Man Vs. Machine: How Pedestrian Collisions Should Worry All of Us

Common sense tells us that when a car and a pedestrian collide, the pedestrian will never emerge victorious. We’re all aware of the dangers vehicles present to those on foot, and we’d like to believe that we’re always on the lookout for one another, whether we’re walking or behind the wheel. Yet, there is a recent and unsettling trend happening on our roads – not just across the U.S., but also here in Indiana.

When the Governors Highway Safety Association looked at the most recent pedestrian fatality data, the statistics were disturbing. It was early 2017 when researchers looked at the numbers from the first half of the previous year and found that there was a 17 percent jump in the number of pedestrians killed on U.S. roads.

Unfortunately, the increase in deaths was not an outlier. From 2010 to 2015, pedestrian fatalities jumped by 25 percent, meaning that pedestrians now account for the largest proportion of traffic fatalities recorded in the past 25 years.

Safety advocates obviously weren’t pleased to see this news. Many had hoped that 2015 would have been the pinnacle of the problem, not a sign of things to come. In 2015 alone, nearly 130,000 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms for non-fatal injuries and, on average, a pedestrian died every 1.6 hours in the U.S. Yet, despite the press releases and safety awareness campaigns, the numbers still increased the following year. For all of us paying attention to the trend, it was confounding, though not entirely unexpected.

As 2017 progressed, more government research backed up the early reporting from 2016. By the end of the year, 5,987 pedestrians were killed in the U.S., a 9 percent increase from the year before and a rate not seen since 1990.

What is Behind the Increase in Pedestrian Deaths?

The GHSA said that many different factors likely contributed to the increase. Economic conditions, demographics, weather, fuel prices, vehicle miles traveled and the amount of time people spend walking all played some role. However, the GHSA also noted one likely contributor that has been the subject of great scrutiny from safety advocates in recent years – driver distraction.

Over the past decade, smartphones have evolved from a rare luxury item to an integrated tool that is ever-present in most Americans’ daily lives. They are so indispensable that many of us struggle to resist the urge to compulsively check our phones. Drivers and walkers alike are prone to take a quick look at their mobile devices even when common sense says they shouldn’t.

The time it takes to send one text can distract a driver traveling at 55 miles per hour long enough to cover the distance of a football field without looking at the road. Most road safety advocates agree that distracted driving plays a role in the increase of pedestrian deaths. Even pedestrian mobile device usage accounts for part of the jump. The National Safety Council has repeatedly cautioned walkers against looking at their phones when they should be paying attention to their surroundings.

Beyond Distraction: Other Ways Pedestrians are at Risk

Pedestrians are much more likely than other road users to suffer fatal injuries in an accident. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that pedestrians are 1.5 times more likely than vehicle occupants to die in a crash, which comes as no surprise when you consider how little protection a pedestrian has when struck by a 2,000-pound automobile.

There are many things that make a pedestrian more vulnerable. First is a lack of visibility. This explains why, in 2015, nearly 75 percent of pedestrian deaths occurred in the dark. Second is alcohol. Nearly half of crashes resulting in a pedestrian fatality involved alcohol use by the driver or the pedestrian. Third is infrastructure. Approximately 72 percent of crashes resulting in pedestrian deaths occur at non-intersection locations.

Pedestrian Collisions Can Happen Anywhere

Some places are definitely more likely to host pedestrian collisions, but that doesn’t mean that only residents in the most populous cities should be concerned. For example, Indiana fares better than many other states when comparing the overall number of pedestrian fatalities. Our state has a lower pedestrian fatality rate (1.37 deaths per 100,000 residents) than most other states in the U.S. But even with that relatively low rate, officials projected that 95 pedestrian deaths occurred in Indiana in 2015.

When you compare our recent trends to the rest of the nation, Indiana’s increase in pedestrian traffic deaths has been particularly steep. From 2010 to 2014, the average annual number of pedestrian fatalities was 67.6. That means 2015 saw an increase of well over one-third of the average from the previous five years.

Statistics from the GHSA offered hope that the final 2016 tally in Indiana will be an improvement from the abysmal 2015 statistics. After the first six months of the year, there were 41 pedestrian deaths in Indiana, which indicates a slight drop from the year before, but still an increase compared with numbers from the past decade.

Whether you choose to see recent statistics through the lens of an optimist or a pessimist, one takeaway is clear: Pedestrian deaths are completely preventable, and even one is too many.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Pedestrian Collisions?

Driving a vehicle means wielding tremendous power. When behind the wheel, we must always be mindful of how vulnerable pedestrians are. This means being particularly cautious when driving in areas where pedestrian traffic is especially high, such as intersections or school zones. But it also means developing an awareness of pedestrians in areas where one wouldn’t expect to see a pedestrian, especially because that’s where most pedestrian deaths are more likely to happen. Driving responsibly (i.e., not speeding, running red lights or looking at your cell phone) is the best way to ensure you aren’t posing a threat to pedestrians.

Our infrastructure plays a significant role in the safety of residents and, thus, our city planners, lawmakers and officials have a responsibility to improve the conditions of our roads to make them more accommodating for those traveling by foot. More sidewalks, better lighting and more pedestrian crossing signs can dramatically improve safety conditions for pedestrians.

Pedestrians can also do their part to reverse the trend of increasing pedestrian deaths. Pedestrians should stick to designated crossings and sidewalks when possible. They should choose hailing a ride or other form of transportation rather than walking while intoxicated. If walking at night in poorly lit areas, pedestrians should wear bright or reflective clothing and stay as far away from roads as possible.

Our roads can be safer. We can buck these recent trends and prove that man and machine can co-exist on our roadways. But improvement won’t come without action. By being more aware of the problem and looking out for our fellow travelers, we might also ensure that these preventable injuries and deaths become a thing of the past.

The pedestrian accident attorneys at McNeely Stephenson represent clients throughout Indiana to make sure they get the compensation they deserve when injured by a negligent driver. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.