By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 12:04 AM
It is the kind risk teenagers take: darting across six lanes of traffic, paying no mind to the flashing sign warning pedestrians to await the green light.
Wayne Cuffy and his buddies bolted across Landover Road on their way to the mall Tuesday night, a mistake that cost the 15-year-old his life when he stepped in front of a Ford Expedition at Dodge Park Road.
His death was the fourth traffic fatality in Prince George's County this year, and in all four cases the victim was a pedestrian.
In an era when overall traffic deaths have declined, the number of pedestrians killed by cars has been more stubborn, climbing by a fraction nationwide in the first half of last year.
Pedestrian fatalities account for 12 percent of all roadway deaths - 4,092 in 2009, according to the most recent data available in a report released Thursday by the Governors Highway Safety Association. That year, overall traffic deaths dropped to their lowest level in 60 years.
The GHSA, made up of the nation's state highway safety officials, says there's no hard data to explain why pedestrians continue to be killed at about the same rate while fatal accidents otherwise are in sharp decline. But based on anecdotal reports from each state, officials have a hunch: distracted walkers.
"We've had some 'distracted' pedestrians, but not enough to create a trend," was the word from Connecticut. Delaware officials also said that is becoming an issue, "particularly [with] those who walk or run for exercise and may be using headphones while listening to music."
Vernon F. Betkey Jr., chief of the Maryland Highway Safety Office and chairman of the GHSA, said he had heard similar accounts.
"I hear more stories of pedestrians with smartphones and music player headphones," Betkey said. "It doesn't show up in the typical crash report."
The report notes two trends. The number of children 14 and younger fatally hit by cars has plunged 58 percent in the past decade, a decline that sociologists attribute in part to the time that kids spend with computer games rather than playing outdoors. And 42 percent of fatally injured pedestrians over a 10-year period were under the influence of alcohol.
More than 20 percent of all traffic fatalities in Maryland and the District, and almost 10 percent in Virginia, involved the death of a pedestrian.
Similarities were found in a review by The Washington Post of 69 accidents in which a pedestrian died in the Washington region over a three-year period and interviews with law enforcement experts.
All but 16 of the accidents occurred after dark. They often involved people trying to cross the street in the middle of a block or at an otherwise unexpected place. And almost 15 percent of the deaths took place within 90 minutes of 2 a.m., the time most of the region's bars close.
"My last five cases all have been been pedestrians," said Det. James Banachoski, who investigates fatal accidents for Fairfax County police. "The vast majority of these occur in the hours of darkness, with the pedestrian entering the roadway improperly."
He said pedestrians often mistakenly think that if they can see the headlights, the driver can see them.
"That's not always the case," Banachoski said. "I can see the moon from here, but if you were on the moon you couldn't see me."
Two deaths he investigated last year involved people crossing multilane roads in the dark who saw that traffic was stopped in the left-turn lane and proceeded blindly into a through-lane where vehicles had a green light.
His first call of this year came on New Year's Day, when Marion Sorto-Reyes, 58, was struck by a Jeep Grand Cherokee on Route 1. Sorto-Reyes had crossed in the middle of the block just north of Jana Lee Avenue. Banachoski said he was wearing dark clothing. Alcohol was not a factor, and the driver was not charged.
Prince George's leads the region in overall traffic fatalities every year, but even as that tally dropped from 83 five years ago to 62 last year, the number of pedestrians killed declined by six to 19 in 2010.
"I can't tell you that cellphones are a factor," said police Maj. Andrew Ellis, "but alcohol use on the part of the pedestrian certainly is. In most of our cases, it's pedestrian error."
Traffic moves swiftly at the corner where Wayne Cuffy died this week. A brick crosswalk provides a path across six lanes of Landover Road. In the direction that he and his two friends were headed, a pedestrian traffic signal was flashing the raised palm, telling them to wait. It was dark, and rush hour was winding down when they dashed into traffic toward the mall. Cuffy was struck just after he left the curb.