Pedestrian Deaths Last Year Projected to Be Highest Since 1990

Among the factors that stand out in the "Spotlight on Highway Safety" report released Thursday by the Governors Highway Safety Association is increased "death by SUV," which kill at a higher rate than cars. Distraction, however, is hard to prove.

4 minute read

March 4, 2019, 6:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid


Vaclav Mach / Shutterstock

Based on state data of traffic fatalities that occurred from January through June of last year, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a non-profit organization representing state highway safety agencies, projects that 6,227 pedestrian fatalities occurred in 2018, an increase of 250 fatalities, or 4.2 percent, from 2017.

Last year's data is keeping with a disturbing trend: overall traffic deaths have declined by six percent during the 10-year period from 2008 to 2017, while pedestrian fatalities increased by 35 percent.

The report, also called "Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State," found "that the number of pedestrian deaths involving SUVs [sport utility vehicles] increased by 50 percent from 2013 through 2017, while the number of pedestrian deaths caused by passenger cars increased by 30 percent over that same period," writes business reporter for USA TODAY. "That reflects booming sales of SUVs and the fact that pedestrians are much less likely to survive the impact of an SUV."

On that last note, readers are advised to watch the one-minute video in the source article showing Bomey and Randy Essex of the Detroit Free Press standing adjacent to a passenger car and SUV, respectively.

When pedestrian crashes turn fatal

The SUV will "hit an average-sized woman or short guy at the chest causing a devastating injury, the trauma surgeons told us," states Essex, unlike the car, where impact "would be at the knee or leg," states Bomey. Essex continues:

"The SUV is also going to knock me down as opposed to throwing me on top of the hood which is what crash-test videos show happens to dummies hit by a sedan."

"A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study showed they are 2.5 to 3 times as likely to kill a pedestrian than a car," writes Angie Schmitt for Streetsblog USA on the new report.

And the effect is worse for children. They also lengthen the stopping distance and increase blind spots, making collisions more likely in the first place.

"It's 'clearly a factor,' GHSA executive director Jonathan Adkins said in an interview," adds Bomey. "We're going in the wrong direction."

Time-of-day crashes

"Most pedestrian fatalities take place on local roads, at night, away from intersections, suggesting the need for safer road crossings," according to GHSA. "Over the past 10 years, nighttime crashes accounted for more than 90 percent of the total increase in pedestrian deaths..."

USA TODAY has a "2017 pedestrian fatalities by light level" chart showing that three-out-of-four deaths occur when it is dark.

Distracted driving and walking?

"GHSA said other factors contributing to the increase may include additional people walking to work, insufficient pedestrian road crossings, speeding, drowsy driving, drinking and population growth in certain areas," adds Bomey.

Distracted driving and distracted walking are also widely believed to be factors, though experts say they are hard to prove.

The easiest way to combat pedestrian deaths is by forcing drivers to slow down, Adkins said. Areas that have taken steps to reduce driver speed, such as New York City, have had success in improving pedestrian safety.

Urban success

From the report [pdf], pgs. 4 and 38 of 42:

The number of pedestrian fatalities in the 10 largest cities declined 15 percent in 2017. The decline was especially sharp in New York city, providing evidence of local successes that may not be reflected in statewide data.

New York City has its own pedestrian safety initiative known as Vision Zero...New York City’s Department of Transportation also staffs street teams to engage with community residents and business owners in high-risk corridors.

Automotive technology to the rescue?

Automakers are developing technology to apply to today's (in addition to autonomous) motor vehicles to prevent pedestrian crashes. Currently, only a small number of SUV models have crash avoidance technology. 

"Reducing pedestrian crashes is the goal of new ratings of automatic emergency braking systems that can detect and brake for people on foot," according to a Feb. 21 status report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute.

In the first tests of 2018–19 vehicles with this crash avoidance feature, 9 of 11 small SUVs evaluated earn an advanced or superior rating for pedestrian crash prevention.

The report notes that five SUV models from Subaru, Nissan, Volvo and Toyota include pedestrian detection as a standard feature.

The group's three-minute video encompasses all aspects of pedestrian safety, as well as the testing of "front crash prevention technology." It acknowledges that "changing the front-end designs of SUVs could result in lowering the risk to a pedestrian when they are struck." It covers street design improvements as well.

For pedestrian safety tips, particularly for youths, see "Prevent Pedestrian Crashes" [pdf] by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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Hat tip to Streetsblog California.

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