Why It's Growing More Dangerous to Cross the Street

More pedestrians were killed in 2010 than in 2009, marking the first annual increase after four years of declines, according to a new GHSA report.
More pedestrians were killed in 2010 than in 2009, marking the first annual increase after four years of declines, according to a new GHSA report.

More pedestrians were killed by cars last year than in 2009, according to a new report released Thursday by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). According to preliminary data, which was based on U.S. fatalities in the first six months of 2010, pedestrian traffic deaths rose in 2010 after four straight years of decline.

The increase is small, only 0.4%, but after the previous declines, for the number "to have gone up again, even if slightly, is a concern," says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the GHSA, which represents state highway safety offices.

The higher projected pedestrian fatalities comes in spite of an 8% drop in overall highway fatalities during the first six months of 2010, the report says, adding that the association had expected to see a similar decrease in pedestrian deaths.

Why More Pedestrians are Dying

The association has been studying the issue since some states reported the higher numbers, Harsha said. While the report's researchers have no data or scientific studies to support their theories, they say that more distraction -- due to the increased use of electronic devices, both by pedestrians and drivers -- could be one of the main reasons for the growth.

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More people are walking while listening to music and talking and texting on cell phones, the report speculates. "They are not paying attention and they are getting clobbered," Harsha says.

Another driver could be a greater interest in heath and wellness, which may have resulted in more walking. Having more walkers out on the roads could increase the chances that more of those pedestrians would be hit.

But the most notable fatality increases occurred in some surprising states. Instead of in high-population states with large urban areas, or in states with a high percentage of older adults -- such as New Jersey, New York and Texas, which experienced a reduction in pedestrian deaths -- some of the biggest increases came from North Carolina, Oklahoma and Oregon. "We don't really know what's going on in those states," Harsha says.

In Oregon, for example, more than half of the pedestrians who were killed were under the influence of intoxicants. That state also experienced a rise in "aggressive pedestrians," according to the report, such as walkers who don't use crosswalks and, in some cases, even walking in the interstate driving lanes.

Fewer Child Fatalities; More Adults

A breakdown of 2010 deaths by age isn't yet available, but the report did include some trends based on earlier data. The biggest change during the last 10 years, for example, has been a steady decrease in pedestrian fatalities among school-age children. More safety education, combined with less walking, may have contributed to the decline, according to the report.

However, deaths among baby boomers between 45 and 64 years old have been on the rise, according to the report. And Harsha expects to see more deaths, especially in the 20- to 29-year-old age group, as more people use electronic devices.

All these collisions have more than an emotional impact; they're also a major economic loss. In 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated the lifetime economic impact of all U.S. motor-vehicle crashes at $230.6 billion dollars. "It's probably even more now," Harsha says.

While pedestrians make up a small portion of highway deaths, approximately 12%, the lifetime medical costs and the economic impact of all the lost productivity can be huge -- especially considering that so many pedestrian-crash victims are young, she adds. "It's an enormous expense, but people don't realize it," Harsha says. "And a large portion of it is borne by the public. It's something everyone should be concerned about."

How to Save Pedestrians

The report is important because it draws attention to pedestrians, who are the most vulnerable road users because "they have no car or helmet to protect them," says Bella Dinh-Zarr, the North American director of the global Make Roads Safe initiative.

"There is a fear that walking more will cause more fatalities, but in the long run, I think it is going to be a positive impact. There will be better awareness and focus on what we can do," such as creating better crosswalks, sidewalks and overpasses, and improving the lighting at night, says Dinh-Zarr said, who is also the director of road safety for the FIA Foundation for the Automobile and Society, a London-based nonprofit.

In Europe, where walking is much more common,"they make sure pedestrians are a priority," she adds. "Everyone is always heartbroken when a child dies, but most pedestrian deaths could be prevented."

For the full report, Spotlight on Safety: Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State, including state-by-state data, click www.ghsa.org.