Remember those images of empty streets, minus people and cars, from the early days of lockdown last year?
Those memorable photos, captured as the coronavirus pandemic was upending daily life, meant a drop, at least for a time, in the amount of vehicle miles being driven. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into a drop in pedestrian deaths.
Instead, a preliminary data analysis released Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association shows a shocking 20% increase in the pedestrian fatality rate per billion vehicle miles traveled during the first six months of the year.
“It’s upsetting. It’s really very, very unsettling to think we can have such a large reduction in traffic and no drop in pedestrian fatalities,” said Richard Retting, director of safety/research for Sam Schwartz, the consulting firm that analyzed the information. “There’s never been anything close to this on a rate basis.”
Pedestrian deaths have skyrocketed over the past decade despite substantial safety improvements for vehicle occupants. A variety of factors are believed to be at play in the increase in pedestrian fatalities, including more large trucks and SUVs on the road as recounted by the Detroit Free Press/USA Today investigation, “Death on foot: America’s love of SUVs is killing pedestrians,” as well as distraction, vehicle speed and alcohol use.
Other issues also are noteworthy. People of color represent a disproportionate number of victims, and most fatal pedestrian crashes happen at night and away from intersections.
Despite the impact of COVID-19 on daily life, including a shift to remote learning and working from home, the number of fatalities in the first half of the 2020 appears to have been close to the same as the prior year, with 2,957 pedestrian deaths for the first six months of 2020 compared with 2,951 in 2019, according to safety association projections.
The key figure, however, in the context of the pandemic is how that relates to the number of vehicle miles traveled, which dropped 16.5% compared with the same period in 2019. The pedestrian fatality rate of 2.2 per billion vehicle miles traveled represents a 20% increase over the 2019 rate, according to the analysis of data from state highway safety offices.
Such an increase if it holds for the full year or does not drop much would be troublingly notable. Fatalities tend to go up in the second half of the year, Retting noted, saying people tend to be out and about more during the warmer summer months and for holidays like Halloween and Christmas.
The analysis found that 6,301 pedestrians died in the United States in 2019. That number is an increase of about 96 over the federal data released so far for the year, but was adjusted to account for historical underreporting in the government’s typical initial releases, according to the safety association.
Pedestrians accounted for about 17% of all traffic deaths in 2019, a percentage that has risen fairly consistently over the last decade. The tens of thousands of pedestrians killed in the last 10 years include men, women and children, and it highlights the dramatic toll this crisis has taken on America’s most vulnerable road users.
However, the numbers, all based on preliminary data, point to some improvements as well.
Twenty states and Washington, D.C., recorded declines in the number of pedestrian fatalities, some of which were double digit and percentage declines, compared with the first half of 2019. Delaware and Kentucky are projected to have three years of declines in pedestrian deaths, while Arizona is expected to have its second year of declining fatalities.
Still, 27 states reported increases in their numbers during the same period. Michigan, with 68 fatalities, had three more pedestrian deaths in the first half of 2020 than in the same stretch of 2019, according to the analysis.