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A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association provides the latest evidence of disturbing traffic safety patterns across the U.S. since the pandemic began.
The number of people killed in traffic crashes while they were walking shot up 17% in the first half of 2021, compared to a similar period the year before.
The toll of pedestrians killed by drivers rose to 3,441 people in early 2021.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, a group that represents traffic safety offices in every state, released the new estimates Thursday. They are based on preliminary reports that states have submitted to the federal government, but they are not yet official numbers.
The upswing in pedestrian fatalities, though, is the latest evidence of disturbing traffic safety patterns since the beginning of the pandemic.
“This troubling projection continues a decade-long trend of rising pedestrian deaths on our roadways and comes as speeding, impaired and distracted driving, and other dangerous driver behaviors remain at unacceptably high levels,” the safety group said in its announcement.
Pedestrian deaths in the U.S. went from 4,457 in 2011 to 6,516, a 46% jump over that timeframe, the group noted.
“The depth of these tragedies – 3441 lives lost in six months – is enormous,” wrote Mike McGinn, the executive director of America Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group, in an email.
“It’s time for politicians and agency officials to take accountability for what they control and start designing streets and vehicles for safety, not speed. We’ve had a century of them telling people to drive or walk safely and it doesn’t work. We know what works – safe design,” he wrote. “States have just been handed billions of dollars in infrastructure money. Will they choose lives or tragedies?”
Pandemic Exacerbating Trend
Russ Martin, the senior director of policy and government relations for GHSA, said the pandemic may have exacerbated long-term trends that have been making the nation’s roadways more dangerous for walkers. Drivers are using bigger and heavier vehicles, while states and local governments have built streets that encourage fast vehicle travel over safety, he said.
“In many parts of the country, we have roadways with inadequate infrastructure to protect pedestrians. That’s things as simple as sidewalks and lighting, much less more sophisticated infrastructure,” he said in an interview.
But the change in pedestrian deaths in 2021 varied significantly by state. The vast majority of states – 39 plus the District of Columbia – saw increases, but 11 states saw declines instead.
In Florida, 105 more pedestrians died in the first half of 2021 than in the first half of 2020, the biggest increase of any state. South Carolina and Georgia both saw 79 more pedestrian fatalities and Texas had 42 more.
Connecticut saw the biggest improvement, with 11 fewer pedestrians killed in early 2021 than the year before. North Carolina, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico were also at the top of the list in reduced pedestrian fatalities.
Of course, the pandemic could have affected the baseline numbers of pedestrian fatalities in early 2020 as well, when many Americans stayed at home and off the roads. But GHSA noted that traffic deaths for walkers remained level across the country from 2019 to 2020. In the first six months of 2019, 2,951 pedestrians died in vehicle crashes, compared with 2,934 a year later.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.