Pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. have skyrocketed 46% since 2009, creating an emerging public health crisis as researchers grasp to understand the reasons.
The increases far outpace growth in overall traffic deaths, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Almost 6,000 pedestrians — people who might have been out for a walk after dinner, hurrying to get to work or rushing to cross a street — were killed by motor vehicles on or along America’s roads in 2016, the latest year for which numbers are available. That's almost twice the number of deaths tied directly to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Put another way, more Americans are dying each year as they walk than have died in combat in Iraq since 2003.
The question for policy makers and others is what explains the dramatic increase.
Distraction behind the wheel, texting while walking and even marijuana legalization have all been tagged as potential culprits in past research.
In addition, a new study released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows an 81% increase in single-vehicle pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs between 2009 and 2016, based on federal records.
At a time when SUVs have overtaken passenger cars in new vehicle sales and automakers are shifting their production plans — Ford, for instance, recently announced it was dropping most of its passenger car lines in the U.S. — the implications for America’s most vulnerable road users, pedestrians, could be stark.
David Harkey, Insurance Institute president, said one reason SUVs have an outsized impact on pedestrian fatalities has to do with their design.
“SUVs have higher front ends, and often the design for the vehicle is much more vertical than passenger cars,” Harkey said. “We do think that the number of SUVs on the roadways now and the size of the vehicles is playing some role.”
The institute, best known for its video-recorded crash tests using dummies inside vehicles, has not performed such tests with pedestrian dummies to examine the impact of SUVs versus passenger cars.
Reached for comment, a spokesman for a top auto industry advocacy group said that he was unaware of specific research on SUVs and pedestrian fatalities, but that huge strides are being made in accident prevention.
“Safety continues to be a priority for automakers,” said Wade Newton of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, “and companies are working to advance pedestrian-sensing automatic emergency braking — with some versions already on the market.”
Whatever the combination of reasons, pedestrian fatalities reached 5,987 in 2016, their highest level since George H.W. Bush — the first President Bush — was in the White House.
The USA Today Network is investigating the phenomenon of rising pedestrian fatalities, an urban problem primarily plaguing either cities with high poverty rates or warm-weather spots such as Florida and Arizona. Our analysis so far has found that African Americans are killed at a disproportionate rate compared with their population nationwide.
Nationally, more pedestrians die in collisions when they are jaywalking along busy arterial roads. More of those fatalities also occur at night and involve males. Many of these crashes also involve alcohol, though federal safety researchers say that does not explain the increase. In 2016, pedestrians accounted for 16% of traffic deaths; in 2007, that figure was just 11%, according to NHTSA.
The varying factors at play highlight a problem with many components and many unanswered questions.
“There’s a lot of unknowns in this space right now,” said Jana Lynott, a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute.
The crisis is felt most keenly in America’s cities, and its effects are nationwide. The highest rankings in 2010-16 among cities with more than 200,000 people were not just older industrial centers such as St. Louis and Newark but also in Sun Belt cities such as Phoenix, Baton Rouge, La., and Miami.
In Detroit, which had the highest rate among larger cities, nearly a quarter of the 118 people who died in traffic crashes in 2016 were pedestrians. Despite its troubling ranking, the city in 2016 saw improvement in its fatality numbers, which dropped after 65,000 streetlights were installed over a three-year period.
The dramatically increasing rate of pedestrian fatalities has caught the attention of city planners, safety agencies and researchers seeking to drill down on why more people are dying as they walk. They are developing strategies, including suggestions for improving pedestrian infrastructure and slowing driver speeds, for cutting those numbers substantially.
NHTSA has begun a major examination into the effect of electronic device usage on pedestrian deaths. That process could help clarify the role that distraction, particularly connected to cell phone use, plays in pedestrian fatalities. NHTSA said no studies show “a direct link between the behavioral effects of distraction and pedestrian crash risk,” but the agency says distraction-affected motor vehicle crashes lead to many deaths and injuries.
The Governors Highway Safety Association earlier this year suggested that marijuana legalization could be one reason for the rise, noting that the seven states and Washington, D.C., where recreational use of pot was legalized between 2012 and 2016 had a 16.4% increase in pedestrian fatalities for the first half of last year, while other states saw a decline. That suggested link has drawn skepticism from some who call it hard to prove. The study also noted the increase in cell phone usage, with the number of smartphones in active use in the U.S. increasing by 236% from 2010 to 2016.
Some cities have responded to the carnage by taking action.
New York targets drivers
In 2017, 101 pedestrians were killed in New York City, the lowest number since the city began keeping that statistic in 1910. The number has dropped 45% since Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected in 2014, implemented a strategy called Vision Zero, a multi-agency effort that uses engineering, education and enforcement. Compare that with the 184 pedestrian deaths in 2013.
“We are proud of the fact that here in New York, we are, at the moment, bucking the disheartening national trend,” said Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation.
Underpinning all that is lots of data, she explained. The city identified where the accidents were happening — about 10% of streets or intersections are responsible for 50% of them — and began redesigning the roadways, using methods including installing plastic lane bollards to prevent drivers from making sudden, sharp left turns and tweaking walk/don’t walk signs to change before the traffic lights do to give pedestrians several extra seconds of crossing time.
Officials lowered the city’s default speed limit from 30 m.p.h. to 25 and increased the number of school zones outfitted with cameras from 20 to 140. One oft-cited success is Queens Boulevard, a 12-lane road in the eponymous borough, which had been nicknamed the Boulevard of Death for the 185 deaths there, 138 of them pedestrians, since 1990. In 2015 and 2016, the number was zero.
