Pedestrian deaths are soaring: SUVs, drug use, cellphones may be why, study says

Warming weather could be one reason why pedestrian fatalities are at the highest rate in 30 years, a report says. More people might be out at night when such deaths are most frequent.
Image: A visitor texts before crossing the street in Waikiki on Oct,24, 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaii
A visitor texts before crossing the street in Waikiki on Oct. 24, 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaii.Eugene Tanner / AFP - Getty Images file

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By David K. Li

Pedestrians — perhaps distracted by smartphones or strolling more at night due to warming temperatures — are being killed in traffic accidents at the highest rate in 30 years, researchers said Thursday.

About 6,590 pedestrians died in crashes in 2019, up 5 percent from the year before, according to data collected by the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The decade-long trend shows a far sharper increase.

The number of pedestrian fatalities had fallen over two decades, from 6,870 in 1989 all the way down to 4,109 in 2009, researchers said. Then things changed.

“In the past 10 years, the number of pedestrian fatalities on our nation’s roadways has increased by more than 50 percent,” the highway safety association's executive director, Jonathan Adkins, said in a statement.

The report said many factors contribute to increases in pedestrian deaths, including the shift away from passenger cars to SUVs, which have a more severe impact in a collision.

Also cited were "changing patterns of drug use, including decriminalization of marijuana."

And, smartphones were named as a possible factor because they can be "a significant source of both cognitive and visual distraction."

The Pew Research Center recently found that 81 percent of American adults now own a smartphone compared to 35 percent in 2011.

The Governors Highway Safety Association report also noted the growth in smartphone use, but stopped short of saying this was definitely connected to more pedestrians dying.

"Although the surge in smartphone use coincides with a sharp rise in pedestrian fatalities during the same period, there is a lack of evidence to establish a definitive link," the report said. "This may be due in part to the inability of police crash investigators to accurately capture momentary distraction caused by smartphones."

Other factors could include warming weather, as pedestrian fatalities at night jumped 67 percent from 2009 to 2018, while those during the daytime increased just 16 percent, the report said.

"Warmer weather can encourage more nighttime outdoor activity (including walking) and is associated with increased alcohol consumption, which increases the risk of fatal pedestrian collisions," the study's authors wrote.