The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As roads become safer for drivers and passengers, pedestrian deaths still rise

In this July 10, 2012 photo, pedestrians cross K Street and Connecticut Ave. NW near the Farragut North Metro Entrance in downtown Washington. Across the country on city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, there is usually someone strolling while talking on a phone, texting with their head down, listening to music, or playing a video game. The problem isn't as widely discussed as distracted driving, but the danger is real. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Safer cars and safer roads have resulted in an overall decline in driver and passenger fatalities in recent years, but pedestrians are as vulnerable as ever and the number killed by vehicles continues to increase, according to a new study.

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) estimates that the number of pedestrian fatalities jumped by 10 percent last year, a year-to-year increase that comes after a 19 percent increase from 2009 to 2014, the association said in a report scheduled to be released Tuesday.

During that same period — as air bags, lane warning devices and traction control made vehicles ever more protective — overall traffic deaths declined by about 4 percent.

For the first time in 25 years,
the association said, pedestrian deaths in 2015 are projected to account for 15 percent of all traffic fatalities.

"We are projecting the largest year-to-year increase in pedestrian fatalities since national records have been kept, and therefore we are quite alarmed," said Richard Retting, who co-
authored the GHSA report with Heather Rothenberg. The federal accident reporting system was established in 1975.

Pedestrians killed at about the same rate last year as they were in 2013

Final figures for 2015 traffic deaths are still being compiled, but the projected 10 percent increase would bring pedestrian deaths to the highest total since 1996, when 5,449 pedestrians were killed by cars.

The primary reasons more people on foot are dying track closely with trends in three areas: economic, social and electronic.

Cheaper gas in a stable economy means more people are driving. The notion of “walkable communities” has been reborn, and the Government Accountability Office says nearly a million more people are walking or biking to work. And distracted driving puts pedestrians particularly at risk. A study completed by Public Health Reports in 2010 said that pedestrian fatalities caused by distracted drivers had increased by 50 percent over five years.

In addition to drivers distracted by their cellphones, pedestrians put themselves at risk by staring at their phones or using them with earbuds that drown out the approach of vehicles.

Eyes down, minds elsewhere, ‘deadwalkers’ are among us

The other elements that put pedestrians particularly at risk draw heavily on the obvious. ­People on streets after dark are more likely to get hit, with 72 percent of fatalities in 2014 happening ­between 6 p.m. and midnight. More than three-
quarters of deaths happened somewhere other than an intersection.

Alcohol, which is a factor in almost one-third of all traffic deaths, also figures heavily in pedestrian fatalities. In those cases, it was the pedestrian who was more likely to have been legally drunk (34 percent of all pedestrian fatalities) than the driver (15 percent).

The GHSA report and projections draw on data compiled by the state highway safety offices that make up the GHSA membership. Those statistics are given to the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which will stitch them into national numbers for 2015 that will be released later this year.

Although the bottom line will show a nationwide increase in pedestrian deaths, there was not uniformity among individual states. Twenty states — including Virginia — and the District of Columbia reported higher numbers in 2015. Three states — Maine, Utah and Wyoming — had the same number as in 2014. And the remainder, Maryland among them, had fewer pedestrian deaths.

Crossing a street in D.C. can be a dangerous undertaking

The four largest states — California, Florida, Texas and New York — accounted for 42 percent of the overall pedestrian deaths. California led the way, with 347 people killed.

The GHSA also used the data to calculate in which state pedestrians were most at risk. Based on the number killed per 100,000 residents, Florida ranked first with a fatality rate of 1.35. The District and seven states — Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon and South Carolina — had more than 1 death per 100,000 people.