Why are pedestrian deaths at a 40-year high?

Every day, on average, 20 Americans are killed in vehicle-pedestrian accidents. That’s the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities since 1981.

That added up to over 7,500 pedestrians killed in motor vehicle accidents last year, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). It could be more; but the data was incomplete.

Why? According to NPR, pedestrian accidents have been on the rise since 2010. The GHSA blames a couple of factors – unsafe infrastructure and the rise of the SUV in American society. SUVs tend to be deadlier to pedestrians than smaller passenger cars. (We might also add the growing size of pickup trucks to the list of reasons.)

There is also the growth of reckless driving during and after the pandemic. The empty roads of 2020 and 2021 seemed to provoke some drivers into driving faster and other risky behaviors. Unfortunately, the trend didn’t subside with the pandemic.

Sun Belt residents may be at greater risk of pedestrian accidents

The GHSA report mentions that three southern states, New Mexico, Arizona and Florida, saw the most pedestrian fatalities. The reason may be simply that there are more pedestrians in southern states. A spokesperson for the GHSA told NPR that the south sees more traffic deaths overall, however. There is no settled explanation for the phenomenon.

What can be done now and in the longer term?

Calming traffic and preventing reckless driving need to be key elements of any plan to reduce pedestrian deaths. Some fixes are available now and wouldn’t cost much money, according to a University of Virginia professor who studies American driving.

For example, using hard corners can calm traffic. When a road ends with a long curve instead of a hard corner, drivers tend to speed around that curve. Changing the shape of the road can force drivers to slow down.

Other opportunities include adding pedestrian islands in the middle of roads where pedestrians are prone to cross. Adding bike lanes has the effect of keeping drivers more alert. Lowering speed limits can work, too, in combination with other measures when it’s enforced.

People should be able to walk the streets safely

20 Americans a day are killed in these accidents. That’s a shocking number. These deaths seem entirely preventable. It starts with holding reckless drivers accountable when they hit someone. Pedestrians also should be aware and use caution when crossing any street, especially in areas where pedestrians may not be anticipated to be.

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