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

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

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.

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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.

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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.