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Study: High rate of pedestrian death may be linked to distraction

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) says that, in 2017, almost 6,000 pedestrians were killed in U.S. traffic crashes. Sadly, 2017 was the second year in a row with that death toll. Since other fatal traffic accidents have been declining, pedestrian fatalities are making up a growing portion of overall traffic deaths. How large of a portion? Sixteen percent today, compared to only 11 percent just a few years ago.

“Two consecutive years of 6,000 pedestrian deaths is a red flag for all of us in the traffic safety community,” says the GHSA’s executive director. “These high levels are no longer a blip but unfortunately a sustained trend.”

The GHSA’s report is based on preliminary data provided by highway safety offices in each state and the District of Columbia. The 2017 results are an estimate based on numbers from the first six months.

What is behind such high numbers of fatal pedestrian accidents?

While each fatal accident has its own cause, there are some large trends that track with the overall pedestrian fatality rate.

The first is the enormous growth of smartphone use. According to Insurance Journal, the number of smartphones in active use grew by 236 percent between 2010 and 2016. Smartphone distraction is a growing problem among both drivers and pedestrians. Either one can create circumstances where a tragedy is more likely to occur.

The second is the advent of legalized marijuana. As more states legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, the more likely it seems that both pedestrians and drivers could be intoxicated by it at any given time. Indeed, the GHSA found a faster increase in pedestrian fatalities in those locations where recreational marijuana is legal. The increase was 16.4 percent in those seven states and Washington, D.C., but only 5.8 percent in the other states.

The report does not definitively link either smartphone distraction or marijuana use to pedestrian deaths, but it makes sense for them to be associated.

We all have a role to play in reducing pedestrian fatalities. Whether our behavior seems innocent or is completely legal is immaterial. These accidents are tragedies. Pedestrians need to be careful, and drivers need to be vigilant.