Pedestrian Deaths in California

California ranks at the top of the list for states with the most pedestrian deaths. Even when taking California’s population into account, our state still ranks as number 13 on the list of pedestrian deaths per 100 people. And pedestrian deaths are increasing even faster than motorist fatalities, with the distraction of cellphones, smartphones, and other handheld devices playing a large role.

Pedestrian deaths reached nearly 6000 in number nationwide in 2016. This represents the highest total in over two decades, based on analysis of preliminary state data. In California, nearly 700 pedestrians die after being struck by vehicles. That’s about two pedestrian-related deaths per day, and that’s two too many. It’s a shameful situation in our beautiful state, a situation that has many possible causes.

There is certainly an increase in driving on our long and winding California roads. This is due to a largely improved economy and lower gas prices. It’s simply become easier and more enjoyable to get in the car and drive.

As far as pedestrians are concerned, more people getting out to exercise is likely one of the reasons behind the estimated 11% increase in pedestrian fatalities in 2016. Researchers believe that the largest factor behind the increase in pedestrian accidents could be that both drivers and walkers are more distracted by their smartphones and other internet-ready devices.

More miles driven, and more miles walked are unlikely to adequately explain the huge surge in pedestrian deaths, claims Richard Retting, safety director for Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants. At the same time, both texting and the use of wireless devices have exploded, he said.  “It’s the only factor that that seems to indicate a dramatic change in how people behave,” Retting said.  Retting’s report is based on the data collected from all states (and the District of Columbia) for the first six months of 2016 and then extrapolated out for the rest of the year. The report confirms the largest yearly increase in number and percentage of pedestrian fatalities in the nearly 40 years that national records have been kept on pedestrian deaths. Interestingly, the second largest increase occurred in 2015.

As a share of total car crash deaths, pedestrian deaths have increased from 11% in 2006 to 15% in 2015.   “This latest data shows that the U.S. isn’t meeting the mark on keeping pedestrians safe on our roadways,” said Jonathan Adkins, Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultant’s executive director. “Every one of these lives represents a loved one not coming home tonight, which is absolutely unacceptable.”  According to recent data released by the National Safety Council, traffic fatalities have increased 6% in the last year, moving deaths on U.S. roadways to their greatest number in nearly a decade, and effectively eliminating the improvements that were made during the Great Recession and subsequent economic recovery. The NSC estimates that more than 40,000 traffic deaths occurred in 2016 – numbers not seen since 2007, right before the U.S. economy failed.

And pedestrian deaths are quickly outnumbering overall fatalities, increasing 25% from 2010 to 2015, according to Retting’s research. And this research mirrors that of the NSC – an increase in approximately 6% of total traffic deaths.  “We cannot look at distracted driving solely as an in-vehicle issue,” said Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the safety council. “That discounts the impact distraction could have on pedestrians.”  Nevertheless, “walking is working,” she said. “Just as we need drivers to be alert, pedestrians have to be, too.” It will never be a solely one-sided issue.

Of course, as we’d expect, the problem is the greatest in those states with large populations – Delaware, Florida, Arizona…California. Wyoming and Minnesota aren’t seeing too many pedestrian deaths because there are simply fewer pedestrians.

The arresting increase in pedestrian deaths has captured the attention of many safety organizations, such as the National Transportation Safety Board, which is a government panel charged with investigating accidents and making safety recommendations. The NTSB board held a forum specifically on pedestrian safety last year and is currently investigating the causes and potential solutions to this broad and unique problem.   Pedestrians “are our most vulnerable road users,” said NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr.  People are “more easily distracted than when we didn’t have so many easily accessible, essentially, computers in our palms,” she said. “We look at that as an increasing risk for pedestrians.”

On January 1st, 2017, a California law went into effect that bars drivers from holding a phone while operating a motor vehicle. This law is one of the toughest in the nation attempting to decrease accidents caused by distracted driving. But some experts claim that it simply won’t be effective enough.

AAA’s director of state relations, Jennifer Ryan, stated in a phone interview that “hands-free is not risk-free.” Ms. Ryan has stated also that the new California law matches the trend for other states attempting to bring their legislation up to date with the modern pervasive use of smartphones and devices. She also makes the point that it is up to the motorists to take responsibility for their own actions, and pay attention to the road.

Distracted driving is a significant cause of traffic fatalities in California, and around the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics show that more than 3400 people perished in 2015 due to car accidents involving a distracted driver. Of that number, 272 fatalities were teenagers.  Smartphone use is clearly a significant part of the distracted driving problem, but there are those that remain unconvinced that keeping phones out of a driver’s hands will remedy the situation.  And there are a number of citizens concerned that the new California law will increase enthusiasm for self-driving cars.

In fact, just this past September, Governor Jerry Brown approved a bill that will allow for the first tests of self-driving vehicles on our California roadways.  Government Affairs Manager of the Automobile Club of Southern California, Steve Finnegan, said that while he believes that the new law “is a step in the right direction,” it still does not address “the complete issue of distracted driving.” And he has a point.  “One of the bigger issues is cognitive distraction,” Mr. Finnegan said. “It’s not what your hands are doing; it’s what your brain is doing.”

So, whether you’re walking or driving, pocket the phone or the device. Let’s decrease these fatality numbers by becoming more aware of what surrounds us – because isn’t that what really matters?

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