‘A Complete Reversal of Progress:’ Why 2018 Was the Deadliest Year for Pedestrians Since 1990

February 28, 2019, 10:52 AM UTC
Cold Rain And Wind Bear Down On New York City Commuters
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 24: Pedestrians walk through a heavy late morning rain on January 24, 2019 in New York City. A flood watch has been issued for New York City as forecasts call for heavy rain throughout the day. So far this winter New York City, and much of the Northeast, has received little snowfall. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

The Governors Highway Safety Association just released an annual report that says 2018 was the deadliest year for pedestrians since 1990.

After sinking by 37% from 6,482 deaths in 1990 to 4,109 in 2009, pedestrian fatalities have risen by more than 50% from 2009 to 2018. The total number of pedestrian deaths is estimated at 6,227 for 2018. (The study extrapolated full-year results from the first half of 2018’s actual numbers.)

“It’s very bleak,” Richard Retting of Sam Schwartz Consulting told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re seeing a complete reversal of the progress that had been made in the 1980s and up until 2009.”

From 2009 to 2017, pedestrian deaths’ portion of all traffic fatalities rose from 12% to 16%. Five states—Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas—accounted for almost half of all pedestrian deaths. Those states had some of the highest rates of population growth; together, they account for 33% of the total U.S. population. New Mexico had the highest rate of pedestrian deaths per resident, while New Hampshire had the lowest.

The report highlighted increased sales of SUVs as a potential cause. Pedestrian deaths involving cars increased by 30% from 2013 to 2017, while ones involving SUVs increased by 50% in the same time frame. Smartphones are also a potential cause, as devices distract both drivers and pedestrians. (The report references 2017 as the most recent year for which data is available in some instances since 2018’s figures are estimates.)

While 25 states and the District of Columbia reported increases in pedestrian deaths, it’s worth noting that 23 reported declines, with Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma and Wisconsin all achieving double-digit declines in the number of pedestrian deaths in the first half of 2018 compared to the year before. And major urban areas reported improvements: In 2017, pedestrian deaths fell by 15% in the country’s 10 largest cities.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety just released a report last week that rated crash avoidance features as “advanced” or “superior” on 9 out of 11 small SUVs in model year 2018-19. Automatic emergency braking systems designed to detect and avoid pedestrians and prevent rear-end crashes are supposed to become standard in U.S. vehicles by 2022.

Those systems are an important mile marker on the road toward autonomous driving. But the technology isn’t perfect yet: Self-driving cars have been involved in at least four pedestrian deaths in the past years.

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