Pedestrian Deaths Make Up a Rising Share of U.S. Traffic Fatalities

Pedestrians are making up an increasing share of traffic deaths in the U.S. Source: GHSA
Pedestrians account for an increasing share of traffic deaths in the U.S. Source: GHSA

Pedestrian deaths rose 10 percent in the first half of 2015 compared to the same period the year before, according to preliminary data released by the Governors Highway Safety Association. If that increase held up over all 12 months of 2015, it would be among the worst single-year changes since the GHSA started collecting data in 1975.

In a typical year, nearly 5,000 Americans are killed while walking. While fatalities for car occupants have been dropping, pedestrian fatalities have not. As a result, pedestrian deaths now make up about 15 percent of traffic fatalities, compared to 11 percent a decade ago, according to the GHSA.

The big question is “Why?” So far, no one has offered a compelling answer backed up with thorough research. The best we have are educated guesses. Of course, you’ll also see some wild and irresponsible victim-blaming in the media. Here are some of the potential explanations that have been put forth and some thoughts on how seriously we should take them.

People are walking more. About 1 million more people walked to work in 2013 than in 2005, according to Census data cited by GHSA. That’s a 21 percent increase.

Keep in mind, though, that the Census doesn’t measure total walking volumes — it just counts commuters. So while it seems like people are probably walking more overall, the lack of good data makes it difficult to know with certainty.

Vehicles are getting safer, while pedestrians remain as vulnerable as ever. Government traffic safety agencies like GHSA and NHTSA have historically focused on technology and behavioral strategies to improve safety for car occupants. Hence the emphasis on seatbelt campaigns and vehicle safety standards.

So people are cruising around in air bag-equipped cars with anti-lock brakes, their children cocooned in the latest car seat — and when they crash, they’re more likely to survive. But vehicle technology hasn’t adapted in ways that help pedestrians, who remain as vulnerable as ever. If you’re a techno-optimist, self-driving cars are the innovation that will change this, but they’re still several years away from hitting the market.

People are driving more. The more people drive, the more people are exposed to the risk of fatal crashes. This is a fairly unassailable contributing factor in recent years. Driving trips increased 3.5 percent in the first half of 2015, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Distracted drivers. Smartphones, in-dash displays, and other devices present more opportunities to stop paying attention to the task of driving. More than 3,000 people are killed in distracted driving crashes annually, although data more recent than 2013 is not yet available, so there’s no way to firmly assess the role of driver distraction in the rise of pedestrian deaths.

Distracted pedestrians. Some media outlets have been very heavy-handed in assigning blame to “distracted pedestrians.” This report from Indianapolis’s WIVB is a great example. There’s typically no evidence presented to support the theory except for anecdotes about people texting and walking. As Alissa Walker at Gizmodo put it, cell phones don’t kill pedestrians, cars do.

“Forgiving” road design. Road design doesn’t change much in a single year. But the engineering practice of using highway design standards in urban areas may have contributed to the long-term failure to improve pedestrian fatality rates.

Examples of “forgiving design” include wide traffic lanes and “clear zones” free of trees and other obstacles on the roadside. These features are designed to give drivers more room for error, but they also encourage fast driving and inattention, putting pedestrians at risk.

GHSA, for its part, does recommend road diets and other street design fixes to address the problem.

  • Jaime76

    Interesting – you imply that pedestrians shoukdnt take any responsibility for their actions, and should walk around distracted and feel safe. Perhaps if people looked up from their phone while waking they would see cars coming and not get hit. Don’t even get me started with people who step out in front of traffic in mid block crosswalks. If people can’t take responsibility for themselves, I’m sorry, they deserve to be hit. No one cares about YOUR safety than YOU. Especially not the government.

  • Funny, I’ve never heard about anyone being mowed down by a distracted pedestrian. Drivers are inherently more responsible for safely operating their vehicle, because they’re the ones operating a dangerous vehicle. The point is, because drivers are operating dangerous vehicles, they need to worry about the safety of others.

  • Are you saying that people who cross mid block deserve to die? Nice!

  • We live in a culture of reckless driving and victim blaming.

  • M

    While it’s true people should be paying attention to where they are going regardless of chosen transportation mode, people driving cars have a GREATER responsibility, by law, to make sure they are behaving in a safe manner (which includes not texting while driving, in some places not even holding a phone in their hands, not speeding, not running red lights, not making rights on red without looking among other things.) If every single pedestrian was walking on the sidewalks while looking at their smartphone, there would likely be some chaos, but nothing close to the same level of death and destruction as when you add cars in. Adding cars to an environment makes the ENTIRE environment less safe for EVERYONE in the environment, whether in a car or not.

