FairWarining Reports

Smartphone Distractions, Drinking Help Spur Rising Pedestrian Death Toll

(Photo by phillyskater/iStock)

Pedestrian deaths are surging across the nation, and analysts are putting much of the blame on drivers and walkers who are looking at their smartphones instead of watching where they are going. Tipsy walking also is part of the problem, with one in three victims legally drunk when they were struck and killed.

The latest report on U.S. pedestrian deaths, from the Governors Highway Safety Association, estimates that last year’s total rose 11.6 percent to nearly 6,000, or more than 16 fatalities a day. If that projection proves accurate – it is based on a fatality records from only the first half of 2016 – it would mark the sharpest yearlong increase since federal officials began keeping such statistics in the mid-1970s. What’s more, it follows a big increase of 9.5 percent in 2015, and is outpacing the overall rise in traffic deaths.

The study said other reasons for the spike might be more people walking for their health and an upsurge in vehicular traffic. Yet it emphasized that skyrocketing smartphone use and messaging as “a frequent source of mental and visual distraction for both walkers and drivers.”

Richard Retting, a transportation consultant who authored the report, noted the danger created when a driver glances down at a phone for just three seconds. During that short glance, a driver motoring at a typical city speed of 30 miles per hour would travel 132 feet. “That’s a lot of opportunity to strike a pedestrian,” he said in an email to FairWarning.

Retting added that “intoxication has been a persistent risk factor for decades. “With several states legalizing or considering legalizing marijuana, there may be growing concerns related to both drugs and alcohol impairment.”

The report estimated that 15 percent of drivers involved in deadly crashes with pedestrians were legally drunk, along with finding that one-third of pedestrians killed were intoxicated.

Little government investment

In 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that safety efforts for pedestrians, as well as for bicyclists, were hindered by streets that were generally designed “to move motor vehicles… as expeditiously as possible.” Retting made a similar point, and cited “long spacing between signalized intersections on many of the nation’s major arterial roadways.”

As FairWarning has reported, there generally has been little government investment in safety measures to protect pedestrians or bicyclists. But last year several states launched new road engineering or public awareness programs to improve safety, according to the governors’ report. For example, in Rexburg, Idaho, city officials have taken a particularly tough action, banning texting or other cell phone use by people crossing streets. Violations carry a $50 fine for the first offense and $150 for subsequent convictions.

And in one ironic twist, Delaware and Oregon said they are using social media, including Facebook, to urge motorists and walkers to avoid engaging in social media when they should be focusing on traffic.

The new projection anticipates that pedestrian deaths will account for about 15 percent of all motor vehicle-related fatalities. But that percentage, along with the overall number of pedestrian fatalities, remains lower than in the mid-1970s, when annual pedestrian death tolls exceeded 7,500.

The official pedestrian fatality estimate for 2016 is due to be released by the U.S. Department of Transportation late this year.

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About the author

Paul Feldman is a FairWarning staff writer.

2 comments to “Smartphone Distractions, Drinking Help Spur Rising Pedestrian Death Toll”

  1. Marjorie Sparrow

    Seems to be an under-reported subject, so, thanks. So much texting while driving us observed in my own ( Massachusetts) town- although illegal. It is still allowed to hold the phone to talk. At a traffic light everybody looks down.

  2. Matthew Mabey

    I was very happy to see that you included the context of how today’s casualty numbers still trail “the bad old days” by a fair margin, especially when population growth is considered.
    While it is true that the distance between designated pedestrian crossings is very large along many urban arterial roads, in the vast majority of pedestrian fatalities the common factor is a pedestrian assuming, or taking for granted, that the drivers are looking out for them. The drivers definitely should be keeping a proper look-out and yielding to pedestrians, but if pedestrians were more conscientious about looking out for their own safety, those fatality numbers would drop precipitously. Pedestrians have the speed and maneuverability to get themselves hit by a car regardless of how legally, attentively, and skillfully the car is being driven. They usually also have the speed and maneuverability to keep themselves from getting hit in most circumstances. I love that this article, and apparently the report it is based on, includes the behavior of pedestrians as a part of the solution. Lately, I see too many parents teaching their children the opposite of “look both ways and be sure it is safe before crossing.” It is so common to see parents teaching their children that “the cars will stop if you just start crossing” and “it is safe to cross if you have the signal.”

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