American Roads Are Getting Safer—Unless You're Walking


The 2018 figures on who lived and who died on America’s roads, released on Tuesday, include a lot of good news. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some 36,550 people died in vehicle crashes, 913 or 2.4 percent fewer than in 2017. Deaths of children 14 and younger dropped more than 10 percent. Deaths related to drunk driving, speeding, and motorcycling all fell. That’s all encouraging, especially since traffic deaths—after decades of falling—climbed between 2014 and 2016, reaching nearly 40,000.

But life on the road didn’t improve for everyone: 6,677 pedestrians died in 2018. That’s a 3.4 percent increase over 2017, and continues a decade-long upward trend. Since hitting a modern low a decade ago (NHTSA began keeping count in 1975), walking deaths have spiked by 50 percent. Cyclist deaths are on the rise too, climbing by 6.3 percent in 2018 to 893.

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Just as scary as those figures is the fact that nobody’s quite sure how to explain them. “We don’t have any metric we could find,” says Richard Retting, who has spent decades studying traffic safety for the New York City DOT and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and is now the general manager of Sam Schwartz, a traffic engineering firm. The standard factors—how many miles cars are driving and how much people are walking—are up, but not by enough to account for what he calls “a complete reversal of the progress that had been made over 20 years.” NHTSA did not offer any reasoning in its report, and the agency’s press team did not return an after-hours request for comment.

That’s not to say the folks studying this problem don’t have suspects. First in the lineup is distracted driving. According to NHTSA’s data, distraction was a factor in just 7.8 percent of fatal crashes last year. The problem with that number is that it’s pulled, like the rest of this data, from police reports. Yet in many cases, if not most of them, police have no way of knowing whether a driver (or a pedestrian) was looking at their phone. So it’s likely that distraction is under-reported. “I can’t believe in my wildest imagination that drivers looking at their phones create an environment that’s safer for pedestrians,” Retting says, especially since the spread of iPhones and their ilk has coincided with the rise of deaths. According to the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of Americans owned a smartphone in 2011. Last year, it was 77 percent. Meanwhile, automakers keep putting more and larger screens into their vehicles.

Common sense says that battling distraction is vital, but it’s unlikely that all kinds of phone-gazing are equally problematic. After Honolulu enacted a ban on “distracted walking,” New York City considered the same. But in August, its DOT released a study that “found little concrete evidence that device-induced distracted walking contributes significantly to pedestrian fatalities and injuries.”

The rising popularity of SUVs and crossovers—to the point where American automakers have largely given up on sedans—may also play a role. SUVs made up 15 percent of new vehicle sales in the US in 2013; they could hit 50 percent by 2020. Heavier vehicles make for deadlier impacts, and taller vehicles are more likely to strike a person in the torso or head, rather than in the legs. Which is to say, being hit by a car may be more likely to kill you now than in the past. Between 2004 and 2017, just over 7 percent of pedestrians involved in crashes died. In 2017, the rate was 8.35 percent.



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