Nighttime pedestrian fatalities soar

By Robbie Webber

Although we are now past Halloween—the night of the year with the highest number of pedestrian crashes—we still have work to do on improving the safety of walking at night. While other crash types have gone down, pedestrian and bicycle crashes continue to rise, and crashes happening at night account for 90 percent of the increase in pedestrian fatalities in the last ten years. A recent article in CityLab asks, “Why?” but comes to no definitive conclusion.

We have already seen that pedestrian and bicyclist crashes have risen sharply despite an overall decrease in roadway deaths for drivers and passengers in cars. Just between 2017 and 2018, pedestrian fatalities rose 3.4 percent, while bicyclist fatalities went up 6.3 percent. Even worse is that the nighttime fatalities for these groups rose even faster, with a 4.6 percent increase for pedestrians and 9.2 percent jump for bicyclists. While there are more people walking and biking overall, the mode increases cannot account for spikes such as these.

CityLab speculates about reasons for the rise in nighttime pedestrian fatalities, some of which we have written about before. Besides a general increase in people walking and biking for transportation, larger vehicles such as SUVs—increasingly popular in the U.S.—are more deadly to those outside the vehicle; more people are working at night; and new autonomous technologies do not do well detecting pedestrians, especially in low-light conditions. But none of these can be definitively tied to the startling increase in nighttime pedestrian deaths.

One factor not mentioned in the article is the number of lighted devices now in vehicles. This is not just a distraction problem, although distraction should not be discounted. Viewing lighted displays can degrade night vision as well as cause glare on the windshield, which is why dashboard light dimmers have been part of vehicle technology for decades. But not all dimmers function automatically, and drivers may not realize the importance of lowering the interior lights on navigation systems, dashboards, and communication and entertainment devices. Changing one’s vision between a lighted display and the exterior darkness is also a hazard. The aging population may also be a factor in increased pedestrian fatalities, since night vision diminishes as we age, even by age 50, and cataracts can increase glare. Both of these vision problems can make driving at night riskier for older drivers.

An initial search did not reveal any recent research on the link between diminished night vision, lighted dashboards and devices, and crash risk, but we would be interested to know if any has been done.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.