What’s causing the increase in pedestrian deaths?

By Robbie Webber

A new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calls out a variety of factors responsible for the shocking surge in pedestrian fatalities between 2009 and 2016—up 46 percent and the most deaths since 1990. Pedestrian fatalities have risen much faster than overall traffic deaths, which only increased by 11 percent during the same period. Pedestrians now account for 16 percent of all traffic deaths.

The IIHS analyzed fatalities for common factors and characteristics that showed higher increases than pedestrian deaths overall. They called out the increased use of SUVs as personal vehicles, lack of convenient and safe crossings, poor roadway lighting and inadequate headlights, excessive speed, and a lack of speed enforcement.

Fatalities on arterials increased by 67 percent, in urban or suburban areas by 54 percent, at non-intersections by 50 percent, and at night by 56 percent.

Many of these factors are indicative of planning for efficient motor vehicle operation, but not safe pedestrian use of the roads. The IIHS report notes that many of the roads where crashes occurred either lacked any crosswalks or had gaps between legal crossings such that pedestrians were tempted to cross multilane roads mid-block. The arterials where crashes occurred often lead to freeways. IIHS President David Harkey commented, “When people are forced to walk long distances to the nearest signalized intersection, they are more likely to choose the riskier option of sprinting across multiple lanes of traffic,”

Although more convenient crossings would help, the IIHS notes that paint is not enough. Midblock crossings need features, such as pedestrian-activated beacons that alert drivers to stop.

Especially notable was the increase in fatalities involving SUVs, which increased a whopping 84 percent during the study period. Large vehicles such as SUVs with blunt front ends hit pedestrians higher on the body, causing organ damage and knocking the person down instead of sweeping the victim up onto the hood. Pedestrians are also more likely to be run over when knocked down. Children are more likely to be hit in the head when struck by an SUV.

The IIHS also notes that although reliable information on vehicle speeds is not available in fatality data, researchers did find that the vehicles involved in fatal pedestrian crashes, like the overall vehicle fleet, are increasingly powerful. Previous IIHS research has shown that vehicles with higher horsepower-to-weight ratios tend to be driven faster and are more likely to violate posted speed limits.

“This analysis tells us that improvements in road design, vehicle design and lighting, and speed limit enforcement all have a role to play in addressing the issue,” Harkey notes.

The full IIHS study can be found here.

One cause of pedestrian crashes that the IIHS did not cite is so-called distracted walking. While the IIHS study was based on federal crash data that may not cite pedestrian distraction, recently media outlets,  safety organizations, and even states and municipalities have wondered if this is a contributing factor. However, a recent study from the Pacific Southwest Region University Transportation Research Center has looked at pedestrian behavior when using cell phones and found little correlation between using a cell phone and dangerous pedestrian behavior. The researchers used walking speed and whether pedestrians stepped outside the marked crosswalk as indicators of distraction. Although there was a slight tendency for pedestrians using a cell phone to walk slower and step outside the marked crosswalk, gender, age, and the presence of other pedestrians were significantly stronger indicators of these behaviors. The researchers concluded that driver behavior and engineering solutions aimed at drivers were much more important to keeping pedestrians safe.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.