Pedestrian deaths rose a projected 11 percent in 2016, reaching a total of nearly 6,000 people killed. That is the highest total in more than two decades, according to data out Thursday.
If it helps to think of that increase in terms of real people, it means about 620 more pedestrians were killed by vehicles last year than the year before.
The figures are preliminary, based on data from all states and the District of Columbia for the first six months of 2016 and then extrapolated for the rest of the year. During the first six months, states recorded 2,660 pedestrian fatalities — an increase from 2,486 deaths in the same time period in 2015.
But the preliminary figures would represent the steepest year-to-year increase since record-keeping began, both in number of deaths and percent increase.
The figures were prepared for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.
"This is the second year in a row that we have seen unprecedented increases in pedestrian fatalities, which is both sad and alarming," said Richard Retting of Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants, who wrote the report.
From 2014 to 2015, the number of pedestrian deaths spiked more than 9 percent. "It is critical that the highway safety community understand these disturbing statistics and work to aggressively implement effective countermeasures. The information in this report will help states and localities pursue engineering, enforcement and education solutions to reverse this trend."
Traffic fatalities overall jumped 6 percent last year, their highest level in nearly a decade and erasing improvements made during the Great Recession and economic recovery, according to data released last month by the National Safety Council. The council estimates there were more than 40,200 traffic deaths in 2016.
But pedestrian deaths vastly outpace fatalities overall, climbing 25 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to Retting's report. Total traffic deaths increased about 6 percent over the same period.
"This latest data shows that the U.S. isn't meeting the mark on keeping pedestrians safe on our roadways," said Jonathan Adkins, the governors safety association's executive director. "Every one of these lives represents a loved one not coming home tonight, which is absolutely unacceptable."
Several factors could be behind the grim trend:
- We're driving more miles thanks to an improved economy and lower gas prices.
- We're walking more for exercise and out of concern for the environment.
- And the likely biggest factor: We're distracted by smartphones and other devices, both in our cars and in our hands as pedestrians.
- Alcohol is a factor. Surprisingly, 34 percent of pedestrians killed were intoxicated, and 15 percent of vehicle occupants.
Distraction as causality is hard to prove, of course. But it sure looks that way based on a process of elimination. Walking and miles driven are up only a few percentage points, said Retting. And alcohol use has not increased. Meanwhile, texting and other uses of wireless devices have exploded, he said.
"It's the only factor that that seems to indicate a dramatic change in how people behave," Retting said.
Access the full report, including state-by-state data, at www.ghsa.org/resources/spotlight-peds17.