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Pedestrian deaths rise nationally and in Minnesota — and drivers mostly to blame

pedestrians in intersection
CC/Flickr/niallsco
2010 showed a 13 percent decrease in pedestrian traffic deaths from 2001, but it’s also a 4 percent increase over 2009 — the first such increase in five years.

After almost 10 straight years of decline, the percentage of pedestrians being killed in traffic accidents in the United States is on the rise, both nationally and in Minnesota.

It’s a trend that has traffic safety experts concerned.

“Other traffic deaths are fortunately going down at a fairly decent rate,” said Gordy Pehrson, traffic safety coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, in a phone interview Thursday. “But we’re not seeing the same thing with pedestrians.”

According to a report [PDF] issued this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 4,280 pedestrians were killed and an estimated 70,000 were injured in U.S. traffic accidents in 2010. Although that’s a 13 percent decrease from 2001, it’s also a 4 percent increase over 2009 — the first such increase in five years.

A similar trend has occurred here in Minnesota. After dipping to 25 in 2008, the number of pedestrian deaths in the state jumped to 41, 36 and 40 in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Nationally, pedestrian deaths accounted for 13 percent of 32,885 traffic fatalities in 2010. Here in Minnesota, they accounted for almost 11 percent of the 368 traffic-related deaths in 2011. (The official NHTSA statistics are a year behind.)

Distracted drivers

Both drivers and pedestrians bear the blame for these accidents, but mostly drivers.

The leading cause of Minnesota’s pedestrian deaths in 2011 — the prime factor involved in 35 percent of the accidents — was the failure of a driver to yield the right of way. Another 24 percent of the accidents were caused by driver inattention or distraction.

In fact, 15 percent of Minnesota pedestrians injured in traffic accidents in 2011 were crossing the road correctly with the light at a signaled intersection.

The NHTSA report is silent on the issue of the causes of pedestrian deaths, although elsewhere the agency has noted that distracted drivers were a factor in 18 percent of all traffic crashes that incurred injuries in 2010.

And yes, texting and talking on a cellphone have now joined eating, grooming, reading maps, adjusting the radio and talking with passengers as the leading causes of driver distraction.

Impaired pedestrians

But pedestrians, too, appear to be more distracted than in the past. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1,152 individuals were treated in U.S. hospitals for injuries incurred while walking and using a cellphone or other electronic device in 2010 — a number that experts believe is highly underreported. (Who wants to admit in the hospital emergency room that they injured themselves because they were talking on the phone and not paying attention to their surroundings?)

Still, the more important pedestrian-related factor in pedestrian deaths  — the one cited by Pehrson and the NHTSA report — is alcohol. Nationally, 33 percent of the pedestrians killed in 2010 had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 grams per deciliter or higher, the legal definition of drunk in Minnesota.

In Minnesota, 27 percent of the 33 pedestrians who were tested for the presence of alcohol after their traffic-related deaths in 2011 had blood alcohol concentrations of .10 or higher. Some 44 percent of these drunk pedestrians were aged 20 to 24, and another 40 percent were aged 55 to 69. Furthermore, two out of three of all of these drunk pedestrians were killed between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.

“Impairment is definitely an issue,” stressed Pehrson.

Another issue is jaywalking. Some 24 percent of Minnesota’s pedestrian deaths in 2011 occurred when the pedestrians were trying to cross a street at an area where there was no crosswalk and/or no light signal.

A lack of personal responsibility

Both motorists and pedestrians “need to understand the laws and the rules — and pay attention,” but the bigger onus is on drivers, said Pehrson.

“When a pedestrian is crossing at a corner, whether that crosswalk has markings or not, the pedestrian has the right of way and the driver must stop,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that if there’s a jaywalker, you have permission to hit them.”

“There’s a lack of personal responsibility,” Pehrson added. “Drivers, generally speaking, probably know that they should stop, but they keep driving because they’re in a hurry.”

Or distracted. Or both.

Slow down. Pay attention. Stay sober. Know and obey the laws. We’ve heard those simple rules of the road many times before, but the statistics indicate we are increasingly not following them.

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Comments (10)

Stupid drivers

It's not terribly surprising that people are getting into accidents because they're not paying attention. We're all guilty of that once in a while. But it appears to be more the rule than the exception. The best part is that until there is an accident, or there's some other reason to ticket them, they don't get ticketed. So, instead, lawmakers see these numbers and make up new rules about who should and shouldn't be driving and how. The answer is to enforce the rules already in place. We didn't have to make it illegal to text and drive, we already have laws about distracted driving. Pull the stupid drivers over and ticket them!

Third Opinion

"It’s a trend that has traffic safety experts concerned."

Trend?! Jesus, what sensationalist garbage. Here are the numbers of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. during the aughts:

2001: 4,901
2002: 4,851
2003: 4,774
2004: 4,675
2005: 4,892
2006: 4,795
2007: 4,699
2008: 4,414
2009: 4,109
2010: 4,280

2010's death tally is lower than every other year on record, excepting the 2009 outlier.

On average, 4,639 pedestrians are killed in America per year. The 4,280 deaths in 2010 means it was a SAFER than average year for pedestrians-- there were 7.7 percent fewer such deaths in 2010 than what the ten-year average would predict. A statistically insignificant increase immediately following an unprecedented low (as was 2009) does not a trend make.

