A young man is walking alone in the dark at night. A car headlight is in front of him, so you can see his silhouette walking down the street at night as a pedestrian.  Pedestrian deaths in the United States began to decline around 1980. There were fewer and fewer traffic deaths involving people walking, jogging, running, and even cycling. From about 1980 to 2009, pedestrian deaths continued to decline. 

But ever since 2009, unlike in other developed countries, traffic deaths involving pedestrians began to rise in America – and they’re still skyrocketing. 

If you were injured as a pedestrian – whether walking, jogging, or cycling – in Massachusetts, call or text our office at (617) 889-5000 for a free consultation. We will review your case for free, explain your legal options, give you advice, and explain how we can help you recover compensation for your medical bills and injuries. If a loved one was killed as a pedestrian, our firm may also be able to represent you in a wrongful death action

American Pedestrians are Facing a Traffic Safety Crisis

The pedestrian accident and pedestrian death increase in the United States is a uniquely American problem that began to grow in 2009.

Pedestrian deaths declined for decades, with roads getting safer and safer for pedestrians from the 1980s to the early 2000s. But ever since 2009, pedestrian deaths have continued to rise at alarming rates. 

The roads have gotten more dangerous for pedestrians each year since 2009. In 2021, 3,000 more pedestrians died than in 2009. The rise of pedestrian deaths on American roads is a uniquely American problem because pedestrian deaths in other countries have continued to decrease. 

The United States Federal Government maintains an information database when someone dies on the roadways, such as the type of car involved, the age of the driver, the age of the person who dies, the time of day, and more. Even with all of this information and data, it is still not apparent what exactly is causing this troubling surge of pedestrian deaths. 

What is Driving The Surge in U.S. Pedestrian Traffic Deaths?: Massachusetts Pedestrian Injury Attorney Explains Possible Causes 

There is no single obvious answer as to what is causing this increased pedestrian danger problem. Multiple factors are happening simultaneously, interacting with each other and amplifying the issue, according to a New York Times investigation.

The United States transportation infrastructure is inherently dangerous when compared to other countries. During the coronavirus pandemic, for example, pedestrian fatalities decreased in most countries because fewer people were driving. In America, however, more people were dying in pedestrian traffic accidents.

One likely reason for this is that America has a transportation system built for speed. During the pandemic, in particular, this meant people drove faster and more recklessly and it resulted in more deadly traffic accidents. 

While other countries invest more in safe roads and laws to prioritize pedestrian safety over car speed, our transportation system is not designed to protect pedestrians or prioritize their safety. Other countries prioritize pedestrian and cyclist safety by committing to safer vehicle and street design, slower speed limits, and more protected bike lanes in a way the U.S. does not.

Pedestrians in America also self-report that they are doing less to keep themselves safe, such as not looking both ways before crossing the street, not wearing light colors at night, wearing noise-canceling headphones, and looking down at their phones. 

While the exact reasons for the continued increase in pedestrian deaths are unknown, one thing is sure: darkness makes all of the possible risk factors worse. 

  1. Nighttime: The Night is Exceptionally More Dangerous for US Pedestrians 

Of the additional pedestrian deaths each year, many of the deaths driving the increased death tolls are happening at night when it is dark out. The rise in fatal accidents that began in 2009 was largely contributed to by accidents occurring after sunset. About 85% of the increase in pedestrian deaths since 2009 is attributable to pedestrians dying in the dark, according to the New York Times.

While the reasons for this are largely unknown, it is clear that the nighttime amplifies many risk factors. One of the contributing factors for more nighttime pedestrian deaths has to do with cell phone use. 

Unfortunately, people are driving distracted and using their phones while driving all the time. Some data, however, indicates people use their phones more when they drive at night and that distracted driving is more common in the evening. Anecdotally, this might make sense as people are getting off work and finally catching up on their personal lives. People are texting the nanny or daycare, coordinating a happy hour, texting a partner or roommate to coordinate dinner or groceries. It’s also possible that some people are still working after they leave the office and are on their phones to reply to after-hours work messages. 

This productivity culture of America may partially explain the nighttime phone use while driving, and the introduction of smartphones coincides with the increase in pedestrian accidents beginning in 2009. 

