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US pedestrian deaths spiked in 2016, distraction cited

2017-03-31 10:22

A DANGER TO ROAD USERS: Distractions like cellphones and other electronic devices are a cause of an increase in pedestrian fatalities in the United States.Image: Supplied

  Video

A pedestrian takes out his frustration after a driver hoots at him in a mall parking lot... only to be hit by Karma. Warning: clip contains explicit language.

Washington - US Pedestrian deaths are climbing faster than motorist fatalities, reaching nearly 6000 deaths in 2016 - the highest total in more than two decades, according to an analysis of preliminary state data released Thursday (March 30).

Increased driving due to an improved economy, lower fuel prices and more walking for exercise and environmental reasons are some of the likely reasons behind the estimated 11% spike in pedestrian fatalities in 2016. The figures were prepared for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.

Distracted by cellphones

But researchers say they think the biggest factor may be more drivers and walkers distracted by cellphones and other electronic devices, although that's hard to confirm.

Walking and kilometres driven are up only a few percentage points, and are unlikely to account for most of the surge in pedestrian deaths, said Richard Retting, safety director for Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants and the author of the report. Meanwhile, texting and use of 1wireless devices have exploded, he said.

Retting said: "It's the only factor that that seems to indicate a dramatic change in how people behave."

Pedestrian deaths 

The report is based on data from all states and the District of Columbia for the first six months of 2016 and extrapolated for the rest of the year. It shows the largest annual increase in both the number and percentage of pedestrian fatalities in the more than 40 years those national records on such deaths have been kept, with the second largest increase occurring in 2015. Pedestrian deaths as a share of total motor vehicle crash deaths increased from 11% in 2006 to 15% in 2015.

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Jonathan Adkins, the safety association's executive director: "This latest data shows that the US isn't meeting the mark on keeping pedestrians safe on our roadways.

Every one of these lives represents a loved one not coming home tonight, which is absolutely unacceptable."

Pedestrian deaths up 25% in five years

Traffic fatalities overall jumped 6% last year, pushing deaths on US roads to their highest level in nearly a decade and erasing improvements made during the Great Recession and economic recovery, according to data released last month by the National Safety Council, a leading safety organization. The council estimates there were more than 40 200 traffic deaths in 2016. The last time there were more than 40 000 fatalities in a single year was in 2007, just before the economy tanked. There were 41 000 deaths that year.

But pedestrian deaths are sharply outpacing fatalities overall, climbing 25% from 2010 to 2015, according to Retting's research. Total traffic deaths increase about 6 percent over the same period.

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Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the safety council, said: "We cannot look at distracted driving solely as an in-vehicle issue. That discounts the impact distraction could have on pedestrians."

On the other hand, "walking is working," she said. "Just as we need drivers to be alert, pedestrians have to be, too."

Drinking habits contributed to spike in deaths

Another factor in pedestrian deaths is alcohol. 34% of pedestrians and 15% of drivers involved in fatal crashes were intoxicated at the time, Retting said. But there is no indication that there has been a change in drinking habits that would account for the spike in deaths, he said.

More than twice as many states reported an uptick in pedestrian fatalities than had decreasing numbers.

The problem is greatest in large population states that have urban areas where people do a lot of walking. Delaware, Florida and Arizona had the highest rates of pedestrian deaths relative to their populations, while North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming had the lowest.

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The striking increase in pedestrian deaths has grabbed the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board, the government panel that investigates accidents and makes safety recommendations. The board held a forum on pedestrian safety last year, and currently has an investigation underway to broadly examine the causes and potential solutions to the problem.

Pedestrians "are our most vulnerable road users," said NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr.

People are "more easily distracted than when we didn't have so many easily accessible, essentially, computers in our palms," she said. "We look at that as an increasing risk for pedestrians."

Road safety tips for motorists and pedestrians: (via ArriveAlive)

• Pedestrians may be distracted by electronic devices, making them unpredictable. Always be on the lookout for potential problems when driving.
• There will be more pedestrians in built up areas, so be vigilant.
• Schools are especially dangerous as children often don’t think about the traffic as much as they should. Be careful when driving in areas with schools; think about the children because chances are they are not thinking about you.
• Take care when passing a taxi or a bus. Passengers may be alighting and may be unsighted of oncoming traffic.
• In poor visibility be especially mindful that pedestrians may be on the road. Pedestrians wearing dark clothes without any reflective covering are especially difficult to see.
• Follow the rules of the road, pay attention, and drive to the conditions of the road you are on.

Pedestrians, too, should ensure their own safety. Some tips for pedestrians include:

• Make yourself as visible as possible, consider wearing reflective gear.
• Don’t walk or cross national highways or roads.
• Don’t use electronic devices while walking; always be aware of your surroundings and avoid distractions (such as texting while walking).
• Don’t drink or use drugs before walking on the road. If your senses are impaired, you will not be able to pay sufficient attention to your surroundings.
• Don’t gamble with your safety by trying to run through traffic, at some point you will lose.

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