The past decade was arguably a pretty good period for drivers. Traffic fatalities for car occupants decreased slightly, according to federal data. Cars got smarter and safer, according to the auto industry, though the millions of Americans who purchased a car that later fell under recall may disagree.
Meanwhile, speed limits in much of the country gradually rose, ride-hailing apps became a massive industry, and brands like Tesla suggested that drivers need not pay full attention to the road.
Lost in all of that were America’s pedestrians. Proposals to widen sidewalks or add more crosswalks received a fraction of the attention and funding that autonomous technology received, and Americans walked roughly the same amount in 2017 that they did in 2008.
In fact, one of the only things that changed for pedestrians was that the act of walking became increasingly dangerous. Pedestrian deaths jumped 35 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to a new study by Smart Growth America, a non-profit that advocates for better pedestrian infrastructure on roadways.
Nearly 50,000 pedestrian deaths
Analyzing data provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Smart Growth America found that car-on-pedestrian crashes resulted in 49,340 fatalities between the years 2008 and 2017.
The figure is “the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of people crashing—with no survivors—every single month,” the group says.
In 2015 and 2016, pedestrian deaths reached record-breaking levels, with a respective 5,494 and 6,080 fatalities. For 2017, the latest year for which data was available, deaths dipped back down to 5,911.
“But this is nothing to celebrate,” the researchers caution about the 2017 decrease. “It’s still the second highest body count on record since 1990.”
What’s more, all states are required to submit traffic safety targets to the feds each year. In 18 states, officials actually made room for more pedestrian deaths in their annual traffic safety plans.
It’s all part of what safety advocates describe as a culture and attitude that doesn’t regard pedestrian fatalities as a serious problem. Florida, a state that has been repeatedly ranked as the deadliest state for pedestrians in past research, once again fares the worst in the Smart Growth America study.
Pedestrian and cycling advocates have long blamed crumbling or non-existence sidewalks, few crosswalks, wide roads, and high speed limits as major barriers for people trying to walk safely in Florida and other states where suburban sprawl is the norm.
But poor pedestrian infrastructure alone can't explain the increase.
Smart Growth America points to other factors in recent years that changed. For one, pickup trucks and SUVS have become increasingly popular, due in part to dealers offering more long-term and subprime loans on larger cars.
Yet those larger cars have also proven to be far deadlier than typical sedans. A Detroit Free Press investigation published in July revealed that federal regulators have known for years that drivers have a more difficult time seeing pedestrians from SUVs and that pedestrians are far likelier to die when struck by an SUV.
Autonomous cars not the answer
And despite the car and tech industry promises, even autonomous cars won't save pedestrians from cars. Some experts worry that pedestrians will only get ignored by the emerging technology.
“These technologies are not going to solve our safety problems for us,” the new report says, adding that the latest version of the AV Start Act, the bill that would allow self-driving car companies to rapidly expand testing, gives states and cities “little to no oversight over how these technologies are deployed within their own communities.”
The non-profit is calling for federal and local agencies and lawmakers to invest in safer roads, lower speed limits, and enact other policies that better account for pedestrians.
In the meantime, however, drivers can help the situation by paying close attention to pedestrians and remembering that someone who appears to be recklessly running across traffic may only be doing so because they don’t have a crosswalk or sidewalk to use.