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Pr. George's case highlights possible factor in pedestrian deaths

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011

It is the kind of risk teenagers take: darting across six lanes of traffic, paying no mind to the flashing sign warning pedestrians to await the green light.

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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.

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