In March 2018, there was a well-publicized car accident in Tempe, Arizona involving a pedestrian struck by a self-driving Uber vehicle. The accident was unusual for involving a self-driving car, but otherwise was depressingly familiar.
Pedestrian deaths from car accidents have risen 46 percent since 2009, their lowest point. Pedestrian versus vehicle accidents have also become deadlier. Most of the increase has occurred on arterial streets, which are busy roads designed to funnel traffic to freeways, and most of the accidents have happened after dark, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. These types of accidents are increasingly likely to involve an SUV and a high-horsepower vehicle.
A total of 5,987 pedestrians were killed in auto crashes in 2016, which accounts for 16 percent of all traffic fatalities. This was the highest number since 1990.
For the new study, IIHS researchers looked at pedestrian crash trends during 2009–16 to pinpoint the circumstances under which the largest increases occurred. Using federal fatality data and crash numbers, the researchers looked at roadway, environmental, personal and vehicle factors to see how they changed over the study period. They also looked at changes in the number of pedestrian deaths relative to the number of pedestrians involved in crashes.
The researchers found that not only did pedestrian crashes increase, they also became deadlier. Deaths per 100 crash involvements increased 29 percent from 2010, when they reached their lowest point, to 2015, the most recent year that data on all crashes, including nonfatal ones, were available.
From 2009 to 2016, the largest increases in pedestrian deaths occurred under the circumstances that historically have seen the highest numbers of pedestrian fatalities. Pedestrian deaths increased 54 percent in urban areas, which include both cities and what most people consider suburbs. They also increased 67 percent on arterials, 50 percent at nonintersections and 56 percent in the dark.
Although pedestrian crashes most frequently involved cars, fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs increased 81 percent, more than any other type of vehicle. The power of passenger vehicles involved in fatal single-vehicle pedestrian crashes, as measured by the ratio of horsepower to weight, also increased, with larger increases at the top of the scale.
The large increase in pedestrian deaths on arterials isn’t surprising. These roads often have a shortage of convenient and safe crossing locations. Several possible solutions to the problem involve the installation of pedestrian activated crossing beacons, which function like traffic lights for pedestrians, changing the design of roadways to accommodate pedestrian crossings, and lower the number of lanes they must cross, lowering speed limits, better street lighting at night, improved headlights on vehicles, and frontal crash avoidance systems that recognize pedestrians.
Whether these types of changes will be made in the future depends on the urgency with which the problem will be addressed in Washington at the regulatory level and at the state and local level by recognition of the problem and proper roadway design and construction.