerous trend is occurring on American roadways, one putting those on foot directly in harm’s way: Pedestrian deaths are increasing at an unprecedented rate. And it’s nothing new – these tragedies have been on the uptick for years.
While so much focus remains on making drivers safer, why – and how – are we failing pedestrians?
Pedestrian Deaths in 2020
An estimated 6,721 pedestrians died in traffic crashes in 2020 in the United States, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, a 4.8% increase from 2019. But when you look at the rate at which pedestrians are getting killed, the numbers are even more troubling.
Due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the U.S. saw a 13% drop in vehicle miles traveled last year. Factoring this in, the pedestrian fatality rate was 2.3 per billion VMT, up from 1.9 in 2019. This 21% jump is the largest single annual increase since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established the Fatality Analysis Reporting System in 1975.
The GHSA suggests 2020’s uptick in pedestrian deaths was likely the result of unsafe driving habits, such as speeding, drunk and drugged driving and distraction, all of which were on the rise in 2020 as motorists took advantage of open roadways. The organization also points the finger at infrastructure it says is more conducive and safer for drivers instead of pedestrians.
Pedestrian Deaths in the Northeast
Closer to home, projected pedestrian death totals in the Northeast were a mixed bag. The breakdown by state, as well as the percentage change from 2019, includes:
Connecticut: 65 deaths, +23% increase
Massachusetts: 53; -30% decrease
Maine: 9; -47%
New Hampshire: 16; +60%
New Jersey: 191; +9%
New York: 235; -18%
Rhode Island: 18; +125%
Vermont: 8; 167%
Pedestrian Deaths Per Year
Last year could easily be chalked up as an outlier when viewing it in a bubble, but a closer look reveals 2020’s pedestrian death totals were simply the latest results in an ongoing trend. From 2010-2019, U.S. pedestrian fatalities increased from 4,302 to an estimated 6,301, a 46% jump. Over the same time period, all other traffic-related deaths grew by just 5%, while the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled remained identical.
A closer look at pedestrian deaths per year:
Why Are Pedestrian Deaths Increasing?
There are a number of likely culprits responsible for the rise in pedestrian deaths, but experts most often point to one more than any other: the increase in SUVs on the road. The numbers support this theory. Although passenger cars remain most likely to be involved in fatal pedestrian crashes, the rate at which SUVs were involved in such crashes grew 69% from 2010-2019, compared to 46% for cars. (During that time, the SUV market in the U.S. nearly doubled.)
The issue with SUVs is twofold. The large body and elevated carriage of SUVs create more significant blind spots for motorists, making it easier for pedestrians – particularly children – to go unseen. An Indiana news station demonstrated this in an experiment that proved seven children could fit in a line stretching out from the front bumper of an SUV without the driver seeing any of them.
The vehicle’s design is also responsible for the increased likelihood a pedestrian will die after being struck by one. The higher bumpers and front ends of larger vehicles means pedestrian victims often get struck in the torso or head, damaging vital organs. Sedans, on the other hand, most commonly strike pedestrians in their lower extremities. Furthermore, when a victim gets hit by a car, they are more likely to be pushed onto the hood or roof of the car, or off to the side. A pedestrian hit by a SUV will usually be knocked forward and possibly run over.
How to Stay Safe
Safety is always the top priority on the road, and following basic safety procedures will go a long way. These tips from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will help keep both pedestrians and motorists safe.
- Be predictable. Follow the rules of the road and obey signs and signals.
- Walk on sidewalks whenever available.
- If there is no sidewalk, walk facing traffic and as far from traffic as possible.
- Keep alert at all times; don’t be distracted by electronic devices that take your eyes (and ears) off the road.
- Whenever possible, cross streets at crosswalks or intersections, where drivers expect pedestrians. Look for cars in all directions, including those turning left or right.
- If a crosswalk or intersection is not available, locate a well-lit area where you have the best view of traffic. Wait for a gap in traffic that allows enough time to cross safely; continue watching for traffic as you cross.
- Never assume a driver sees you. Make eye contact with drivers as they approach to make sure you are seen.
- Be visible at all times. Wear bright clothing during the day, and wear reflective materials or use a flashlight at night.
- Watch for cars entering or exiting driveways, or backing up in parking lots.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs when walking; they impair your abilities and your judgment.
- Look out for pedestrians everywhere, at all times. Safety is a shared responsibility.
- Use extra caution when driving in hard-to-see conditions, such as nighttime or bad weather.
- Slow down and be prepared to stop when turning or otherwise entering a crosswalk.
- Yield to pedestrians in crosswalks and stop well back from the crosswalk to give other vehicles an opportunity to see the crossing pedestrians so they can stop too.
- Never pass vehicles stopped at a crosswalk. There may be people crossing that you can’t see.
- Never drive under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
- Follow the speed limit, especially around people on the street.
- Follow slower speed limits in school zones and in neighborhoods where children are present.
- Be extra cautious when backing up – pedestrians can move into your path.
For more safety advice, and to learn about free community programs, visit AAA.com.