Despite Car Safety Improvements, Pedestrian Fatalities In The US Are On The Rise

In 2010, US road safety statistics showed that more and more pedestrians were being killed on roads. 4,302 American pedestrians were killed that year, an increase of nearly 5% from 2009. Last year, 41% more pedestrians were killed in the US than in 2008. These statistics contrast sharply with non-pedestrian road fatalities, which have decreased by more than 7%.

In the 1990s and 2000s, pedestrian fatalities had dropped almost every year. One reason was that people were driving more and walking less. In recent years, however, the trend has shifted. And it is not only those on foot who have been affected. Although cyclist fatalities decreased through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, they have increased 25% since 2010, with 777 cyclists killed in 2017.

Road safety has been examined closely by Silicon Valley, which hopes to improve vehicles so they are more autonomous and less dependent on imperfect human drivers. Cars are increasingly equipped with “pedestrian detection and avoidance” systems, which may soon be standard issue. Since 2017, General Motors, the largest car manufacturer in the US, has said it aims to develop self-driving vehicles to create a a “triple-zero” world: zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.

Still, experts are unsure as to why pedestrian fatalities are on the rise. “There are multiple theories about how to account for what is happening,” says Norman Garrick, a University of Connecticut professor who studies road safety. “We know something radically new is going on. But I don’t think we have an exact answer yet.”

What is also disturbing is that more pedestrian fatalities occur in the US than in any other wealthy nation. Safety experts hypothesize that the reason is that Americans are driving more than ever, more than citizens of any other country. In addition, more Americans live in or near cities, which is where most fatalities occur. Moreover, speed limits have also steadily increased over the past 20 years, despite the fact that experts agree that even slight increases in speed considerably increase the probability of killing pedestrians.

Another factor is that Americans have a clear preference for SUVs, which are two to three times more likely to kill people they hit. Experts also believe that we live in a world where people are increasingly distracted while driving by smartphones and other technology. However, the link between phone use and pedestrian fatalities is hard to prove. “I tend not to buy the smartphone distraction stuff,” Garrick says. “To me, it reads as shoving aside actually dealing with the relevant issues.”

One reason that experts don’t believe distraction is to blame is that in the UK, Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Austria and Iceland, for example, pedestrian fatalities occur at a per capita rate roughly half of America’s, or lower. “All this talk about pedestrian distraction, driver distraction? It’s such a distraction,” says Ben Welle of the World Resource Institute for Sustainable Cities. “It puts all the responsibility on individuals, and none on the environment they operate in.”

The problem of pedestrian fatalities in the US has been largely ignored because they occur individually, not en masse. If a plane crashes, hundreds may die, and a government investigation will likely take place. Yet, even though cars kill a planeload worth of pedestrians every couple of weeks, no one bats an eye.

RELATED: Electric Car Owners May Select Engine Sounds To Alert Pedestrians

Sadly, in 2017, for the first time, each US state was required to submit road fatality reduction targets to the federal government. Most states set very limited goals and some, eighteen to be exact, set as their target an increase in their pedestrian death count in the hopes of not registering among government observers when their pedestrian fatalities inevitably increased.

Jessi Combs
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