Unexpected Factors Lead To Record Pedestrian Deaths In 2016

A Historically Deadly Year

Last year marked an unfortunate record, as 2016 saw nearly 6,000 pedestrian deaths. This marks the highest total pedestrian deaths than two decades, according to results from a recent study.

This unfortunate record is even more alarming as we see an increase of 25% of pedestrian deaths between 2010 and 2015. Pedestrians now account for the largest portion of traffic fatalities, and recent years show a drastic increase in traffic-related accidents killing pedestrians:

  • 2014: 4,910 pedestrian deaths
  • 2015: 5,376 pedestrian fatalities
  • 2016: 5,997 pedestrian deaths

What States Have The Most Pedestrian Traffic Deaths?

As is expected, not all states saw the increase in pedestrian traffic deaths. Throughout 2016 states with higher populations and larger metropolitan areas saw the most significant increase in traffic-related deaths involving pedestrians.

  • Wyoming saw one pedestrian deaths in the first half of 2016, whereas, California saw 359 pedestrian deaths in the same period.
  • California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and New York each had more than 100 pedestrian deaths each. These states represented the highest number of traffic-related deaths involving pedestrians in 2016.
  • The states with the fewest pedestrian deaths include Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and DC. Each of these states had fewer than ten traffic-related pedestrian deaths each.
  • About 42% of all pedestrian deaths are accounted by New York, California, Florida, and Texas.

What Is Causing So Many Pedestrian Deaths?

Some experts believe the drastic increase of pedestrian deaths is due to an improved economy. With a stronger economy comes lower gas prices, cheaper cars, and better-paying jobs. As a result, some researchers believe this has led to an 11% spike in 2016 pedestrian fatalities.

Source: http://www.ghsa.org/sites/default/files/2017-03/2017ped_FINAL.pdf

However, the numbers don’t match up. Increased driving or increased walking can’t account for the sudden spike in pedestrian deaths. There must bee other factors at work that are causing this spike in pedestrian deaths.

Here are some of the most likely causes for the increased traffic related deaths seen in pedestrians throughout 2016.

1. Distracted Drivers Are Killing Us

Motorists driving while they are distracted by their mobile devices is a well-documented issue. Drivers who text and drive have a substantially higher chance of being involved in traffic crashes and these traffic incidences are starting to affect pedestrians at an alarming rate.

Everyone’s eyes are down looking at their phone instead of paying attention to the road and their immediate environment.

After speeding and failure to yield, distractions caused by electronic devices are the third most frequent cause of pedestrian fatalities.

2. Pedestrians Putting Themselves At Risk

In recent years researchers have seen a steady increase in traffic related incidents involving pedestrian deaths caused by distracted walking. Instead of focusing on upcoming intersections and roadways, pedestrians are texting, listening to music, and playing mobile games like Pokemon means they are not paying attention to their environment.

Walking is working, and if we want to reduce the number of pedestrian deaths, then we need to focus on ways to get pedestrians to pay more attention to their environment.

3. Vehicle Speed

Most pedestrian deaths occur around 30-40 miles an hour. A pedestrian has about a 10% chance of dying if they are struck at 20 mph. However, if a pedestrian is struck at 40 mph they have an 80% chance of dying.

Speed also plays a substantial role in pedestrian deaths because faster speeds mean less reaction time for both the pedestrian and driver. Many cities, including New York City, are experimenting with lowering speed limits on most streets to 25 MPH.

4. Pedestrian Visibility

The truth is that some roadways are simply too dark and in these conditions, it can be difficult to see pedestrians as they cross city streets. Even if they are wearing proper nighttime clothing, the shapes and shadows of pedestrians can make it hard to decern their presence.

City officials are looking at how new solutions with lighting and signals can help reduce pedestrian crashes. While visibility alone might not be able to save lives, studies show that improved lighting can help, and local engineers are experimenting with different solutions, including:

  • Improved street lighting
  • High-visibility crosswalks
  • Rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFBs) mounted to pedestrian crossing signs

What Can Be Done To Make Our Roads Safe Again?

