Pedestrian deaths on American roads have risen by more than 70 percent since 2010, an increase that safe-streets advocates ascribe partly to our national love affair with trucks.
Vehicles struck and killed 7,388 pedestrians in 2021, compared to 4,302 in 2010, according to federal crash data tabulated by The Hill. Pedestrian deaths rose by another 5 percent in the first half of 2022.
Trucks aren’t solely to blame, but they are a key factor. The number of pedestrians killed by light utility trucks, the most common culprit after cars in the latest federal data, more than doubled between 2010 and 2021, from 732 to 1,773.
“There’s this race to the bottom of people buying more large cars because they want to feel safer around all of the other large cars,” said Rebecca Sanders, founder of Safe Streets Research & Consulting, a crash analysis firm. “We are ever more vulnerable, ever more at risk, from these larger vehicles.”
In 2010, Americans bought and leased cars and trucks in roughly equal numbers. By 2021, nearly 80 percent of sales and leases were trucks.
American drivers gravitate to pickups and SUVs because they are big, bold and safe, cocooning the driver within a 6,000-pound cage, perched high above the humble sedan. Their vast cabins can transport the whole family. The extra weight saps fuel efficiency, but American gas prices have remained relatively low.
Automakers love trucks, because they bring higher profit margins. Tricked-out pickups and SUVs tend to cost a lot more than fuel-efficient compacts.
All of this is bad news for the pedestrian, who is more likely to die if struck by a truck than by a car. Trucks weigh more. They also tend to strike pedestrians in the head, neck or chest, the locus of many vital organs.
“You think of a typical F-150 now, and it’s six feet tall,” said Nick Ferenchak, assistant professor and director of the Center for Pedestrian and Bicyclist Safety at the University of New Mexico.
A United Nations report shows that the United States had more pedestrian deaths in 2019 than any other nation by a nearly 5-to-1 margin. (The analysis did not include China or India.)
European motorists are far more likely than Americans to drive actual cars. Gas prices are generally higher overseas, roads narrower, parking spaces smaller.
Europe also enjoys a relative preponderance of bicycles. Cycling is gaining popularity as a mode of transit in America. Sadly, cycling fatalities are also on the rise. Cyclist deaths rose by more than 50 percent between 2010 and 2021, according to federal data collated by The Hill.
When a sedan hits a cyclist, the cyclist often lands on the hood. That’s bad, experts say, but what happens when a truck hits a cyclist is worse.
“They tend to push the cyclists down toward the ground, where they can get secondary injuries that are more severe than if they go up on the hood,” said Ken McLeod, policy director at the League of American Bicyclists.
Larger and heavier vehicles are not the only reason why more pedestrians and cyclists are dying on American roads. Another factor is the changing demographics of the typical fatality.
“Twenty years ago, if you were talking about pedestrian safety, it was downtown,” Ferenchak said. Today, “all of these fatalities are migrating out to the suburbs, really for the first time ever.”
A 2021 study of pedestrian fatality “hot spots” found that nearly all were multi-lane roadways, most requiring pedestrians to cross five or more lanes: Not your typical urban intersection. Most had speed limits of 30 mph or higher, and most lay near low-income neighborhoods.
The rise of pedestrian fatalities in the suburbs coincides with the suburbanization of poverty.
“Over half of people living in poverty are living in the suburbs,” Ferenchak said. “These are not places where you can safely walk or bike, but if you’re living in poverty, you might have no choice.”
Multilane suburban highways often carry cars traveling at great speed. High speeds reduce potential reaction time, especially at night, when most pedestrian fatalities occur.
Higher speeds also mean more severe injuries. Doubling the impact speed from 24 mph to 48 mph raises the pedestrian’s risk of death from 10 percent to 75 percent, the hot-spot study noted.
“We have all these high-speed roadways designed to move cars very quickly, and not designed to keep people biking and walking safe,” McLeod said.
Driver distraction isn’t necessarily a bigger issue today than in 2010, three years after the release of the iPhone. But it remains an issue.
“We’re able to do a lot more things with our phones now than 10 or 20 years ago,” said Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations at the Governors Highway Safety Association. “There are fewer people holding the phone to their ear to talk on the phone, and more people physically manipulating the phone,” texting or scrolling through a feed.
Uber, Lyft and DoorDash drivers are a new-ish and relatively uncharted factor in pedestrian and cyclist deaths, said Sanders of Safe Streets.
“We have these new quasi-professional drivers who have not had much professional training, and they may not know where they’re going, and they’re in a hurry,” she said, a recipe for distracted and erratic driving.
What, then, is the recipe to lower the risks for cyclists and pedestrians on America’s roads?
One obvious fix is lower speed limits. When civic leaders in Boston and Seattle lowered speed limits citywide, drivers slowed and fatalities declined, said Jessica Cicchino, vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
But local governments don’t always have the authority to lower speed limits, Martin said. And harried suburbanites don’t always follow the posted limit.
Much discussion in the road-safety community focuses on traffic calming. A designated bike or bus lane, even an empty one, tends to slow motorists down. So do brand-new sidewalks, pedestrian islands, pedestrian “bump-outs” and pretty much any measure taken “simply to separate pedestrians from vehicle traffic,” Martin said.
Speed humps help, but “you can’t just put a speed hump across a seven-lane arterial” highway, Ferenchak said.
One comparatively simple upgrade is better headlights. More than three-quarters of pedestrian fatalities happen in darkness, and that quotient is rising.
Some of the largest trucks and SUVs may need a redesign to eliminate potential blind spots, especially at corners. Research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that taller vehicles may be more likely to hit pedestrians while turning.
Europe has adopted Intelligent Speed Assistance, technology that tells your car the speed limit, whereupon the car can warn you that you’re speeding. The tech can even thwart you from speeding, limiting engine power until the driver either overrides the system or slows down.
Intelligent Speed Assistance is now mandatory in the EU, but not here.
“I think that there’s been more resistance to it in the United States,” Cicchino said. “We hear, ‘It’s a different culture here.’ But that’s why we need to change the culture.”