Pedestrian deaths in the United States have been a problem for years, but in 2020, the rate of deaths hit a disturbing milestone even accounting for the impacts of the coronavirus.
New data released Thursday by the Governors Highway Safety Association for the full year show “the largest-ever annual increase in the pedestrian death rate” since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established its Fatality Analysis Reporting System in 1975, according to the association.
Based on a preliminary data analysis, the association said 6,721 pedestrian deaths in 2020, which would represent a 4.8% increase over the previous year’s 6,412. That change is notable, but the “shocking and unprecedented 21% increase” in the pedestrian death rate to 2.3 per billion vehicle miles traveled happened as Americans drove fewer miles because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions and lockdowns that accompanied it.
“The increase in pedestrian fatalities, especially against the backdrop of large, pandemic-related declines in motor vehicle travel, is especially concerning,” Richard Retting of Sam Schwartz Consulting, who conducted the data analysis, said in the announcement. “We cannot allow ourselves to become numb to these unacceptable numbers of pedestrian deaths.”
The information released Thursday, which is based on reporting by state highway safety offices across the country, updates the half-year numbers released by the association in March, which projected a slightly less severe but still troubling increase. Data is considered preliminary until NHTSA finalizes it.
The last decade has been a yearly accounting of grim statistics for pedestrians — men, women and children — despite major safety improvements for vehicle occupants. Numerous factors likely account for 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."
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The association also highlighted speeding, impaired driving and distraction as factors, noting that people of color are killed at a disproportionately high rate. Most fatal pedestrians crashes happen at night and away from intersections.
“Last year was filled with so much death and loss as COVID swept across the country. As America gets vaccinated and returns to normal, we need to treat pedestrian safety like the public health emergency that it is,” Jonathan Adkins, the association’s executive director, said in a news release. “We must strengthen our efforts to protect those on foot from traffic violence by implementing equitable and proven countermeasures that protect people walking and address those driving behaviors that pose the greatest risk.”
The news wasn’t equally dire nationwide. Nineteen states saw declines in the number of pedestrians killed last year, the group said.
The states with the highest percentage increase were led by Kansas, Vermont, Rhode Island, Alaska and South Dakota. The states with the highest percentage decreases were led by Maine, Hawaii, Delaware, West Virginia and Massachusetts, according to the group.