Danger to pedestrians is increasing in the US

Kevin Drum looks at data that suggests that being a pedestrian in the US has gotten a lot more dangerous over the past decade, while it has got safer in Europe. Pedestrian fatalities in the US dropped steadily from 6,482 in 1990 to 4,109 in 2009 before growing rapidly to 6,227 in 2018.

Why? He quotes an article that says that the reasons for the steady drop in Europe are design changes in cars that were required to be implemented by manufacturers there 14 years ago but are not as yet required here.

The focus of the new EU standards has been on safer front-end design to minimize injuries to the legs and head in 25 mph crashes. They will require passenger cars and light vans to pass tests involving the A-pillar, bumper, the hood’s leading edge and windshield to determine if they protect adults and children from leg and head injuries in frontal impact accidents. Automakers will also be required to install flexible bumpers and hoods that crumple and to add 8 inches of space between the exterior structure and the under-hood structure from the front bumper to the windshield to better disperse the impact energy of a person hitting the front end. More stringent rules are expected to be phased in beginning in 2010, when the number of tests doubles to four — two for leg injuries and two for head injuries. The changes are expected to save 2,000 lives annually.

But while this could explain the disparity between the US and Europe, it does not explain the recent rise in the US. Are car drivers in the US getting more aggressive and reckless? Is road rage rising? Are drivers and pedestrians getting more distracted?

UPDATE: In the comments Dunc has a helpful comment that takes into account population numbers and vehicle numbers traveled that provide a better measure than the raw fatality numbers in my post. The conclusion of a drop and then a rise does not change.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    “Are drivers and pedestrians getting more distracted?”

    The rise correlates closely with the rising market penetration of smartphones, so… Probably.

  2. Ridana says

    Yes, smartphones probably, but there may be more pedestrians as well, as people give up their cars to reduce their carbon emissions, and others who are simply unable to afford having a car anymore.

  3. Bruce H says

    It could also be a growing population coupled with increasing urbanization. There are simply more people in cities, and therefore more pedestrians available to be struck by cars, and more drivers to strike them.

  4. flex says

    While I don’t know about the US situation, I know that in Europe some vehicles are coming equipped with a pedestrian protection airbag. When the vehicle detects an imminent collision with a pedestrian or cyclist, the hood pops up 10cm and an airbag deploys along the front of the vehicle or across the windshield to help reduce harm to the pedestrian from being struck by the vehicle. My company makes airbag controllers, so I’m somewhat familiar with the projects. Although these days I work on brakes.

    Needless to say that it will also make the vehicle pretty much undriveable once it deploys, so it may also reduce hit-and-run accidents.

    Don’t expect it in the US any time soon.

  5. says

    I was listening to some podcast the other day and they mentioned that crimes like jaywalking were introduced in order to make pedestrians second class traffic compared to cars. That great idea was courtesy of car companies; the danger of legal problems meant that drivers could not just take advantage of the relative speed of the car. Horses and trolleys also had to go for the same reason: it was a financial move to destroy public transportation.

    Fascists driving cars into protesters is just the apex of the whole trajectory. If you block my car I can try to murder you with it.

  6. John Morales says

    One thing annoys me, though it’s minor here; provision of absolute numbers rather than per capita rates.

  7. Jazzlet says

    John Morales
    I don’t think it is minor, we are having to take on trust that the European figures per capita are better. This kind of writning where you can’t actually look at the numbers for yourself is all too common, often because the journalist is following the rules of ‘good’ composition we were all taught in school, which say you should repeat the same words. so the journalist writes two nubers that aren’t directly comparable eg a 300 drop in fatalities in the EU and a 2% drop in the USA. It is deeply frustrating to m as I want the damn numbers and they don’t always even tell you where you can find them, which should be there as a minimum.

  8. says

    Three things likely explain most of it: the increasing percentage of oversized vehicles with blind spots (SUVs) compared to sedans, increasing average horsepower in vehicles, and the american obsession with individual vehicle ownership.

  9. Dunc says

    Combining the figures above with the population numbers to give US pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 head of population (to 2 dp):

    1990: 2.60
    2009: 1.34
    2018: 1.89

    So yes, pedestrian fatalities dropped from 1990 to 2009, then rose again -- although not as close to 1990 levels as the raw numbers would imply.

    You could also argue that pedestrian fatalities per passenger (or vehicle) distance travelled would be a more appropriate measure… I can’t quite find ideal data at the drop of a hit, but using this data and picking the closest available years (2010 for 2009 and 2017 for 2018) to calculate pedestrian fatalities per billion vehicle miles (passenger cars), I get:

    1990: 4.54
    2009: 2.73
    2018: 4.37

    Which looks rather worse than the straight population numbers.

  10. says

    Pedestrian safety depends largely upon how a city is designed.

    Do sidewalks exist in the first place? How are they made? How are crosswalks made? Where are the crosswalks located? And so on.

