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Why Are Pedestrian Deaths on the Rise?

Pedestrians are getting hit and killed by automobiles at unprecedented levels. Here's why it's happening.

pedestrian death

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.

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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:

pedestrian deaths

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.

pedestrian deaths

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.

Pedestrians

  1. Be predictable. Follow the rules of the road and obey signs and signals.
  2. Walk on sidewalks whenever available.
  3. If there is no sidewalk, walk facing traffic and as far from traffic as possible.
  4. Keep alert at all times; don’t be distracted by electronic devices that take your eyes (and ears) off the road.
  5. Whenever possible, cross streets at crosswalks or intersections, where drivers expect pedestrians. Look for cars in all directions, including those turning left or right.
  6. 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.
  7. Never assume a driver sees you. Make eye contact with drivers as they approach to make sure you are seen.
  8. Be visible at all times. Wear bright clothing during the day, and wear reflective materials or use a flashlight at night.
  9. Watch for cars entering or exiting driveways, or backing up in parking lots.
  10. Avoid alcohol and drugs when walking; they impair your abilities and your judgment.

Motorists

  1. Look out for pedestrians everywhere, at all times. Safety is a shared responsibility.
  2. Use extra caution when driving in hard-to-see conditions, such as nighttime or bad weather.
  3. Slow down and be prepared to stop when turning or otherwise entering a crosswalk.
  4. 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.
  5. Never pass vehicles stopped at a crosswalk. There may be people crossing that you can’t see.
  6. Never drive under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
  7. Follow the speed limit, especially around people on the street.
  8. Follow slower speed limits in school zones and in neighborhoods where children are present.
  9. 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.

Comments
  • I THINK THE REPLACMENT OF CONVETIONAL STREET LAMPS WITH LED’S HAS LED TO LESS LIGHTING ON THE ROADS. THE TOWN I JUST MOVED BACK TO AFTER TWENTY YEARS REPLACED THE THE LIGHTS WITH LED’S. THE SAME ROAD I DROVE TWENTY YEARS A GO I BELIEVE IS DARKER, MY HIGH BEAMS COME NOW WHERE THE DIDN’T 20 YEARS AGO.

    Reply
  • What about the “phone zombies”? People staring at their phones instead of looking around to see if a car is coming. Especially at crosswalks where they think they are safe?

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    • that’s exactly what I came on to say.. I’m surprised that the article didn’t mention for people to stay off their darn phones

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      • I agree you have people crossing the road looking at their cell phone, not looking for vehicles these people are irresponsible. This article is totally wrong, people are j walking all over the place. Pedestrians think the roads are sidewalks. I think they should stop blaming the drivers and start looking at pedestrians irresponsibility to not observe upcoming traffic.

        Reply
  • Phil C.

    What about the “phone zombies”? People staring at their phones instead of looking around to see if a car is coming. Especially at crosswalks where they think they are safe?

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  • Obviously, poor driving habits contribute to more pedestrians getting hit. However, I believe anyone who drives will agree that pedestrians do not look out for themselves.
    People rarely stop and look both ways, on streets as well as parking lots.
    Pedestrians have the legal right of way in many instances but the average person doesn’t know this and assumes they are free to go and it on the motorist to look out for them.
    In my generation, these rules were taught in grade school. I don’t believe it is included anymore and these simple rules are not being taught.

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  • The arrogance of drivers has gotten far worse in recent years. I used to see an occasional driver run a stop sign. Now I’d say that at least 30% of drivers slow down and do a “rolling stop” through stop signs. Maybe 5% just slow down slightly (maybe looking one way) and then drive straight through. Pedestrian deaths will continue to rise if people think that their time is TOO important and stop signs are just there for everyone else or just to make them late. On a similar note, how much time does one save by tailgating me? [Note: I don’t drive slowly.]

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  • I know for myself that not having the visible poles with RED AND YELLOW cross lights has to be major factor. I have seen people walk right out with the idea that traffic has to come to a screeching halt when the pedestrian decides to just walk. These little signs that say watch out for pedestrian crossing is useless and so are the tiny blinking lights that I assume are in place the very large RED AND YELLOW crossing lights. I can not tell you how many times I have been frightened out of my mind when all of sudden there are people who appear in front of me who decide they want to cross. What ever happened to normal RED AND YELLOW cross lights?? Its ridiculous that they were taken down and replaced with nonsense!

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  • Raymond P.

    The idea of blaming the type of vehicle (SUV’s) is ridiculous !! Yes drivers are partly to blame, it is difficult to believe that some have a license but don’t appear to know the rules of the road OR just don’t care.
    I have seen drivers going in the wrong direction in parking lots and shopping centers BUT pedestrians also have little understanding of what it would be like to be hit by the smallest vehicle @ 25 mph..

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    • I believe the article blamed SUVs for deaths, not incidents. I witnessed a car strike a pedestrian who rolled over the hood, roof, and trunk of the car. Once back on the street, he got up and kept walking. The driver hesistated and kept on going. Really. I think an SUV would have put the walker on the sidelines for a time.

      Reply
  • Robert B.

    The article irresponsibly seems to place more blame on pedestrians. So many drivers are untrained or undertrained, and drive like macho cowboys. And why wasn’t one of the suggestions to simply not drive an SUV?? Most people who own them don’t drive off-road or have large families, but buy them nonetheless.

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  • I have seen some drivers pull out from behind me at a RED light and stop sign and just go through!!!

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    • I have seen this, too. Also, sometimes a person is sitting at a red light and decides they’ve waited long enough and just drives through, as if THEY decide the red light is too long.

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  • The new LED headlights of oncoming traffic are blinding, making it difficult to see pedestrians at night. Recent articles in other news outlets have recognized this problem. Will AAA address this further than their recommendation to “look to the right”? That does not help!

    Reply
  • I live in a college town , and those kids are always on their cellphone , stepping of the curb and not even looking !

    Reply
  • I see many younger people,on their phones or whatever,just srep out into the road as if they own it. I know that the law is to stop And give them the right of way but they need to look and see that you are stopping for them..

    Reply
  • at night the brighter lights on newer vehicles make it harder to see! on-coming vehicles tend to blind drivers and they lose sight of people as they cross the road in front of you.

    Reply
  • I can agree with the majority of comments, from both sides of the issue. Mostly because I see it everyday. What occurs to me is that a person who is inconsiderate, arrogant, ignorant of the rules, or chronically distracted behaves that way either while driving or walking.

    Reply
  • Deplorable N.

    I agree with most of the comments, especially those stressing the need for pedestrians to pay attention to what’s going on around them…I always told my kids that when a pedestrian gets hit by a vehicle, it’s almost always because TWO people weren’t paying attention.

    In addition, I want to point out that the entire premise of the article is flawed, because it uses the wrong denominator to calculate pedestrian death rates. What does total vehicle miles traveled have to do with pedestrian death rates, especially since a very high proportion of those miles are on high-speed expressways where there aren’t supposed to even be any pedestrians present? I’m not sure what the denominator should be, but I do know for sure this isn’t it.

    Reply

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