Pedestrian deaths are increasing at the fastest rate recorded since record keeping began more than four decades ago. In a report released Tuesday, researchers projected a 10-percent year-over-year increase in pedestrian deaths in 2015. The Governors Highway Safety Association, which sponsored the report, says that's the largest annual increase since the national reporting system was established in 1975.
"This is a dark day in the history of pedestrian safety," says Richard Retting, the report's author. "It's troubling news, particularly in an era when many cities and states are putting a big emphasis on eliminating them all together. And we're seeing the opposite. We're seeing a startling increase."
The study's results are the latest that indicate 2015 was a horrible year for traffic deaths. A National Safety Council study released last month found overall traffic fatalities had jumped 8.1 percent last year, a figure in line with estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Finalized numbers aren't usually available for nearly a year, so preliminary estimates help deliver an accurate glimpse of current road conditions.
Part of that increase is driven by an increase in vehicle miles traveled. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that Americans traveled more than 3.1 trillion miles in 2015, an increase of 3.5 percent from the previous year. But the growth in the pedestrian death rate was roughly triple that traffic increase. Safety advocates are cautious to not attribute the rise to a single cause, though Retting notes an "exponential increase" not only in cell-phone use, but also in multi-media messaging.
"There are 1,000s of stories of individual lives lost and empty chairs at Thanksgiving tables." – Richard Retting
Cell phones "can be a significant source of distraction for both drivers and pedestrians," the report says.
Economic prosperity and low gas prices are combining to fuel the rise in vehicle miles traveled. They're also leading Americans with newfound discretionary income to take more road trips and vacations, which means the good times are inadvertently contributing to the deaths.
"But even if we justify this statistically change by saying it's in line with economic data, we would say, 'the economy is up, so we expect more people will die in plane crashes,'" Retting said. "We want to see zero plane crashes, but somehow with traffic, it's this built-in psychology that this is OK or accepted. There are 1,000s of stories of individual lives lost and empty chairs at Thanksgiving tables."
Retting estimates more than 5,300 pedestrians died in 2015, an increase from 4,884 in 2014. Pedestrians now account for 15 percent of all traffic fatalities, a proportion that has steadily risen from 11 percent a decade ago. Once the '15 figures are finalized, it will mark the fifth time in six years that pedestrian fatalities have climbed.
There were sharp geographic distinctions. Sun-belt states like Florida and Arizona continued to have the highest rates of pedestrian deaths, at 1.35 and 1.27 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively. But the rise was seen in states not necessarily accustomed to high pedestrian accident rates. Ohio, Minnesota, Montana and Oregon all saw their pedestrian deaths double from the first half of 2015 compared to their 2014 numbers. Rates increased in 27 states.
Alcohol an ongoing 'curse'
Whatever part cell phones are playing in the rise, alcohol remains the single-biggest factor in pedestrian deaths. Thirty-four percent of pedestrians killed hold a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 or above – the threshold for driver impairment. Fifteen percent of drivers are impaired in fatal pedestrian crashes. Together, 49 percent of pedestrian deaths involve alcohol impairment, significantly higher than the 31 percent of overall traffic fatalities that involve alcohol impairment.
"If we could get alcohol out of the equation, we'd save more lives than any other thing that could be done, hands down," Retting said. "Alcohol, for decades, has been a significant part of traffic fatalities and continues to be a curse on the American public."
Other factors in the pedestrian-death increase may include higher-than-expected temperatures in some regions that led to more people walking, speed-limit increases in some states, and the reduction in automated traffic enforcement in other regions, according to the report. Previous research from the GHSA has found pedestrian victims are disproportionally male and middle-aged, though elderly and children also comprise higher-than-average numbers.