Pedestrian and Cyclist Deaths Are Rising at an Alarming Rate. Why?

Last year saw the most motor-vehicle related fatalities since 1990

Times Square, New York City
Pedestrians and cyclists deaths in motor vehicle traffic crashes are way, way up.
Michael M/Unsplash
By Alex Lauer / October 24, 2019 6:02 am

If you purchased a new car in the last couple years, it’s most likely the safest car you’ve ever owned. Features like backup cameras, collision alerts and lane-departure warnings are helping keep drivers safe, and the data proves this; in a new report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 36,560 people were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the U.S. in 2018. While that sounds like a lot, it’s the continuation of a “general downward trend” over the past 40 years.

However, there is one alarming outlier in the report: it was the deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists since 1990, as The New York Times notes. Seatbelt use is up. Drunken driving is down. Groundbreaking safety tech is here. But despite all that, 6,283 pedestrians and 857 bicyclists were killed, a 3.4% and 6.3% increase compared to 2017, respectively. “On average, about 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed each day in crashes,” writes the Times. But why is this happening? 

Four words: Distracted driving and SUVs. 

“Some experts said that as Americans continue to purchase larger S.U.V.s and trucks, they may be making themselves safer at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists, who may not be as visible to them as they are to car drivers and would suffer more from a heavier impact,” writes the Times. In other words, not only are SUVs and trucks a secondary threat to humanity because of their disproportionate greenhouse gas emissions, they’re also a direct threat to pedestrians.

As for distracted driving, the Times says that “10 percent of fatal crashes involve a distracted driver,” and while there is a popular narrative that distracted pedestrians are to blame too, that’s not been backed up by research yet. But while there isn’t a simple way to deal with the SUV and truck problem, distracted driving laws have been implemented or at least considered across the country. 

There are other factors in play as well, including a disproportionate increase in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in urban areas when compared to population growth (same goes for rural areas, but not nearly as much), as well as pedestrians in low-income communities facing a greater threat.

There’s no clear path forward, and the solution won’t come with just one new program or law. But we’ve spent years increasing safety within cars — now we need to pay the same attention to people outside them.

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