America was a dangerous place to be a pedestrian in 2022. Preliminary data analyzed by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GSHA) found that 7,508 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes last year, the highest number of deaths since 1981. But the carnage is very unevenly distributed; 26 states and the District of Columbia actually became safer for pedestrians during 2022, and the nationwide year-on-year increase in pedestrian traffic deaths was just 1 percent. Overall, there was a 0.3 percent reduction in fatal vehicle crashes in the US last year.
The last few years have seen an alarming rise in pedestrian fatalities. In 2010, 4,302 pedestrians were killed by US traffic, accounting for 13 percent of all traffic deaths. But by 2021, the number of pedestrian deaths had increased by 77 percent to 7,624.
You might have noticed that’s actually a little higher than the number that the GSHA is projecting for 2022; Oklahoma was apparently unable to provide 2022 data, and the data reported by the State Highway Safety Offices is usually about 2 percent greater than the data in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Therefore the 2021 number for comparison, excluding Oklahoma, was 7,443 pedestrians.
Which states are most dangerous?
The GSHA report notes that decreases in 26 states and DC “could be an encouraging sign that the deadly trend is slowing and may even be reversing.” But that’s not true everywhere. Arizona, Virginia, and Oregon saw the largest increases in pedestrian deaths by absolute numbers—more than 40 additional deaths in each of the three states compared to last year.
But some smaller states showed a larger percentage increase year-on-year; an additional seven deaths in New Hampshire increased that state’s pedestrian deaths by 77 percent year-on-year. That effect was noticeable in the states that saw their streets become safer for foot traffic—New Jersey had the largest absolute decline year-on-year (27 fewer pedestrian fatalities) but was middle of the pack in terms of year-on-year percentage decrease, and a reduction by 20 pedestrians in California was only a 2 percent drop.
The GSHA also notes that if the one percent increase it saw in the SHSO-reported data also shows up in NHTSA’s FARS data, the overall 2022 pedestrian death toll could be higher than 8,000.
What’s causing this?
It has become extremely fashionable of late to blame all traffic deaths on the increasingly large and bluff-fronted trucks and SUVs that have metastasized on our streets. Indeed, the GSHA report points out that the number of pedestrian deaths caused by SUVs increased by 120 percent between 2012 and 2021, whereas the increase in deaths caused by cars only grew 26 percent. In absolute numbers, many more pedestrians were killed by people driving cars (2,605) than killed by people driving SUVs (1,773) in 2021, but pickup trucks accounted for another 1,115 pedestrian deaths last year.
But other factors are also at work. There’s plenty of evidence that speeding became much more common during the pandemic and that those speed demons have not let off the gas even as traffic density rebounded in 2021.
Alcohol impairment plays a part here, too. And not just for drivers—the report found that 30.5 percent of pedestrians aged 16 and older had a blood alcohol concentration of at least 0.08, the limit above which one is considered impaired. Meanwhile, 19 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred with a driver with a BAC above 0.08.
Light conditions appear to play a very significant role in the increased pedestrian death toll. Between 2010 and 2021, there was a 30 percent increase in pedestrian deaths during daylight hours, but this increased by 86 percent at night. In 2021, just over 77 percent of fatal crashes (5,645) occurred after dark; by contrast fewer than 20 percent happened during daylight (1,430), with the remaining ~3 percent occurring during dawn and dusk.
Nighttime crashes involving pedestrians were more common on high-speed roadways like interstates, freeways, and arterial roads compared to local roads. A lack of sidewalks was also a clear factor—each year since 2017 has seen the percentage of fatal pedestrian crashes that occurred in a place with no sidewalks increase, from 59 percent to almost 69 percent in 2021.
What’s the solution?
Our roads don’t have to be this dangerous for pedestrians. The GSHA report points out that NHTSA has proposed a “pass/fail” pedestrian safety rating for all new cars and light trucks, but notes that even if adopted, it won’t include that data as part of the New Car Assessment Program that gives new vehicles a safety rating. (The NHTSA public comment period is open until July 23, and you can submit your comments to the agency online.)
And as we reported at the end of last month, NHTSA wants automatic emergency braking systems with pedestrian detection to be a mandatory safety feature on all new cars. Currently, almost every new car includes this feature as standard, but not all of them offer pedestrian detection.
The GSHA also highlighted some other strategies for making our roads safer. California, Maine, and Minnesota have each refined their driver educational materials to explain the six principles behind a national roadway safety strategy: death and serious injury are unacceptable; humans make mistakes; humans are vulnerable; responsibility is shared; safety is proactive; and redundancy is critical. Montana and Florida also include pedestrian and bicycle safety in their driver’s education curricula.
Hawaii, Oregon, Delaware, and Utah are all engaging with homeless communities to take their experiences into account. For example, Utah’s data showed that many fatal pedestrian crashes occurred near homeless shelters.
Some states have even stepped up traffic enforcement. According to the report, California, DC, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and South Carolina have all started conducting sting operations “where officers in plain clothes cross at a crosswalk, identify drivers who do not yield the right of way and radio to another officer stationed ahead who stops the driver.” As a resident of DC, I can only suggest that they try enforcing the no-left turn sign onto M St SW at 4th St SW for a while because I’m tired of almost being run over there by idiots who cannot read a road sign.
Some of the greatest impacts might be felt after redesigning our built environment to make it friendlier to people who walk. As already noted, a lack of sidewalks is a factor in a majority of pedestrian deaths, and there are many improvements to infrastructure that improve safety, including lower speed limits, road diets (taking away lanes from cars), better lighting and raised crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, and flashing beacons at crosswalks. However, the GSHA points out that state highway safety offices are not usually the state organizations responsible for implementing such solutions.