By Francis M. Smith
Relying less on automotive transportation and choosing to walk or bike, either recreationally or as part of your daily commute, is often characterized as a frugal, healthy, and eco-friendly choice. Being a pedestrian or cyclist is not without its hazards, however; 2018 saw the highest number of pedestrian accident fatalities across the country since 1990. In the last decade alone, pedestrian deaths have increased by more than a third. These troubling trends persist despite pressure from pedestrian safety groups on states and municipalities to implement policies and modify road designs to protect pedestrians.
Responding to the dangers that exist for pedestrians and cyclists on our nation’s roads requires an understanding of the factors that are contributing to this increase in fatality rates. A report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) indicated a number of possible causes, including the types of vehicles on the roads, distractions available to drivers, and alcohol impairment – on the part of drivers and pedestrians.
Recent years have seen a trend of American motorists favoring larger, more powerful vehicles, including pickup trucks, SUVs, and crossovers. These larger, heavier vehicles tend to inflict more damage when they strike an unprotected pedestrian or cyclist than a smaller car would, resulting in more severe, life-threatening, and fatal injuries. The report released by the GHSA indicated that in a period spanning 2013 to 2017, pedestrian deaths involving passenger sedans rose by 30 percent, while pedestrian deaths involving SUVs increased by 50 percent. With more of these massive passenger vehicles on the road, a pedestrian’s chances of surviving a collision correspondingly diminish.
Another major factor in the increase in pedestrian fatalities, according to the GHSA report, is an increase in driver distraction related to smartphone use. Motorists may not be chatting on hand-held cell phones as frequently as they used to, but an ever-changing parade of new smartphone apps provide countless new ways of being distracted by your mobile device while behind the wheel, as controversies surrounding Pokemon Go, Snapchat, and other apps in the past few years have demonstrated. Manipulating a cell phone in ways that don’t involve carrying on a telephone conversation is a form of driver distraction that has measurably increased in recent years. In some respects, this way of using a smartphone behind the wheel is even more dangerous, because it draws a driver’s eyes away from the road, as well as moving their hand from the wheel and their mind from focusing on their surroundings. When these three forms of distraction – visual, manual, and cognitive – combine, a serious accident becomes all the more likely.
The GHSA report also revealed that in approximately half of all accidents resulting in a pedestrian death, at least one of the parties involved – the driver, the pedestrian, or both – was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash. Thanks to the efforts of public awareness groups, the dangers of drunk driving have a well-recognized (if not always well-heeded) place in the popular consciousness, but the danger associated with alcohol impairment in pedestrians receives much less attention. Impaired pedestrians are more likely to misjudge the distance and speed of oncoming vehicles or fail to notice traffic, and they may enter the street suddenly and unpredictably.
Reversing the rising trend of pedestrian accident fatalities requires the joint efforts of drivers, pedestrians, and the states and municipalities responsible for road design and maintenance. Low-income areas often lack sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to walk on roadways; these areas not coincidentally see a disproportionate percentage of pedestrian deaths. Municipalities need to implement changes to their design metrics for road construction and maintenance, shifting the focus to prioritize safety rather than solely concentrating on optimizing unimpeded traffic flow. Sidewalks and bike lanes help to protect the most vulnerable road users by keeping them physically separated from automotive traffic as much as possible.
Pedestrians can help reduce their risk of injury by choosing routes with safe sidewalks whenever possible, by remaining alert to their surroundings, and by wearing bright or reflective clothing or carrying a flashlight when visibility is poor to make it easier for drivers to see them. Pedestrians should also cross at marked crosswalks or at intersections when possible, and avoid entering the street from between parked cars. When crossing a road where a cross walk is not available and away from an intersection, a pedestrian should always cross at right angles to maximize the benefits of peripheral vision (and to comply with the law).
Motorists have a duty of care to remain alert at the wheel and drive in a reasonably safe and careful manner. If a pedestrian is struck by a driver who failed in that duty of care, that pedestrian may be able to seek compensation for his or her injuries resulting from the collision – or, in the case of a fatal accident, the pedestrian’s family may be able to seek damages for wrongful death. With the help of an experienced injury attorney, an injured pedestrian can obtain the compensation they deserve.