Now if I were a politician looking to enact additional highway laws/texting ordinances, I would probably ignore these facts/data sets and instead pass along reality-obfuscating articles like the one above. Why let something as superfluous as data get in the way of an alarming sounding headline?

Already mentioned

Matt: If you read my post again, you'll see that I mention that pedestrians deaths were lower in 2010 (nationally) and in 2011 (Minnesota) than a decade ago. But that trend reversed itself in 2010 (nationally) and in 2009  in Minnesota. Perhaps I should have mentioned another statistic: The national rise in pedestrian fatalities in 2010 occurred as overall traffic deaths fell about 8 percent. So the latest pedestrian-fatality numbers available to us show a troubling and, frankly, puzzling reversal of a trend. Will it continue? We'll have to see when the next batch of statistics are released.

Graph

If you plug the above-listed figures into a scatter plot you will indeed notice an undeniable trend... problem is, it veers in the exact opposite direction of what this article implies. It should be obvious that a minuscule singular uptick does not constitute a "trend." Not only is it bad math to label it as such, it's downright abuse of the English language. It's rather surreal that this should be debatable at all-- the numbers are right there staring us in the face!

I'm with Matt

One year does not make or break a trend, that's a statistical fact, one year could be an outlier.

Having said that I actually wonder of the change in laws has caused some problems. A few years ago MN enacted new crosswalk laws that seem to have confused a lot of people. The law requires drivers to stop at crosswalks but not at "trail crossings". In fact drivers are encouraged NOT to stop at trail crossings. I personally see a lot of confusion surrounding pedestrian crossings and trail crossings. People seem to be confused now about who has the right of way, stopping when they shouldn't and visversa. In some places like over by Cedar Lake they've changed trail crossing into pedestrian crossings so where you weren't supposed to stop before now you're supposed to.

I also think that increased use of texting is more distracting than just talking on the phone, and oddly enough I seem to see more distracted texting pedestrians than drivers.

I think it's an interesting responsibility issue. While the main responsibility always rests on the driver, everyone ultimately is responsible for their own safety. I don't think a walker or a biker can ever assume that a driver sees them, or that they will obey the traffic law at any given intersection. We know more drivers are distracted and all it takes is a fraction of a second. You need to look both ways even in a crosswalk, and if your life depends on a car stopping, don't step into that intersection unless there's a clear sign that a driver is slowing down to stop or otherwise sees you.

Enforcement

No mention of enforcement by law enforcement. While it is far from perfect you get a pretty hefty ticket in CA for not giving pedestrians the right of way in a crosswalk and there is enforcement unlike MN. In Washington, DC I had a neighbor get a ticket for stopping his car with just his bumper in the crosswalk at a red light. Somebody should ask local MN law enforcement how many crosswalk related tickets they have written.

Exactly

There appears to be very little enforcement of the current distracted driving laws. I, for one, try to make eye contact with drivers before I enter a crosswalk. I never presume anyone is going to stop when they should, whether I'm a pedestrian or a driver. Especially since some people make a habit of roaring up to the stop sign or presuming that just-turned-red light isn't for them. Would it be terribly difficult, especially in the downtowns, to put police officers on foot at certain intersections to issue tickets to people who ignore that line in front of the crosswalk, or better yet, cause gridlock by presuming the light will stay green if they enter the intersection?

Crosswalk Engineering

The crosswalk at highway 7 and Williston in Minnetonka as you are heading west needs just a simple improvement. Make vehicles going straight ahead at the stop light, stop several feet back from the crosswalk, in order to allow those turning right to see the intersection before they see the pedestrian. I'm sure there are other intersections like this. No rocket science.

Engineering

Better engineering is a good idea, but it's my experience that most people ignore those pesky white lines that indicate where you should stop. It SHOULD be common sense that if you're going straight or turning left at a metered intersection, you shouldn't creep past that line because anyone turning right can't see beyond your (inevitably huge) car. It's gotten to the point where it is often impossible to make a safe right turn at a red light due to this. Yeah, it ticks off people behind me, but I'd rather them be ticked off than me being in a wreck due to someone else's lack of common sense.

Cars and Pedestrians

This subject always seems so theoretical until it happens to you. Approximately 12 years ago I was hit by a car at a downtown Minneapolis intersection. The driver of the car didn't see me and I didn't see him. He drove a black car and emerged out of a shadow under a skyway and I believe he was trying to make it through an intersection when the light was yellow and thus didn't slow down until about 10 feet before impact. Because I didn't see him, I think I stepped off the curb just a few seconds before the green... but maybe I didn't and it wouldn't have made any difference if I was in the walkway on a green light because of his driving. Anyway, the bottom line is that NO ONE wants to get hit by a car at any speed... I was fortunate in that I flew 10 feet into the intersection and landed in a sitting position (not on my head). (And no one drove over me in the intersection.) Not a bone of mine was broken but I had to recover for months from the black and blue damage inflicted up and down one half of my body. I went home and packed myself in ice and laid on it for 3 days. Drivers: slow down and stop running red lights. Pedestrians: The insurance agent told me I was one of the few survivors of this type of accident she'd ever talked to because most don't live. I live downtown now and see cars flying through red lights constantly. It's almost impossible to find a driver that doesn't have a phone in their hand. Are you one of those people willing to bet on my life while driving? Are you one of those pedestrians who think jaywalking is a right? When will we take this seriously?