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Highest Pedestrian Death Rate in More Than 20 Years

New highway safety report shows older walkers are at particular risk

Pedestrians cross a city street

Christian Muller/Alamy

Safety researchers are working with communities to make them safer for a growing population of walkers.

If you feel like you’re taking your life into your hands when crossing a busy street, you may very well be on to something.

Pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. have increased at an alarming rate in recent years, jumping 27 percent from 2007 to 2016 to the highest total in more than two decades, even as other types of traffic fatalities declined, according to a recent report by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association.

Older pedestrians are especially at risk. In fact, those ages 65 and up are 51 percent more likely to be struck and killed while walking, compared with younger people.

Experts say the spike in deaths may be driven by a number of factors. The roaring economy has put more cars on the road, and more people live in urban areas, where walking is common. At the same time, modern roadways are still built to move cars as quickly as possible from one place to another, often with no consideration of the impact on bicyclists and pedestrians. Alcohol and drug use may also play a role.

But many safety advocates and researchers believe that the biggest culprit is the increasing use of wireless devices, including the explosion in texting.

“Any time you have vehicles and pedestrians sharing the same space and paying more attention to their smartphones than to their environment, it’s a recipe for disaster,” says Kara Macek, the safety association’s senior director of communications and programs. “If you look up from your own phone, you’ll see everyone else is looking down at theirs.”

Older walkers most at risk

Walking is essential for many of the 46 million Americans ages 65 and older. Some stroll for the health benefits. Others give up their keys because they have to and rely on walking to get them where they need to go. 

Yet older adults have the highest risk of dying while on foot. They may not see or hear as well as younger people, making it harder to judge distance. Their reflexes may not be as sharp. And they don’t move as quickly, say, across a busy intersection. When older adults do get hit, their bodies are more physically fragile, so they don’t tolerate injuries as well.

“Walk signals are timed based on the general population’s ability to walk at a specific speed, 3.5 feet per second,” says Robert Schneider, pedestrian safety researcher in the urban planning department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “But seniors and people with disabilities often don’t go that fast. They may still be in the street when the signal for opposing traffic turns green.”

Schneider and other safety researchers are working with communities to make them safer for a growing population of walkers. That may mean more sidewalks, adding more time to walk signals or installing flashing lights at crosswalks. Better street design can also help: reducing the number of lanes, putting in medians where pedestrians can stop halfway or adding curb extensions that can shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians. 

“We, as a society, need to recognize that walking is the fundamental means of human travel, Schneider says. “Older people and those who have disabilities need ways to get around and be independent. It’s essential to quality of life.”

How to stay safe

Chris Strom, 69, learned about safety four years ago, when she left her Washington, D.C., office on foot to run an errand at lunchtime. At a busy intersection, she waited for the “walk” sign before crossing. Seconds later, a tent-rental truck made a turn onto the street and crashed into her. “I saw him out of the corner of my eye, but I assumed he would stop,” she says. Now healed after years of recovering from a concussion, Strom says she no longer makes any assumptions when crossing city streets.  “I don’t cross unless I’ve made eye contact with the driver, and sometimes I put up my hand to make sure they see me. I still love walking; I’m just more vigilant now.”

In addition to vigilance, here are a few steps you can take to protect yourself.

Make eye contact first. You have a better chance of crossing safely if you look incoming drivers in the eye before you cross, research shows. Before you step into the roadway, wait until the driver has stopped or has acknowledged your intent to cross with a wave or a nod.

Use or extend your hand to signal your intent to cross. Researchers at Western Michigan University found that drivers are significantly more likely to see you and to yield if you make such a hand gesture before you cross.

When it’s dark, wear reflective gear and lights. About 75 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur at night. Wear a safety vest, attach a flashing bike light to your body, or carry a flashlight so you will be more visible.

Don’t listen to music or look at your phone while you walk. Anything that takes your eyes, ears and mind off the road and traffic puts you at risk. Stay focused and alert.

Check each lane as you cross. This is especially important on a multilane road with more than one lane in each direction. If one car stops and yields to you, a car in the next lane may not see you because the yielding car can block the other driver's line of sight.

Walk facing traffic. This allows you to see incoming traffic and get out of the way if necessary when you’re walking on a road with no sidewalks.

Be especially careful in parking lots. One suburban county’s study showed that one in five pedestrian crashes happen in parking lots. Watch for brake lights and reversing cars.

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