Professional drivers, such as cabbies, truckers and city bus drivers, underwent special training, and a public-safety campaign worked to explain to civilian drivers that the choices they make behind the wheel are critical. There is no similar education effort for pedestrians.
“We focus our education efforts on folks who are driving 4-ton vehicles,” Trottenberg said. “They’re the ones who are in control of life or death.”
But making these Vision Zero changes doesn’t come cheaply, so other municipalities that wish to emulate New York’s success didn’t just happen in a New York minute.
The city has spent more than $700 million since 2014 and has $1.6 billion allocated to use through the summer of 2022, according to the New York City DOT.
The New York Police Department has also taken action.
The department agreed to change traffic-enforcement officers’ shifts after DOT accident data showed a huge spike in serious injuries and fatalities later in the day when Daylight Saving Time ends in the fall. Officers also wrote many more tickets for behaviors known for causing accidents, such as speeding, failing to yield to a pedestrian, using a cell phone while driving and texting while driving — close to 685,000 in 2017, up from 7.3% in 2016 and 20.2% in 2014.
Ann Arbor effort
In Ann Arbor, a campaign is under way.
In a video being aired on local TV, an elderly man waves to a stopped driver as he crosses the street.
“If your dad was crossing, you’d stop,” a female narrator says before viewers are reminded they would do the same thing for a favorite aunt, their high school biology teacher, even someone wearing a chicken suit because they love chickens.
The videos are part of Ann Arbor’s effort to educate drivers on the requirement to stop, not just yield, for pedestrians in crosswalks in the city that is home to the University of Michigan.
The video launched last week as an ad on TV stations with a message that will reach not only viewers in Ann Arbor, but also in nearby Detroit.
Ann Arbor’s crosswalk ordinance requires drivers to stop for a pedestrian if the pedestrian is still on the curb and has not yet stepped into the crosswalk. That approach has prompted grousing from some residents who believe it encourages bad behavior on the part of pedestrians, even though the ordinance also prohibits pedestrians from stepping in front of a vehicle that has no time to yield.
The city also has a growing network of midblock crossings — 137 as of last year and 35 with enhanced warning devices, such as flashing lights, according to a city report. Driving along some of the city’s busier residential streets dotted with crosswalks, it’s easy to see why some residents think that many more of those crossings should have warning lights. The city has paired the infrastructure expansion with ticketing of drivers, which officials credit with doubling the stoppage percentage in some cases.
Robert Kellar, a city spokesman, said Ann Arbor has no jaywalking ordinance, and he does not appear ready to recommend one.
“When pedestrians can cause the driver of a vehicle to be killed,” that might be the time for a jaywalking ordinance, Kellar said.
In Los Angeles, the focus is on making streets safer.
"If we can design our streets to protect our most vulnerable users, we can create a better environment for everybody," said Nat Gale, program manager for Los Angeles' Vision Zero program, noting the high number of pedestrian fatalities. "What we find is our walkers are overrepresented. They represent 15% of traffic collisions, but half of deaths."
After identifying the corridors that have the highest number of deaths, the team went about finding solutions.
Some intersections, for instance, were given "walk" signals that activate before the main traffic light turns green. That way, drivers see pedestrians in their field of vision.
Crosswalks are being made more visible. Some, for instance, get bold white stripes to make them more visible to drivers, like the Beatles on the cover of their Abbey Road album. Pavement markers help, too.
The city also has more "scramble crosswalks," where intersections are closed to cars entirely so pedestrians can cross however they'd like, including diagonally. One is at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, the intersection next to the theater where the Academy Awards are held.
Some cities are passing laws against walking and texting when crossing streets.
Honolulu, which had seven pedestrian deaths in 2016, is one of them.
"The hope is more municipalities will adopt similar language looking at pedestrians and vehicles," said Council member Brandon Elefante, who led the effort to the pass the law.
He said he got the idea after visiting a local high school where a "youth for safety" club had formed.
"They invited us to come and look at their campaign to educate their peers, who were basically texting in a crosswalk," Elefante said. They thought a law was needed.
The law passed 7-2 on the council. There was opposition from some people who thought it was government overreach. At first, the fines were going to be high, up to $500 for a violation.
"We lowered it to $99" for those who violate the law three times in a year. Now, the minimum for the first violation is a minimum of $15 and maximum of $35 for a first violation, then at least $35 and not more than $75 for the second. The third is between $75 and $99.
The law, however, has been in a warning phase. Since it was enacted, there have been 88 violations. But they have been decreasing, so much so that by March, only 14 were written, Elefante said. Under the law, you can hold a cell phone, you just can't use it in a crosswalk.
"It's actually millennials who advocated and conceived a law," he said. "They are concerned about their peers. Now it is a law.
"The story and law have really taken off."
Another city that has adopted a similar law is Montclair, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb of about 40,000.
"We're in our warning phase, our education phase," said Jon Hamilton, director of administrative services and human resources. "We have been putting up signage around the city, engaging with our local schools so we can get our message out to them."
From January to April 16, however, police had issued 30 warnings. As in Honolulu, the numbers have been decreasing as the word gets out. The youngest violator was 13 and the oldest 51.
"The feedback we have gotten has been overwhelmingly positive," Hamilton said.
He said the law was prompted by an accident in which a woman was injured. "We want to make this a pedestrian-friendly city."
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.
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