A report released Wednesday says pedestrian deaths fell 8.7 percent in the first half of 2013 compared with the first half of 2012. There were 190 fewer fatalities in the more recent time period, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, which compiled the report.
"I'm a little surprised by the decrease, to be honest," said Dr. Alan Williams, who led the research for GHSA. "I thought that there's some trends that would be continuing and this would be one of them."
In the first half of 2013, there were 1,985 fatalities, according to GHSA, compared with 2,175 over the first half of 2012. Overall, there were 4,743 pedestrian deaths in 2012, the year with the latest available data, and they accounted for 14.1 percent of all traffic fatalities.
Though Williams hesitated to pin the cause for the three-year rise and fall on any one reason, he thought one of the biggest factors in both the rise and decline in deaths may have to do more with economics than U.S. roadways. He theorized the economic recession forced more workers out of their cars and onto their feet as a money-saving practice.
Now that the economy is recovering, people are back behind the wheel – and perhaps dying more frequently there. Another recent study cited the economic recovery as one reason overall traffic fatalities actually increased in 2012, the first increase in seven years.
Even amid a long-term trend of declines in overall traffic fatalities, pedestrian deaths had climbed approximately 15 percent over three consecutive years, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, an increase that caught the attention of safety experts amid concerns over distracted driving.
Sunshine State makes strides
Now, some of the biggest safety gains have been made in states that have traditionally been dangerous places for pedestrians.
Florida, with its abundance of senior drivers and multi-lane roadways, has long been a deadly state for pedestrians. Four of its cities – Orlando, Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa -- rank among the top five most dangerous in the country for pedestrians, according to an annual Transportation for America study.
But the state's pedestrian death rate dropped 23.7 percent over the first six months of 2013, which is the latest period for which data is available, the biggest decline in the nation.
Fifty-five fewer Floridians died in the first half of 2013: 234 pedestrians killed in the first half of 2012; 179 lost their lives in the first half of 2013.
"We're doing a lot," said Billy Hattaway, a Florida Department of Transportation official who has been leading a push to fix Florida's dangerous roads since 2011. "We have to change the driving culture, the pedestrian culture and design differently."
Like many southern states where the population numbers exploded after World War II, Florida's roads are designed for cars and decidedly not for pedestrians. Suburban sprawl and traffic-choked four-lane highways are hostile places for pedestrians.
"We grew up at the wrong time, in terms of rate of growth," Hattaway said. "They kept building and building in these cul-de-sac subdivisions and arterials got bigger and bigger, and people end up driving everywhere, because things are laid out in such a way where you can't walk anywhere."
Florida has been using plain-clothed police officers to monitor driver behavior in troublesome corridors, running education campaigns in schools and big events like the Daytona 500, re-training transportation engineers and installing more crosswalks and bike lanes. The state has also added staff to its regional Department of Transportation offices who are dedicated to dealing with bicyclist and pedestrian concerns.
Rising concern over deaths
Other states have seen similar progress. California had 37 fewer pedestrian deaths year over year, and New York, which recently rolled out a program called Vision Zero to combat a rash of pedestrian deaths, saw its six-month total fall by 15 year over year.
States with larger populations, not surprisingly, had the highest number of pedestrian fatalities. But there was a great variation in the percentage of pedestrian deaths within overall traffic deaths, according to the GHSA. (Complete state-by-state pedestrian data here).
In South Dakota, for example, pedestrian deaths accounted for only 2 percent of the overall traffic deaths total. But pedestrians comprised 26 percent of the traffic fatalities in New Jersey, 25 percent in New York and 24 percent in Delaware.
"Pedestrians are obviously vulnerable," Williams said. "Roads are made to accommodate motor vehicles, and pedestrians and bicyclists have traditionally been a secondary thought in design... There are a lot of things being done, and there's a lot more we can do to make it easier for them to maneuver on the roadways."
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.