From behind the wheel, cars and trucks today are safer than ever before. But for people on the street, vehicles haven’t been this dangerous in over a generation.
A study of State Highway Safety Offices data released by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association in June assessed American drivers killed at least 7,500 pedestrians in 2022. That’s the most of any year since 1981. Missing data from Oklahoma means the final number is likely even higher.
Experts attribute the increase of deaths on faster driving speeds, a lack of pedestrian-friendly road infrastructure and consumer tastes shifting towards increasingly heavier and high-riding trucks and SUVs.
“The vehicle has evolved to better protect the people inside of it, but it hasn’t evolved to protect people on the outside,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, the GHSA’s Senior Director of External Engagement.
That wasn’t always the case. Data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, another source analyzed by the GHSA, shows this country was successfully reducing the number of pedestrians killed by drivers for decades. Pedestrian deaths between 1980 and 2009 dropped in half, from 8,070 to 4,109. Data from FARS is available for more years than the SHSO but is treated as a separate source by the report because of differences in how both classify deaths.
But the years since 2010 erased most of that progress. Pedestrian deaths between 2010 and 2021 rose by a stunning 77%.
Pedestrian deaths are more common in southern states with warmer weather, which traditionally are where people are more likely to be out and about and potentially walking or running, Fischer said.
The overall rate of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents was 2.28 in 2022, according to the GHSA. But pedestrians were killed more frequently per capita in most of the Sunbelt states, especially Arizona and New Mexico.
Both of those states have a lot of rural areas where they might not have the infrastructure to support foot traffic, Fischer added.
On many roads across the country – especially busier, higher speed roads – there’s no infrastructure to make it safe for pedestrians to cross or walk along the road, said Jessica Cicchino, the Vice President of Research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“You have many roads that are designed to allow vehicles to go through as fast as they can that might not be designed with other road users in mind,” Cicchino said.
That would help contribute to faster vehicle speeds, she said, which is a significant factor in why pedestrian deaths are rising.
That problem is compounded by the fact that cars have continued to get more powerful and capable of faster speeds over time. Gone are the days of having to turn off the air conditioning in your 100-horsepower minivan to climb steep hills. The average horsepower rating among all new vehicles has swelled from roughly 213 in 2010 to 272 in 2021, according to the EPA.
In an IIHS study of crash fatalities during 2009-16, Cicchino and Senior Research Transportation Engineer Wen Hu showed that vehicles with more horsepower are more involved in pedestrian crashes.
The trouble with trucks
That study also showed the number of SUVs involved in pedestrian deaths rose by nearly 8% between 2009 and 2016 – more than any other vehicle type.
“We’ve become very focused on larger and heavier vehicles,” Fischer said.
SUVs and pickup trucks are tall, heavy vehicles that often have blunt front ends. When they strike a pedestrian, they hit them in the torso area where most of the internal organs are, she said.
Trucks also have larger front blind spots that can keep drivers from seeing pedestrians, Cicchino said. A Consumer Reports study in 2021 showed that the front edge of the hood on some heavy-duty trucks is now more than 55 inches off the ground. That’s the same height as the roof on a new Honda Civic.
Nevertheless, SUVs and pickup trucks have made up a larger share of the American automotive market than cars for the last five years. Much of that market growth occurred within the past decade.
Despite the rising deaths, there are signs progress is being made to slow or even reverse the trend, according to the GHSA.
Their report shows that pedestrian deaths decreased over 2021 in 26 states. The overall uptick in deaths for 2022 can be attributed to a few states with large increases, the report says.
Pedestrian fatalities in Arizona, Virginia and Oregon rose significantly more in 2022 than in other parts of the country.
The government has proposed new legislation over the past year to help make cars safer for pedestrians. Last fall, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the STOP Frontovers Act of 2022, which would require new vehicles to come equipped with cameras or sensors to detect small children entering front blind zones. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also proposed automatic emergency braking requirements for new vehicles in May.
That’s a good start, experts say, but there also needs to be more of a focus on infrastructure improvements that slow down vehicles and make roads safer for people outside of cars. Examples include lower speed limits in cities, more sidewalks, traffic roundabouts and making it easier to see pedestrians in the dark.
“We need the public to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough. I want to be able to walk safely.’ They need to demand this stuff,” Fischer said.