Jonathan Adkins used to catch up on personal phone calls as he walked home from his job in Washington, D.C., where he is executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), an organization representing state highway safety agencies.
Once he became aware of how distracted he could become as he got engrossed in a conversation, however, he gave it up. "My walk is much more pleasant," he says. It also became safer.
Pedestrian safety has become a major national concern recently. Injuries and fatalities are on the rise again in the U.S. In 2013, 4,735 pedestrians were killed, a 15 percent increase since 2009. The trend continued in the first half of 2014, the most recent time for which data is available.
Put another way, the numbers are even more sobering: A pedestrian is killed every two hours in the U.S. and one is injured every eight minutes, according to GHSA.
While the injuries and fatalities affect all ages and both genders, the average age of a pedestrian killed in traffic crashes in 2013 was 46, according to the GHSA. Males accounted for 70 percent of the fatalities.
Agencies such as GHSA and others are stepping up safety and education efforts. In August 2015, the GHSA issued a comprehensive report, outlining 21 steps states can take to reduce pedestrian fatalities and injuries. The report, funded by a grant from State Farm, also includes steps for drivers and pedestrians.
"This report is not about taking sides," pitting pedestrians against drivers, says traffic safety expert Pam Fischer, who wrote the report, "Everyone Walks: Understanding & Addressing Pedestrian Safety." The aim, she and other experts say, is to boost awareness for both drivers and pedestrians so they can focus on the things both do that cause the injuries and deaths.
"It's not a blame game," Adkins agrees. "We all have to share the road. We want to do things to minimize risks." And at some point in our daily lives, she says "we're all pedestrians."
What States Are Doing
States have a variety of policy initiatives, such as moves to reduce speeds on streets and set up slow zones in neighborhoods, Fischer says. Ten states now have ''vulnerable user'' laws, which increase fines and penalties for drivers who injure or kill a pedestrian, she says. States such as Minnesota, and cities including New York, have educational campaigns designed to catch both motorists' and pedestrians' eyes.
While policy makers focus on programs, education and laws, drivers and pedestrians can take action by first learning what causes most pedestrian injuries and fatalities, and then changing their behaviors, safety experts say.
Dangers for Drivers
For drivers, the top causes of accidents with pedestrians are alcohol, speed and distraction, Fischer says. The advice for drivers isn't new, but it bears repeating.
Don't drink and drive: Drinking drivers are a major cause of pedestrian accidents. According to current National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics, 15 percent of the motorists who fatally struck pedestrians had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher.
Obey speed limits: As vehicle speed increases, not surprisingly, so does the risk of pedestrian injury. At an impact speed of 17 mph, the average risk of a pedestrian injury is about 10 percent. At 48 mph, that risk rises to 90 percent.
Pay attention to the road: Drivers aren't just distracted by their cell phones. According to NHTSA, 76 percent of all distraction-affected crashes occurring in 2013 arose from other sources of in-car distraction. These included talking to passengers, putting on makeup, daydreaming or reaching for something in the car while the vehicle was moving.
Dangers for Pedestrians
Two factors stand out in explaining pedestrian injuries and deaths: alcohol and distraction. But those are not the only perils. Here is some advice for pedestrians:
Don't drink and walk: When someone is intoxicated, a decision to walk home instead of driving there might sound smart. But it also can be risky. In 2013, 36 percent of the pedestrians 16 years of age and older who were involved in fatal crashes had a BAC of 0.08 or higher, which is the legal level of intoxication in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. That toll has remained unchanged since 2004, according to calculations by NHTSA and the Automobile Club of Missouri.
That unchanged statistic suggests pedestrians are not aware enough of risks, Adkins says. "And even though we are making progress at reducing drunk driving, we are not seeing progress in reducing the number of fatally injured pedestrians," he says. The message that walking drunk can be as dangerous as driving drunk needs to be heard, he says. If you've had too much to drink, consider a taxi or ride share rather than a stumbling walk home.
Take off your headphones and look up from your cell phone: Distracted walking needs as much attention as distracted driving. In 2004, less than 1 percent of pedestrians were killed while they were using a cell phone. By 2010, it was 3.6 percent, according to Ohio State University researchers. Most people think they can multitask, but a Pew Research study suggests not. It found that 53 percent of adult cell phone users who were talking on a cell phone while they were in motion were either bumped into or bumped into someone or something.
Your walking pace gets slower when you talk on the phone or text, other research suggests. With your eyes on the text screen, you naturally become less aware of traffic.
An overwhelming number of pedestrians are ignoring their surroundings as they walk. Researchers from the University of Georgia observed pedestrians at 20 high-risk intersections and found that 33 percent were talking to other people, 26 percent were wearing headphones, 15 percent were texting and 13 percent were on their cell phones. And 6 percent were distracted in multiple ways, such as listening to music as they also texted. At a minimum, safety experts suggest, take off your headphones and disengage from your cell phone when you're crossing streets.
Exit a disabled car on the passenger side: Among the riskiest scenarios is when a driver gets out of a car on a roadway, thus becoming a vulnerable pedestrian, Adkins says. This typically happens when a motorist's car breaks down and he pulls to the right, but then gets out of the vehicle on the driver side. It's a formula for disaster, Adkins warns.
If you have to get out of a disabled car, Adkins says, it's best to exit on the passenger side. Even better, pull onto a less busy street or into a parking lot to get clear of traffic, he says.
Country roads can be perilous: While busy city streets often are the scene of driver-pedestrian mishaps, rural roads also can be dangerous, especially those with no sidewalks, Adkins says. If there is no sidewalk, walk facing traffic, safety experts say.
Poor lighting and low visibility: Lack of lighting and visibility also play major roles in accidents, says Charlie Zegeer, director of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.
A typical comment from a motorist who collides with a pedestrian at night, he says, is that ''He came out of nowhere." Nighttime visibility is important, and walkers can increase it by wearing light-colored or reflective clothing. Beyond using their headlights appropriately, drivers can't do anything about poorly lit roadways. But by reducing their speed, they can lower the risk of a collision, research shows.
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