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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Pedestrians at peril

Last year I wrote of an uptick in traffic-related pedestrian fatalities.  That sad trend has continued with a bit more attention now being afforded the topic.

In fact, the number of pedestrian deaths has increased by more than 50 percent over the last decade.  Various entities are studying what factors might be leading to the increase and what might be done to prevent these tragedies.

Pedestrian fatalities involving motor vehicles throughout the United States steadily declined from 1979 to 2009, when the death total dipped from 8,096 to 4,109, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  The numbers have since jumped by 53 percent, per the Virginia-based nonprofit institute dedicated to improving traffic safety.

Several factors contribute to these crashes, but one that experts believe has played a significant role in the fatality increase in recent years is the rise of SUVs on the roadway.  Over the past decade, pedestrian deaths involving SUVs jumped up 81 percent, a bigger bump than any other vehicle, according to the IIHS.  “We’re seeing fewer sedans on the road and more SUVs and larger passenger vehicles, and the ways in which those impact a pedestrian’s body, they make it more likely that a person will be severely injured or killed in the crash,” said Dan Gelinne, a senior research associate with the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center.  Russ Rader, a senior vice president for communications for IIHS, said the higher front ends of SUVs are more likely to cause injury to pedestrians’ chests and heads.

“Our obsession with smartphones could also be adding to roadway dangers,” said Richard Retting, who authored a pedestrian traffic fatality report for the Governors Highway Safety Association in 2018.  He added, “I can’t help but believe that distraction is a major contributing factor to the increase in pedestrian deaths.”  While there has not been any solid evidence or data yet to back that theory up, Retting noted the rise in pedestrian deaths parallels the boom in smartphone use.  People, both drivers and pedestrians, do seem to be unable to stop looking at their phones.

Other factors have been consistent contributors to pedestrian deaths over the years.  In 2017, 80 percent of pedestrian fatalities took place in urban areas and 75 percent occurred when it was dark outside, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Only 18 percent of the deaths were at intersections, where evidently pedestrians use more care.

Alcohol — for the driver or the pedestrian — was reported in 47 percent of pedestrian deaths in 2017, the NHTSA said. According to the agency’s estimates, 32 percent of pedestrian fatalities involve a pedestrian with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher, and 17% of those deaths involve a driver who has a BAC of at least .08, the legal threshold for drunken driving.

“Each one of them is preventable,” Rader, the Insurance Institute spokesman, said about pedestrian deaths.  To prevent them, experts said, municipalities and government agencies can help pedestrians by addressing things like crosswalks and sidewalks, and car manufacturers can work on improving things like headlights to boost drivers’ vision in the dark.

Drivers should look for pedestrians everywhere, never pass vehicles stopped at crosswalks, avoid speeding and stay sober.  Pedestrians must stay alert, avoid distraction, be predictable and never assume drivers see them.

In summary, do all you can to avoid contact with large machinery while afoot.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at