  • Jaime76

    I’m saying that if you are going to step out into oncoming traffic (whether there is a crosswalk or not), you deserve whatever consequences come to you. Perhaps you don’t understand physics (most people in your line of “work” have little education in sciences), but help me understand how a driver is supposed to suddenly stop if a pedestrian steps out right in front of them? Shouldn’t that pedestrian “look both ways” and cross when it’s safe? Oh wait, they’re too busy looking at their phone.

  • Jaime76

    True- but see my comment above. Pesestrians need to watch out for themselves.

  • Alex Brideau III

    In life we all need to watch out for ourselves. But those of us operating heavy machinery bear the majority of the burden of responsibility when life-threatening incidents occur.

  • And I’m disagreeing. Pedestrian’s who are distracted aren’t risking anyone else’s lives. They’re perfectly entitled to risk their own lives if they please. And besides, pedestrians already have a strong motivation to pay attention as needed, on account of they’ll die, drivers have much less incentive, running down a pedestrian is probably unpleasant, but its certainly better than getting run down. When you say that pedestrians need to watch out for themselves you’re putting the onus on the group of people who aren’t participating in the dangerous activity which makes no sense in any other context. To use a classic example, are people responsible for dodging falling pianos on the street, or are the movers the ones responsible for ensuring that risk to bystanders is minimized?

  • Alex Brideau III

    Wow. That’s pretty rude. Personal insults don’t really make your views seem reasonable.

  • Jaime76

    I’m saying, as a pedestrian, you must watch out for yourself. I’m
    Not saying drivers shouldn’t be careful, or have a right to mow people down, but if someone steps out into oncoming traffic, or isn’t watching where they are going, they are risking their lives. As a driver, I can’t instantly stop if someone suddenly steps out in front of me (because they are distracted). If I hit a pedestrian, is it my fault?

  • Nobody is saying that it is (although as a driver you should be watching for and slowing down in the event of a pedestrian who appears to be about to step into traffic), but you’re missing the point here. As a driver you’re responsible for other people’s lives, that is fundamentally different from being a pedestrian, where you only risk your own life. If you can’t handle that responsibility, I suggest you start taking the bus. You aren’t saying drivers shouldn’t be careful, but you are trying to deflect responsibility here.

  • Jaime76

    I understand the point. The problem I have with Angie’s article is that she criticizes other media for blaming distracted pedestrians. My point is that pesestrians need to take responsibility and make good decisions (e.g., not stepping into a mid-block crosswalk when traffic is coming and may not be able to stop, but hey, the law says they should ). One of the first things I learned in drives Ed was that pedestrians have the right of way, and I agree with that. But, when pedestrians think they can safely step into the street and cars will magically stop, that’s a problem. Government has given them a false sense of security, and suddenly the idea of “look both ways” goes out the window. This is likely causing an increase in deaths.

  • Heh, ironically I learned that in drivers Ed as well, only to be shocked to discover that legally, where I live, drivers are not required to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, unless that crosswalk is at an existing traffic control device (i.e., drivers don’t yield at midblock crosswalks).

    I mean, you can take exception to that if you want, I probably wouldn’t point it out, so much as ignore it, and the tone of articles which preach at (yes I’m using tone as well) pedestrians for not paying attention varies between neutral and heavily victim blaming. Therefore, I don’t really disagree with that position. Just look at the pedestrian death in NYC, where the pedestrian had the ROW, the driver violated it, and the police’s response was to crack down on misbehaving pedestrians. Saying “pedestrians should be responsible too” is awfully close to victim blaming. Heck, look at the Vision Zero Mayor’s speech on how peds have a role to play too, just a few days (hours) before a car plowed into and killed people standing on a sidewalk. What should they have done.

    I’m open to hearing statistics which show the majority (or even a large component) of traffic deaths are due exclusively to pedestrian inattention, but I doubt you’ll find them. Yes, pedestrians should pay attention, no, I don’t think its currently a major problem. I’d even go so far as to say, I’d consider Vision Zero a success if the only people killed on our roads were pedestrians who step directly in front of a vehicle while looking at a cell phone.

  • M

    It’s really easy to explain away all pedestrian deaths by saying they ALL were either on their cell phone, drunk and running out in the middle of the street. The truth is that many pedestrians are killed while doing NONE of those things. What is your excuse for people that are killed when none of those apply? What about the times when pedestrians are crossing at a marked crosswalk, with a signal? Because that happens a LOT, especially when people drive at high speeds, drunk or run red lights or make right on reds without even looking. What about the pedestrians standing on the sidewalk? Were they putting themselves in danger by simply existing in your mind?

    No. You have to believe that MOST pedestrians are not trying to get hit by a car because they very easily could end up paying with their life… As danbrotherson said, a pedestrian being hit by a car is MUCH more traumatic and potentially lethal then the same exact incident is for the driver of a car. This is an imbalance, but legally the car driver is often held to a higher standard, for a good reason – they have been granted a privilege which comes with extra responsibilities.

