Don’t Blame ‘Distracted’ Pedestrians for Rising Death Toll

Photo: Michael Smith
Photo: Michael Smith

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People are struggling to explain the alarming rise in pedestrian deaths, which reached a generation-long high in 2018. Cell phone use, especially by pedestrians, is often floated as the explanation.

It’s easy to see why this theory is popular. Pedestrian deaths started rising in 2009 about the time smart phones began becoming ubiquitous.

But distracted walking — you hear the terms “zombie pedestrians,” or “petextrians” thrown around — probably isn’t the explanation for the additional 2,000 pedestrian deaths last year compared to a decade ago.

In general, in the U.S., pedestrians aren’t getting killed in the kind of situations where the average person might feel comfortable glancing down at the Twitter app. Here are some reasons:

Most pedestrians are killed at mid-block

People don’t text while sprinting across six-lane state highways in suburban Atlanta to catch the bus. But that’s the kind of situation where lots of pedestrians get killed.

Only about a quarter of pedestrian deaths happen at intersections, according to the Federal Highway Administration. This isn’t definitive evidence that those people weren’t texting or distracted by a cell phone, but it does suggest that the circumstances at the time they were struck were not relaxed, boring strolls that would tempt someone to glance at a phone.

They are killed on wide, high-speed roads

Pedestrian deaths tend to be clustered in just a few areas. For example, in Philadelphia, more than 10 percent of all the traffic fatalities occur on just one street.

This data points to the importance of poorly designed or infrastructure in the problem. According to Transportation for America, 60 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur on “arterial” roads where the speed limit was 40 mph or higher.

Most are being killed at night

Three out of four pedestrians are struck and killed by cars at night, according to the Federal Highway Administration [PDF]. In these cases visability seems to be the biggest factor, and a glowing phone might even improve that problem.

Many people being killed are elderly, poor

The demographic profile of who is being killed in pedestrian crashes just doesn’t match up very well with the demographic that is stereotypically glued to phones. Elderly folks, lower-income people and immigrants all make up a disproportionate share of those killed in pedestrian crashes.

Certainly, many low-income people have smartphones, but the people in the deepest poverty seem to be at the highest risk. Some evidence shows that homeless people represent a surprisingly large share of these fatalities.

Other explanations

Other demographic and social trends — gentrification, migration to the sun belt, the rise of SUVs and the aging of the American populace — are more likely culprits that explain the rising number of pedestrians being killed since 2009.

Moreover, this problem cannot be addressed by deflecting blame back on the victims. For any solution to have a real chance of success, it will have to start with empathy for the victims and working to understand the structural causes — and that begins and ends with discussions of the destructive power of increasingly big cars and bad road design.

Streetsblog USA National Editor Angie Schmitt is working on a book about the startling rise in pedestrian deaths. It is expected to be published next year.

20 thoughts on Don’t Blame ‘Distracted’ Pedestrians for Rising Death Toll

  1. MF: No one is saying that distracted walking isn’t an issue. It just isn’t a major driver in the increase in fatalities.

    A big reason people love to harp on distracted walking is that it gives them a reason to blame pedestrians overall instead of focusing on the fact that streets are designed for the automobile at the expense of the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users.

  2. The rising death toll does not appear to be caused by distracted pedestrians, but distracted drivers do appear to play a part. The rise of drivers looking at their phones (& perhaps in-car screens) does appear to lead to those drivers having more accidents, including with pedestrians.

  3. NHTSA data shows that about 60% of the pedestrian fatalities involve an action or inaction by the pedestrian that contributed to the fatality. Safety for all road users requires responsible behavior from all road users.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  4. James, a pedestrian was killed earlier this year while she walked down a busy street that had no sidewalk. Legally, the fault may be with the pedestrian, but the real cause of the crash was the lack of sidewalks. People in cars tend to blame pedestrians for things that are really caused by inadequate infrastructure.

  5. Aw gee Mom, that was uncalled for. JCW might be biased for the convenience of drivers against the safety of everyone else but at least he’s polite.

  6. I’ve never seen home lie…just post things that people here desperately want not to be true.

  7. If posting outdated statistics that he desperately wants to be true is not lying, what is it?

  8. Why, pedestrians are just as responsible the second the foot hits the asphalt. Wearing all black in the middle of the night with no reflector on a bike or staring at the phone.

  9. The NHTSA data on pedestrian fatalities and the contributing causes is pretty clear – and it is odd anyone would call it lies. Traffic safety is always a shared responsibility among all users, including pedestrians. The other factor that is rarely noted is the increase in exposures. When X% more people are walking, it is reasonable to expect X% more incidents. This remains true until pedestrians dominate, as they do in some deep downtown areas in major metroplexes.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  10. Nationwide, the percentage of pedestrian commuters (based on less than complete data from polling about commuting)has only increased from 3% to 5% over the last 12 years, bicycles only to 1% of all commute trips. Obviously this doesn’t capture all trips-most walkers and cyclists have other reasons for travel by these modes, recreation, shopping, social, but may reflect overall numbers.( This is a shame, and a major cause of Americans’ poor health, with $3.3 trillion spent on medical treatment last year.
    Since pedestrians make 6-7% of all trips (from memory of various articles on this over decades, while cyclists are only at 2-4% (more in a few cities), pragmatic mobility advocates should concentrate on improving sidewalks, crosswalks, reducing driver aggression,crime and grime, loose and loosely leashed dogs and quality of the walking experience.

  11. James, the NHTSA data on pedestrian fatalities and the contributing causes is NOT pretty clear. The data is heavily based on account of the sole survivor of the crash, with the deceased not able to give their account. We know from crashes in which both parties survive, that their accounts usually implicate the other person as being at fault. Statistics based on one sided accounts of this kind are simply not accurate.

    The information they draw upon is traditionally extremely low quality for other reasons as well, as the data collection was never designed to be used for vulnerable users, so many relevant questions are never even asked or recorded as part of the investigation, and investigator bias has also been well established.

    The NHTSA 60% figure is simply a classic example of garbage in garbage out analysis.

  12. @Tom The times of day of pedestrian fatalities are factual, not subject to biased interpretation by the survivors or the officers. The ages & genders are factual, not subject to biased interpretation by anyone. These are not low quality information points.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  13. Tom said the NHTSA causes are NOT pretty clear. I find the time of day, the ages of victims, the genders of victims to be perfectly clear and NOT subject to misinterpretation by officers and witnesses. Much of the NHTSA data IS perfectly clear and not subject to misinterpretation.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  14. It’s an interesting idea that “pedestrians” need to constantly be vigilant and mature (and non-distracted) if they want to make it home alive. Normal people walking (another word for pedestrians) have only had to fear for their lives and remain on alert since people started flying around their (dying) towns in machines a century ago. This is probably not the best way to encourage walking or outdoor activities: telling them they better watch out or they’re dead meat.

  15. My parents taught me to walk safely to my elementary school about 8 blocks away which included crossing a busy four lane collector street. Look left, look right, look left again, and NEVER try to occupy the same space as a moving car. The advice has served me well for many decades. Road safety requires actions by all road users to stay safe.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  16. @JCW Are you purposefully trying to avoid what he was talking about or do you think people’s age, and gender are causes of crashes?

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