More Pedestrian Fatalities – Red Flag for Smartphone, Darkness, Speed & Cannabis Use

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) projects nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. in 2017, marking the second year in a row at numbers not seen in 25 years.

GHSA’s annual Spotlight on Highway Safety provides the first glimpse at state and national trends in pedestrian traffic fatalities for 2017, using preliminary data provided by the highway safety offices in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Richard Retting of Sam Schwartz Consulting analyzed the data and authored the report.

Darkness poses an especially high-risk for those traveling by foot. On a national basis, about half of
the pedestrian fatalities in 2016 occurred between 6:00 p.m. and midnight, with 75 percent occurring
after dark. The proportion of pedestrian fatalities that occurred after dark during 2014-2016 varied considerably across states, ranging from 84 percent in New Mexico to 50 percent in Vermont.

Five states (California, Florida, Texas, New York, and Arizona) accounted for 43 percent of all pedestrian deaths during the first six months of 2017. By comparison, these five states represent approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2017 U.S. Census.

“Two consecutive years of 6,000 pedestrian deaths is a red flag for all of us in the traffic safety community. These high levels are no longer a blip but unfortunately a sustained trend,” GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins explains. “We can’t afford to let this be the new normal.”

States reported a total of 2,636 pedestrian fatalities for the first six months of 2017. Adjusting the raw data based on past data trends, GHSA projects that pedestrian deaths in 2017 will total 5,984, essentially unchanged from 2016, in which 5,987 people on foot lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes. Pedestrians now account for approximately 16% of all motor vehicle deaths, compared with 11% just a few years ago.

Two recent trends present an interesting correlation with rising pedestrian fatalities: the growth in smartphone use nationally and the legalization of recreational marijuana in several states. While the report does not find or imply a definitive link between these factors and pedestrian deaths, it is widely accepted both smartphones and marijuana can impair the attention and judgment necessary to navigate roadways safely behind the wheel and on foot.

The reported number of smartphones in active use in the U.S. increased 236% from 2010 to 2016, and the number of cell phone-related emergency room visits is increasing as the devices become more prevalent in daily life.

The seven states and D.C. that legalized recreational marijuana use between 2012 and 2016 experienced a collective 16.4% increase in pedestrian fatalities for the first half of 2017, while all other states saw a combined 5.8% decrease.

As report author Retting notes, “This preliminary 2017 data is the first opportunity to look at marijuana-impairment as a possible contributing factor in pedestrian deaths, given the recent law changes. It’s critical to use this early data to look for potential warning signs.”

In addition to looking at pedestrian fatality crash characteristics, the report also discusses promising strategies to reduce pedestrian and motor vehicle crashes through a combination of engineering, education and enforcement efforts. It also outlines specific examples from 41 states such as: training law enforcement officers to understand and enforce laws aimed to protect pedestrians; collaboration between State Highway Safety Offices and state DOTs; and policy changes to prioritize safety for all road users, regardless of mode.

Evidence-based strategies to Increase Separation of Pedestrians from Motor Vehicles include:
Refuge islands, which allow pedestrians to cross two-way streets one direction at a time.

  • Pedestrian overpasses/underpasses.
  • Countdown pedestrian signals that provide ample crossing time.
  • Pedestrian hybrid beacons, where warranted. Also known as HAWK signals, this traffic device
    stops traffic to allow pedestrians to cross at midblock locations that do not warrant full traffic
    signal control.
  • New traffic signals, where warranted

Evidence-based strategies to Make Pedestrians More Visible to Drivers include:

  • Improved street lighting (note that nationwide 75% of pedestrian fatalities occur in the dark)
    High-visibility crosswalks
  • Rapid-flashing beacons (RFBs) mounted to pedestrian crossing signs at mid-block crossings.
  • Higher vehicle speeds are strongly associated with both a greater likelihood of pedestrian crashes
    and more serious and fatal pedestrian injuries. For this reason, efforts to reduce speeding on streets
    with pedestrian activity are a major focus of many municipal traffic safety programs, including
    Vision Zero programs, which emphasize intensified traffic enforcement and engineering measures.

Evidence-based Engineering and Enforcement Measures to Reduce Speeds include:

  • Road diets that create space for other modes (e.g., bicycle lanes, sidewalks, turn lanes).
  • Roundabouts (also known as traffic circles) in place of stop signs and traffic signals.
  • Traffic calming devices such as speed humps and curb extensions, where appropriate.
  • Automated traffic enforcement as a supplement to traditional enforcement.

The full report, including state-by-state data and infographics, is available at

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