The frequency and severity of vehicle-pedestrian crashes have grabbed the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board. As the government panel that investigates accidents and makes safety recommendations, they are leading the way with experiments to reduce the number of deaths in the future.

Since the founding of an initiative to research how to reduce pedestrian deaths last year, the NTSB has been conducting a broad range of approaches to make our streets safer, including:

  1. Engineering countermeasures
  2. Public education
  3. Enforcement

Changing How Vehicles & Pedestrians Interact

Engineering changes to our roadways can have a significant impact on the safety of a particular environment for pedestrian safety. Many cities focus on education and enforcement of city roads, but the truth is that engineering traffic patterns are one of the best ways to ensure the long-term safety for pedestrians and drivers alike.

Whenever in a construction zone or any other dangerous environment roadways should be signaled with an appropriate number of traffic equipment like safety cones. This will help pedestrians and drivers navigate the roadways safely. 

One approach is to increase the amount of physical space between pedestrians and motor vehicles. This method relies on various engineering solutions that either add barriers or optimizing timing in several capacities. These solutions include:

  • Refuge Islands: This small section of pavement or sidewalk is an area that pedestrians can stop before they finish crossing a street. This section offers increased safety for pedestrians if traffic flow changes mid-crossing or their environment shifts in an unexpected way.
  • Pedestrian Overpasses/Underpasses: These paths allow pedestrians to bypass roadway crossings altogether by offering an uninterrupted flow of pedestrian movement separate from vehicle traffic. While they are a safe choice for pedestrians, they are usually the last resort because they are a costly solution that can be visually intrusive in many situations.
  • Countdown Pedestrian Signals: Countdown timers can help pedestrians time their crossings by flashing large numbers on their display that count down the number of seconds remaining until the end of the pedestrian change interval. While this method has shown to impact overall safety, many pedestrians fail to comply, so this means of traffic control is among the weakest success.
  • Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons: This traffic control device is similar to vehicle traffic lights, but they remain dark until activated. Once enabled the hybrid beacons light up to increase driver attention to pedestrians crossing the roadway. Since the beacons show a bright red, there is no chance of confusion from drivers concerning the location of pedestrians. This traffic safety solution has been demonstrated to significantly reduce pedestrian crashes.
  • New Traffic Signals: City planners and engineers are looking at different factors that can lead to pedestrian accidents, and one of the factors they are considering is the installation of new signals to control vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic. However, many variables need to be considered before sign installation, because they can be costly and require a considerable amount of time and resources to install and maintain.

Another solution that cities hope will make streets safer for pedestrians is to reduce the speeds that vehicles travel in areas with crossings.

Higher vehicle speeds are strongly associated with pedestrian fatalities, so engineers are working on efforts to reduce speeds on streets with pedestrian activity. A few of the approaches they are working on include:

  • Road Diets: Also known as a lane reduction, this transportation planning technique reduces the number of lanes on a roadway cross-section. This approach is often used in high traffic areas and looks to improve safety or provide more space for other forms or transportation.
  • Roundabouts: This circular intersection is an alternative to traffic lights and stop signs, and is engineered to provide constant traffic flows around a central island. Modern roundabouts reduce the likelihood and severity of collisions by reducing traffic speed and minimizing T-bone accidents.
  • Traffic Calming Devices: Traffic calming uses physical methods and other measures to control traffic speed and patterns along roadways. It aims to encourage safer driving practices and is often accomplished by using speed humps and speed bumps.

A Way Forward To A Safer Tomorrow

As our cities and state officials begin to work on solutions to keep pedestrians safer, the real challenge will be to get both drivers and pedestrians to pay closer attention to their surroundings. As vehicles continue to improve and reduce fatalities seen in motor vehicle operators, the same level of safety is not enjoyed by pedestrians.

This is why lawmakers must focus on engineering, education, and enforcement solutions to provide the groundwork needed to give pedestrians the best chance of arriving home safe each day. We control the safety and future of our roadways safety, and we should all work together to ensure that our cities remain safe and accessible for all modes of transportation!