  1. Smartphones Contribute to Increase in Pedestrian Accidents and Deaths

One of the big things that may help explain why pedestrian accidents began increasing in 2009 is the introduction of the smartphone. The iPhone was introduced by Apple in 2007, and smartphones quickly became popular. They brought a whole new level of distractions for drivers to manage.

As these phones with touchscreens and apps became more popular, the technology inside cars also got better. Cars used to have very limited controls. There were a finite number of buttons, dials, etc. But now, cars have also begun using touchscreens and more buttons. The increased technology inside the cars may be another explanation for the increase in pedestrian deaths at this time.  

What is interesting is that the consistent increase in pedestrian deaths is uniquely American, even though other countries also have smartphones and cars with new technology dashboards. In 1990, for example, the U.S. and France had similar per capita traffic fatality rates. But now, Americans are three times more likely to die in a traffic crash than French people.

This is partially because Americans use their phones differently than people in other countries. There is evidence that American drivers use their smartphones more while driving. Data shows that we pick up our phones more, touch them more, tap them, and move them around more than drivers in other countries. 

Another distinguishing factor is that most cars in America have automatic transmissions. A car with an automatic transmission only “requires'' one hand to drive. Although drivers should always have both hands on the wheel, people often use their “free” hand to navigate the car’s controls or to use their smartphone. This is different from Europe, for example, where the vast majority of vehicles have manual transmissions, which require two hands to drive and require an overall more engaged driver. A manual transmission makes it much more challenging to use a smartphone while driving.

Over the past year, about 1% of cars sold in America had manual transmissions. In Europe, nearly 75% of the cars people drive are stick shifts. This creates more opportunities for American drivers to drive distracted as most drivers will use their “free” hand to navigate care controls or use their phone to text, pull up directions, scroll social media, etc. 

  1. Size of Cars Contributes to Increase in Pedestrian Accidents and Deaths

Another factor that seems to be part of the pedestrian safety puzzle is the size of cars. This doesn’t exactly line up with the increase beginning in 2009, but it does seem to play a role. Americans began driving SUVs primarily in the 1990s, but they continued to gain popularity into the 2000s.

The bigger the car, the more dangerous it is to pedestrians. A bigger car means that it will have a higher hood, which means that when a vehicle does strike a person, the person is more likely to be hit in the chest, torso, or head, which are much more deadly places to be hit than in the legs, for example.

The bigger and heavier a car is, the longer it takes to come to a complete stop. Because the vehicles brake more slowly, a distracted driver may not have enough time to come to a complete stop before colliding with a pedestrian. 

Researchers think SUVs and larger cars play a significant role in the overall increase in pedestrian fatality rates in the US. While big cars might be causing more fatal accidents, small cars still contribute to the issue. Smaller vehicles like sedans are also killing more people today than they did about 15 years ago, according to federal pedestrian fatality data. 

  1. Exposure Theories: How US Migration, Retirees, and Homelessness Play a Role in the Pedestrian Accident Crisis

Nothing thoroughly explains the dangerous pedestrian puzzle. Cars themselves don’t explain the puzzle, and neither do drivers alone. Pedestrians, of course, are also part of the puzzle. 

Another possible factor playing a role in increased pedestrian deaths is that more pedestrians are in situations where they might be exposed to the risk of a deadly crash. 

When looking at demographics, there is a trend of more people moving to warmer areas in the country, such as cities in Texas and Florida. Texas and Florida, in particular, have historically awful pedestrian safety records. Cities in Texas and Florida were more recently developed. They are built around accommodating cars, not accommodating pedestrians like older cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Cities in states like Texas and Florida don’t have strong public transportation systems, they have weak pedestrian infrastructure, and the cities are built assuming people are going to drive to get anywhere. The roads in cities in Florida and Texas, for example, have fewer crosswalks, fewer stoplights, and more high-speed roads.

With more people living in cities that are more dangerous for pedestrians, there is an increased exposure of pedestrians to hazardous situations. For Florida, in particular, pedestrian deaths have increased by 70% since 2009. Multiple cities in Florida are on the top 10 list of most dangerous cities for pedestrian safety. Florida is also home to many retirees, but this doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in the increased pedestrian death toll. The majority of pedestrians dying are working-aged people, mainly in the 18 to 64-year age range. 

Another demographic factor that is resulting in more people on dangerous roads when it’s dark out is the national trend of suburbanized poverty, according to the New York Times. More people are moving from expensive inner cities to suburbs. Many of these relocating people can’t afford a car and are walking to and from work along small or country roads – not major, well-lit roads with sidewalks. More people live and walk in areas with fewer crosswalks and often no sidewalks. Some of these people are working odd hours with shift work or are relying on infrequent bus transportation. These factors also increase the exposure of people on dangerous roads where they could get hit by a car.

This trend helps explain why pedestrian fatalities are increasing in the suburbs but are decreasing in many downtown centers.

The increased rate of homelessness in American cities also seems to be part of the picture of increased pedestrian accidents and deaths. An increased rate of homelessness means more people are living along roads, sleeping in highway interchanges, or living in underpasses of major roadways. People experiencing homelessness are also in these dangerous road areas at night, which lines up with more pedestrian deaths occurring in the evening. 

Homelessness began to rise in many cities around 2016, however, not exactly in 2009 when the abrupt change and increase in pedestrian deaths began. It appears the increase in homelessness does play a role, but it is not a primary driver of the issue.

A huge number of people killed in the streets in some cities, however, are people experiencing homelessness, according to recent data. About 30% of recent pedestrian deaths in Los Angeles, for example, were people experiencing homelessness. 

All of these factors together paint a grim picture: one that suggests more vulnerable people are more likely to be killed in a pedestrian accident. This is further evidenced by the fact that the most dangerous roads for pedestrian fatalities are disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods. 

How Can Boston Make Our Roads Safer?

In general, changes in roadway design and use, as well as higher driver penalties for speeding and running red lights, could help make roads safer for pedestrians. 

Vision Zero Boston is the city’s plan to eliminate fatal and severe crashes, including pedestrian accidents, in Boston by 2030. The program was announced in 2015 by Mayor Marty Walsh, and current Mayor Michelle Wu is also passionate about the project.

Some of Zero Boston’s benchmarks are already met or are well underway, such as constructing safer bike lanes throughout the city. Boston’s default speed limit was lowered from 30 to 25 mph in 2017. Traffic Safety data shows there is a 47% likelihood of a pedestrian being killed or seriously injured in a collision with a car if a driver is going 30 mph. At 25 mph, there is a 30% likelihood of a pedestrian being killed or seriously injured in a collision with a car. The possibility of death or severe injury for a pedestrian lowers to 17% at 20 mph.

When you visit the city’s Zero Boston webpage, you’ll see that there are more than 20 fatal crashes on average each year in Boston, with more than 200 people seriously injured in car or pedestrian accidents. There is an interactive “Safety Concerns Map” page where you can select a location and tell the city about your safety concerns. An “Injury Crash Map” also illustrates the reported crashes in Boston.

Injured in a Pedestrian Accident in Boston or Massachusetts? Reach out for a FREE Consultation with a Pedestrian Injury Lawyer

Pedestrian accidents are among the most severe cases we see. They almost always result in serious injuries or even death. If you were injured as a pedestrian in Massachusetts, you have rights and may be able to get compensation for your medical bills, time lost from work, pain and suffering, and more. Visit our results page to see how we’ve helped Massachusetts pedestrians after tragic accidents.

Over the last three decades, we’ve helped thousands of people in Massachusetts get the recovery they need after a pedestrian accident injury. Spada Law Group was recently recognized as one of Boston’s Top 20 Car Accident Attorneys. Attorney Spada was named one of Boston’s Top Personal Injury Lawyers. We’re here and ready to help.  As personal injury lawyers, you never pay us a penny until we win your case.

We have offices in Chelsea, Peabody, and Worcester, but we proudly serve the entire state and can meet with you remotely from the comfort of your own home

Contact us for a free consultation to see how we can help you get the recovery you deserve after your injury.

Call or Text Spada Law Group for a Free Consultation Today: (617) 889-5000

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