    Some city planners just don’t give a fuck about pedestrians. In my city some newer large streets do not have sidewalks at all. I also know a lot of places that would need a crosswalk, but none exists. Thus pedestrians have to just cross a street in said place and hope for the best. (Back when I was a child, I had to cross one such street twice a day on my way to school. Running over a street while hoping that no car will suddenly appear felt scary for the seven years old me. It was a busy street with plenty of traffic, so usually I ran over it.)

  11. says

    The amount of earphone distracted pedestrians grows every year and drivers can’t be bothered to concentrate on their driving because cars are now so easy to drive. Evolution in action!

  12. sonofrojblake says

    Echoing the point about design… This year I went to new zealand and Australia. NZ everywhere had wide pavements for pedestrians, ample free roadside spaces for parking, and wide, well maintained roads. At my wife’s uncle’s place in Melbourne, by contrast, the mile walk to the beach was via three narrow, pothole strewn roads with no sidewalks AT ALL. Some designers /town planners just don’t care.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @7 and Jazzlet @8: Yes, thank you. Presenting numbers without context drives me up the wall. I’m nigh permanently perched up here. It confuses the dogs summat fierce.

  14. Jazzlet says

    Rob @16 mine have got used to the cries of “oh FFS!” or similar and barely twitch an ear at them.

  15. Marja Erwin says

    I wonder if brighter headlights, brighter turn signals and hazard lights, more strobe lights, and so on might be part of the problem.

    I’m not sure if headlights, turn signals, and other lights are getting brighter, but with my worsening sensory issues, they’re getting more blinding, and giving me more neuro trouble and migraines.

    Some companies advertise lights for their ability to trigger neurological problems: “Bucha effect lights.”

    The use of strobe lights seems to be getting more widespread. School buses are routinely armed with more and more strobe lights. Of course ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars were already heavily armed with these dangerous devices, for safety. But postal trucks are being armed too.

    I’m not sure if backup beaters are getting louder either, but some types are significantly louder than others.

  16. Jazzlet says

    Dunc @ 12 it’s not that I couldn’t find the figures, although sometimes one can’t, but that I shouldn’t have to look because the journalist and their editor consider hewing to a particular style more important than conveying the information accurately.

  17. StonedRanger says

    In Portland Oregon they passed a law saying jaywalking was no longer a thing. If any pedestrian wanted to cross any street at any time of day or night from anywhere along the street, all they had to do was wave their hand and start crossing. Its up to drivers now to watch for pedestrians just walking out into traffic. As a driver, I am already on the alert for pedestrians and bike riders, as I should be. But when you start passing laws that say bike riders can treat stop signs like they arent there and its up to drivers to know when a bike rider is going to blow a stop sign from a side street right into rush hour traffic. Stupid laws now allow stupid people to do more stupid stuff and its somehow the drivers fault always if they hit one of these people. In this city, the pedestrian and the bike rider now have more rights to do things which will injure or kill them and its the drivers who will be at fault for it. All the so called pedestrian safety improvements that the city is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, do not include one cent on teaching people how to cross safely, how to ride a bike safely.

  18. Marja Erwin says

    “how to cross safely”

    Standard instructions are to go to a crosswalk, and look both ways. Most crosswalks are at intersections, so it’s really four ways.

    If, like me, you’re sensitive to turn signals, crossing at intersections maximizes exposure, and turning one way or another, and getting hit by flashing lights during the turn, is a recipe to regain awareness somewhere else. Like in the street.

    If possible, I try to find safer crossing places away from intersections, where I only have to watch one way at a time.

    Most intersections allow right-hand turns on red, so drivers tend to look left for traffic, and turn right, and hit people they don’t see.

    Some crosswalks are at blind corners, so that people on foot and in cars can’t see until it’s too late. Some time left-hand turns and crossings at the same time.

    Many crosswalks are also interrupted by raised medians, so people using wheelchairs have to detour into traffic.

    None of these are new problems, so they don’t explain the increasing death toll. But addressing them could reduce the death toll.

  19. EigenSprocketUK says

    Another reason for rising fatalities is the trend for bigger and taller vehicles, SUVs etc. When I see USA streets in news footage etc, the level of many vehicle hoods (bonnet in UK-speak) is about neck-height for lots of pedestrians.
    Humans don’t flex so well at that joint, and laws of motion don’t give them any opportunity to roll over the bonnet and lose energy much more slowly that way.
    As cars get taller in Europe, I expect a rise to appear in stats here too, though Europeans don’t seem to find USA-style mega-SUVs quite as attractive.
    And on @Flex’s interesting point (#5) the use of airbags on vehicle front and on the hood is likely to be a last-ditch mitigation to get vehicle approval when other design changes have been ruled out or it’s too late to make an expensive change. For example, keeping structural elements further away from the point of impact, and keeping the point of impact at safer heights.

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