In New NHTSA Report, Scarce Information on Causes of Pedestrian Deaths

The NHTSA wags its finger at distracted (and drunk) pedestrians but doesn't look too deeply into deadly driver behavior. Photo: Flickr / ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/alxmnslv/6194200753/##Alejandro Monsalve##

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported last December that while overall traffic fatalities in the United States dropped in 2010, pedestrian deaths rose higher – up four percent in 2010 over 2009. Yesterday, the agency released some more detailed statistics about those crashes [PDF], but the report includes scarcely any data or analysis about the underlying causes of pedestrian deaths.

The report provides a set of tables about the prevalence of pedestrian fatalities under certain conditions — different times of day, different types of weather — but the only causal factor the NHTSA discusses is drunkenness. And remarkably, the agency implies that drunk walking, which is perfectly legal, is a bigger risk factor in pedestrian deaths than drunk driving:

Of the pedestrians involved, 33 percent had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or higher. Of the drivers involved in these fatal crashes, only 14 percent had a BAC of .08 g/dL or higher, less than two-fifths the rate for the pedestrians.

In the agency’s consumer advisory, released along with the new numbers, the NHTSA warns both pedestrians and drivers to avoid travel while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

And in keeping with recent national coverage about the hazards of “distracted walking,” the advisory only mentions distraction by electronic devices in the pedestrian section, despite the fact that ending distracted driving is the signature cause of the current transportation secretary.

Certainly, it’s everyone’s responsibility to be safe, no matter what mode they take. But the stakes for pedestrians wouldn’t be so high if people weren’t driving around at high speeds in heavy cars on roads designed with little regard for the different ways people get around.

In fact, speed is the key factor — not just in pedestrian injuries and fatalities — but in discouraging walking. “The majority of crashes [resulting in] fatalities and serious injuries are related to high speed streets,” said Scott Bricker, director of America Walks. “In the National Walking Survey that America Walks did in partnership with Hunter College [PDF], we found that distracted driving and the speed of automobile driving were the two top concerns of people walking, and are what limits their walking.”

The NHTSA report includes a few illuminating statistics about where pedestrian deaths are most common and who are the most frequent victims. Like the fact that more than two-thirds of pedestrians killed were males. Even boys under five years old are 63 percent more likely than girls the same age to die by being hit by a car. But while traffic crashes are still the leading cause of death for children aged three to 14, kids are the least likely to be killed while walking. The likelihood of dying under the wheels of a car goes up precipitously at age 16 and then again at age 75.

Meanwhile, 73 percent of crashes in which a pedestrian died in 2010 occurred in urban areas, but that’s “urban” as contrasted to “rural,” with suburban locations grouped into the “urban” category. Given the other location statistic given by NHTSA – that only 21 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred at intersections – my money is on a lot of these crashes happening outside of urban centers, on high-speed arterial roads without many intersections.

Indeed, according to Transportation for America’s Dangerous by Design report on pedestrian fatalities, more than 52 percent of the 47,067 pedestrians killed (for whom roadway classification data were recorded) between 2000 and 2009 died on principal or minor arterials. These wide, straight roads are often extremely hostile to pedestrians. They feature little to no facilities for walking, so drivers aren’t looking for people on foot. Drivers may not be looking at the road at all, in fact, since the featureless roads “have been shown to encourage distracted driving habits,” according to the report. And, of course, they’re likely driving too fast, because that kind of road design facilitates driving well above the posted speed limit.

  • Davistrain

    I’m not surprised that the NHTSA has yet to establish a place for “Walking under the influence of small electronic devices” in its statistics.  Technology tends to change a lot faster than bureaucracy.

  • HuckieCA

    The NHTSA series of Traffic Safety Facts reports are based on the FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System) and GES (General Estimates System) data sets, both of which are publicly available. Basically, these data sets come from state and local police reports.  NHTSA can’t mandate what data gets collected by each state when accidents and fatalities occur.  They can really only suggest what data states should train their officers to collect, and come up with standard ways of coding the data taken off police reports from state to state.  But it still comes down to the fact that the data available is based on what gets reported by the police on the scene.   

  • Anonymous

    Anyone know whether this study includes pedestrians killed on private driveways and parking lots?  A lot of our pavement is in front of malls and Walmarts; this should be part f the study.

  • I assume that alcohol and electronics are separated out for pedestrians rather than drivers just because there is more likely to be evidence at the scene of the death about the pedestrian, and less likely to be evidence of what the driver was doing.

    Also, that quote about blood alcohol comparisons between pedestrians and drivers is quite misleading, because it compares the percentage of crashes where pedestrians had alcohol to the percentage of crashes where drivers had alcohol, which is entirely irrelevant to the causal story.  What we need is a comparison either of percentage of high-BAC drivers who end up in crashes to percentage of low-BAC drivers who end up in crashes (or the same for pedestrians), or conversely a comparison of percentage of drivers in crashes who had high BAC to comparison of percentage of drivers who didn’t get in crashes who had high BAC (or the same for pedestrians).

    It’s tricky to get these statistical tests right, but the comparison they give is irrelevant, because we have no idea what the baseline rate of intoxication is for either drivers or pedestrians, so we have no idea if it was a causal factor on either side (at least, not from just these two statistics).

  • KillMoto

    Of the ~94 people killed each day in the USA by automobile, about 4 are killed by hit and runs.  Let’s assume for a minute that even if the hit & run perp later turns him/her self in, or is found, any alcohol/drug impairment is out of the system. Let’s note that most of these perps are never found. 

    Somewhere between 0% and 100% of these killers were impaired at the time they killed their victim. 

    I wonder if/how the NHSTA controlled for that variable?  I’m guessing that the percentage of hit and run drivers who were impaired when they killed is closer to 100% than it is to 0%, given the high incentive to pretend they hit a dog and flee. 

  • Anonymous

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  • A Padre

    most anyone can tell you that peds are more distracted these days. i live in nyc and have watched the decline of civility. it used to be you’d walk until the last few seconds of the don’t walk sign and you wouldn’t dare cross on a steady no walk sign.  now you just run across the street a few seconds after it says don’t walk

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