  • SZwartz

    The only new element over the years has been the increased pedestrian use of hand held devices and in-car computer screens. I do not think it takes too much thinking to link increased inattentive by drivers and by pedestrians to come to a reasonable hypothesis for the increase in pedestrian injuries and deaths.

  • SZwartz

    Should have, could have, would have. The pedestrian is still dead. Darwin explained why.

  • M

    So tell me, what do you think should happen? I mean, after all, when someone steps out of a car after parking they are a pedestrian too. Should we all just build a car fortress around ourselves and never leave the car? Allowing people to terrorize others is not the way to create a society or live a life.

  • SZwartz

    I do not think it constitutes terrorizing anyone to point out that people have a duty to use due care for their own well being. Of course, the person who exits his vehicle has to use due care — everyone has to exercise due care and one may not rely on having the right of way.

    Having the right of way is not some magical shield that will protect one from injury or death. People who do not understand the relationship between prudence self-awareness of their own safety and not being injured or killed are statistically more likely to be injured or killed. There are studies establishing the causal connection for people who are fatalistic, que sera sera. and a higher fatality rate than people who believe that their behavior can reduce harm to themselves.

    see for example: Injury Control and Safety Promotion
    Volume 10, Issue 1-2, 2003, Published online: 09 Aug 2010 Traffic-related Injury Prevention Interventions for Low-income Countries

    This article describes the higher accident rate for people who do not exercise care for their own well being and hence are more likely to be injured. All pedestrians and bicyclists need to realize that often they have the Last Clear Chance and that they are the ones who will suffer most in a collision with a car. People who rely on having the right of way are mo likely to be injured for killed — as Darwin predicted.

  • Andrew

    If I hit a pedestrian, is it my fault?

    If you were legally obligated to yield, then yes, it probably was your fault. Pedestrians don’t come out of nowhere – they step off the curb, and when you are required to yield to pedestrians, you’re required to watch those curbs for pedestrians who are about to step in front of you and to slow down or stop to allow them to cross the street ahead of you. That’s what it means to yield – it means that, when you and somebody else are making conflicting moves, you wait for the other person to go first. (Think of making a left turn across oncoming traffic.)

    If you weren’t legally obligated to yield, then the pedestrian probably deserves some of the blame. Perhaps all of it, perhaps not – just because the pedestrian broke a rule doesn’t mean that you didn’t also break a rule, and both might have contributed to the end result. For instance, were you distracted, or were you speeding, or might the pedestrian have thought you were going somewhere else due to your improper use (or disuse) of turn signals?

    Note that a pedestrian who has been killed or severely injured has already been punished quite harshly for whatever he or she may or may not have done wrong. Perhaps we should also hold motorists responsible when they opt to break the law (when they kill someone as a result and even when they don’t).

  • Andrew

    One of the first things I learned in drives Ed was that pedestrians have the right of way, and I agree with that.

    Then you were taught wrong. And what you were taught trivializes the notion of right of way and yielding.

    Pedestrians do not always have the right of way. But when they do, that means that they go first and drivers wait for them. Which means that drivers need to look for them, because a driver who doesn’t notice a pedestrian is a driver who can’t possibly yield to a pedestrian.

    Yielding is very one-sided. When the law gives a requirement to yield, the law indicates who has to wait for whom. If a pedestrian to whom you are required to yield has to wait for you to drive by before he or she can cross the street, you failed to yield and you broke the law. And if pedestrians are being struck and killed by motorists who were legally required to yield to them, the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of those motorists who opted not to yield.

    The obligation to yield to pedestrians (which is a very strong requirement that only applies in specific scenarios) is entirely distinct from the obligation to exercise due care to avoid colliding with pedestrians (a weaker requirement that – at least where I live – always applies, even if the pedestrian is in the wrong).

  • “I’m saying that if you are going to step out into oncoming traffic (whether there is a crosswalk or not), you deserve whatever consequences come to you.” So, in other words, “yes.”

  • Timothy W. Hilton

    If the motorist is (1) paying attention to driving the vehicle and (2) travelling at a responsible rate of speed, then stopping suddenly if a pedestrian steps out is doable and a collision is unlikely to kill the pedestrian. (1) and (2) are really minimal responsibilities to demand of motorists, in my opinion.

  • fdtutf

    I’m Not saying drivers shouldn’t be careful, or have a right to mow people down,

    Except you did effectively say that:

    If people can’t take responsibility for themselves, I’m sorry, they deserve to be hit.

  • fdtutf

    What this ridiculous argument boils down to is “might makes right.” Pedestrians have to keep out of the way of motorists at all costs, no matter what motorists elect to do, because motorists can kill pedestrians (just by driving) and pedestrians can’t kill motorists (at least, not just by walking).

    Shove it.

  • Alicia

    If I hit a pedestrian, is it my fault?

    Usually, yes.

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