Walking represents man’s oldest form of transportation and is currently one of America’s most popular low to middle-intensity fitness activities. But according to a study performed by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association in 2017, walking in our current metropolitan society has become increasingly dangerous over time.
According to the Association’s study, pedestrian fatalities as a result of traffic accidents rose 11% in 2017 from the same time in 2016. This represented the single largest increase in pedestrian fatalities in history. At almost 6000 people, this also represents the largest number of pedestrian fatalities in the last twenty years.
“It is alarming,” says GHSA executive director Jonathan Adkins, “and it’s counterintuitive.” Adkins goes on to point out that because of safety advances in cars and the rise of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, there has been an assumption that traffic deaths would go down. “We’re seeing just the opposite, unfortunately, with a particular spike as it relates to pedestrians and cyclists.”
This is a trend that is not exclusive to Washington state. The National Safety Council reported that overall traffic deaths were up 6% nationally in 2016. Since this is the case, we must ask ourselves why there has been such a dramatic spike in fatal accidents, particularly among pedestrians, when cars have ostensibly become so much safer?
There are several factors in play that are contributing to this increase.
Vehicle Speed & Pedestrian Accidents
Speed is the number one contributing factor in traffic-related accidents as they relate to fatalities in pedestrians. If a pedestrian is struck by a car that’s traveling at twenty miles per hour, their odds of that accident being fatal are 20%.
At forty miles an hour, odds of that impact being fatal for the pedestrian balloon to 80%, leaving the unfortunate walker with 1 in 5 odds of surviving being hit by that car. To prevent pedestrian deaths, New York City lowered its speed limit to 25 mph on city streets in 2014 and that trend is being adopted by more than a few municipalities.
Distracted Walking – Street Carelessness
With a failure to yield placing second as the biggest causative factor in pedestrian deaths, distracted walking comes in a very close third.
Thanks to the prevalence of handheld devices and smartphones, a surprising number of pedestrians make their way through the world, and even through traffic, completely oblivious to what is going on around them.
A rule for children who are of age to walk to school and use marked intersections is to put that phone away and constantly look in every possible direction a car can come toward them from at all times until they have safely crossed the street.
Pedestrian responsibility is a crucial factor in reducing deaths among people who are on the street. According to the GHSA study, 74 percent of pedestrian fatalities happen at night, and of that 74 percent, 72 percent of those killed were not crossing at marked intersections. If a person is crossing the street, they are, quite simply the best advocate for their own safety while doing so.
Pedestrian Obligations in Washington State
Pedestrians in Washington state should recognize that they have an independent, legal obligation to not place themselves in danger. Even within the confines of a marked intersection, the pedestrian has the moral and legal responsibility to ascertain whether or not entering the roadway is a safe course of action, regardless of who has the right of way.
When leaving a curb, also known as the zone of safety, and entering the zone of danger where the cars move, the pedestrian must have their head up and looking in all directions for danger.
It’s not uncommon that road conditions are such that a pedestrian can see the car and driver but the driver has much poorer visibility of the pedestrian. If you combine the wrong time of day (position of the sun), a pedestrian’s clothing colors, and a driver who is just a bit drowsy or fatigued, you can end up with a situation where the driver reacts too late to a pedestrian who starts crossing the street.
In this video, James Lambka talks about distracted driving and specifically the alarming report of increased pedestrian deaths: