(NEXSTAR) – The number of pedestrians killed by vehicles in the United States has surged over the last several years, with fatalities increasing at a faster rate than any other type of traffic-related death, recent data shows.
In 2022 alone, “at least” 7,508 people were killed after being struck by drivers in the U.S., according to government data analyzed by the Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA), a nonprofit group representing highway safety departments across the country.
The actual number is likely closer to 7,600, the GHSA said, noting that Oklahoma was unable to provide data for 2022 traffic fatalities.
“GHSA has been doing this study for a number of years, about a decade or so,” Adam Snider, the director of communications at the GHSA, told Nexstar. “And the bottom line is, it’s getting more and more dangerous to be a pedestrian on America’s streets.
Between 2010 and 2021, for instance, the number of pedestrians killed after being struck by a vehicle increased by 77%, while all other traffic-related deaths (multi-car crashes, single-car crashes, cars hitting bikes, etc.) only rose by 25%.
The rate of pedestrian deaths had especially skyrocketed amid the pandemic, after law enforcement agencies across the U.S. initially cut back on traffic enforcement, Snider said.
“That lack of enforcement really emboldened drivers to be even more dangerous than they already were,” he explained. “It led to some major surges in all types of traffic fatalities. We saw drink driving rise for two straight years. It broke something in the way we drive.”
Snider added that people of color are disproportionately impacted by these tragedies — likely due to a lack of adequate law enforcement, or police programs focused on curbing dangerous driving behaviors.
Another reason for the recent spike in pedestrian deaths is fueled, in part, by a trend toward larger vehicles like SUVs or pickup trucks, experts believe. These heavier, taller vehicles are more likely to strike a pedestrian in the head or chest— rather than the legs — resulting in deadlier outcomes.
“We don’t know exactly what’s going on with the increase in pedestrian fatalities. It certainly seems like the increase in bigger vehicles is contributing to it,” Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told the Associated Press in September.
The blind spots in front of these vehicles’ hoods are also becoming larger, contributing to the risk of fatal “frontover” collisions — i.e., when a driver can’t see over the hood of their own car, even when maneuvering slowly. A study from the University of Michigan estimated that around 25% of fatal accidents concerning large trucks, specifically, were caused by these types of blind zones, the Department of Transportation noted in a Jan. 2023 report.
“These vehicles are fairly massive,” Snider said. “I’m 6 feet tall, and sometimes I struggle to see over [the grill] of these cars.”
There are other factors at play, of course. Pedestrians are also more at risk in areas with weaker traffic enforcement, higher speed limits, no streetlights, and infrastructure that makes it tough to traverse the roads on foot (i.e., no sidewalks, raised walkways, crosswalks, etc.).
Data from the GHSA’s 2022 report appears to indicate that some states have much higher rates of pedestrian deaths than others, with states in the South and Southwest having some of the worst. That year, New Mexico had the highest rate in the nation, at 4.4 deaths per every 100,000 residents. Arizona wasn’t far behind (4.17 per every 100,000 people), followed by Florida (3.7), Louisiana (3.62) and South Carolina (3.29).
A similar trend can be observed in 2020 data from the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That year — the most recent the NHTSA has data for — showed New Mexico to have the worst rate of pedestrian fatalities, followed by South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana.
What do these states have in common, that could account for these higher rates of traffic-related pedestrian fatalities?
“In general, there’s no singular reason why some states have better rates than others,” Snider said. “But in terms of geography … more Southern states have warmer temperatures, overall. Spring comes earlier, fall lasts longer. And frankly, there’s more warm, walkable days in the southern states than northern ones.”
Reversing the deadly trend will require several steps, Snider believes. Governments and local officials need to redesign infrastructure where necessary, to promote lower speeds, increase visibility and create safe sidewalks for pedestrians, according to the GHSA. And cars — if they’re not getting any smaller or lighter — need to be designed with fewer blind zones and enhanced safety features, like automatic braking or slowing.
“It calls for a multi-pronged approach,” Snider said. “This is not a multiple-choice test — we have to do all of the above.”
He also stressed that these statistics, while jarring, are even more tragic for the many Americans who have been affected by the loss of a loved one to a traffic-related fatality.
“Twenty people go out every single day for a walk and die,” he said. “If that’s not a crisis, I don’t know what is.”