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Pedestrian Fatalities Remain At 25-Year High For Second Year In A Row

Pedestrians cross the street as traffic moves along 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan on Jan. 25.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Pedestrians cross the street as traffic moves along 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan on Jan. 25.

After two years of marked increases, the number of pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. is holding steady with nearly 6,000 pedestrians killed in 2017, according to estimates from the Governors Highway Safety Association.

That's a 25-year high, GHSA says. While the rise "appears to be tapering off," the group said, the "continuation of pedestrian fatalities at virtually the same pace ... raises continued concerns about the nation's alarming pedestrian death toll."

The high rate of pedestrian deaths comes as deaths from other types of traffic fatalities are dropping. The group notes that improvements in vehicle safety make crashes safer for people inside cars — but just as deadly for pedestrians.

Pedestrian deaths rose by 27 percent from 2007 to 2016, while other types of traffic deaths dropped by 14 percent, GHSA reports. As a result, pedestrian deaths make up a growing proportion of overall motor vehicle fatalities.

The GHSA report is based on preliminary data from state highway authorities. Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., had increases in pedestrian fatalities, while 20 states showed a decrease and the rest remained steady.

Five states — California, Florida, Texas, New York and Arizona — accounted for 43 percent of pedestrian deaths during the first half of 2017, despite being home to just 30 percent of the U.S. population.

Last year, NPR's Laurel Wamsley reported ona study that identified the most dangerous cities for pedestrians. Eight of the top 10 most dangerous areas were in Florida, according to the study by Smart Growth America. And people of color are disproportionately affected by the hazards, as Laurel reported:

"People of color are over-represented among those pedestrians killed. Non-white people are 34.9 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 46.1 percent of pedestrian deaths.

"In certain places, this disparity is especially stark. In North Dakota, Native Americans are 5 percent of the population, but account for nearly 38 percent of pedestrian deaths."

The study also found that the elderly, the poor and those without health insurance were more likely to live in areas that are dangerous for pedestrians.

The new GHSA report does not break deaths out by race, income or insurance. It does, however, find that children and the elderly are "especially vulnerable."

Why exactly have the pedestrian death rates risen since 2014? Last year, when the annual GHSA report showed an 11 percent year-over-year increase in pedestrian fatalities, NPR's David Schaper took a close look at the possible explanations:

" 'A perfect storm' of factors spurred the increase, [GHSA spokeswoman Maureen] Vogel says: A stronger economy and low gas prices have put more cars on the road and have people driving more often, 'but that is really only part of the story ... so something else is at play here.'

"One possibility can be seen during rush hour in downtown Chicago just by looking at both the drivers of the dozens of vehicles inching through traffic and the scores of pedestrians crossing the busy intersections. One thing many have in common is that their eyes are down, staring at their phones.

" 'We are crazy distracted,' says Melody Geraci, deputy executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicago group advocating for better walking, cycling and public transportation options. 'After speeding and the failure to yield, distractions are the number three cause [of pedestrian fatalities], particularly by electronic devices.'

"Drivers distracted by their devices are a well-documented, rising cause of traffic crashes, but there are a growing number of pedestrians, too, who can become oblivious to traffic around them."

Other factors include vehicle speeds and alcohol use — not just by drivers, but by pedestrians. According to the most recent GHSA report, 33 percent of pedestrian fatalities involved a pedestrian with a blood alcohol content above the legal driving limit. Of course, it's not illegal to walk while drunk, but it can be dangerous — even deadly.

Seventy-five percent of fatalities occurred in the dark, and in 72 percent of the victim was walking in or crossing a road and wasn't in an intersection.

The new report also suggests marijuana may also play a role:

"The seven states (Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington) and DC that legalized recreational use of marijuana between 2012 and 2016 reported a collective 16.4 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities for the first six months of 2017 versus the first six months of 2016, whereas all other states reported a collective 5.8 percent decrease in pedestrian fatalities."

But, GHSA notes, it can't make a "direct correlation" or "definitive link" to explain those states' relatively high rates of pedestrian deaths.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.