Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: More of us are out walking but also getting hit by cars

“Pete Walker” headlined a pedestrian safety campaign tested last fall in Sacramento that will go statewide.
“Pete Walker” headlined a pedestrian safety campaign tested last fall in Sacramento that will go statewide. Sacramento Bee file

Undoubtedly, it’s good for our health and for our planet that we’re walking more often. But there’s a downside: More pedestrians are getting hit and killed by cars.

In fact, the Governors Highway Safety Association is ringing alarm bells. It is projecting that pedestrian deaths jumped an estimated 10 percent last year, which would be the largest annual spike in at least 40 years.

Of the 2,368 pedestrian fatalities counted in the first half of 2015, four states with big cities – California, Florida, New York and Texas – accounted for 42 percent.

California led the nation with 347, up 7 percent from the first half of 2014. The state’s increase, however, was lower than neighboring states, and its per person rate was 11th highest.

The researchers say potential causes for the spike include more car travel thanks to lower gas prices and an improving economy, but also more use of cellphones by distracted walkers and drivers alike. Alcohol use, either by driver or pedestrian, is involved about half the time; most pedestrians are killed outside intersections.

The 2015 jump would add on to a 19 percent increase from 2009 to 2014. Pedestrians are also making up the highest share of all traffic-related deaths in a quarter century – 15 percent in 2014, up from 11 percent in 2005. In California, that number is even higher, 23 percent in 2014.

That may be because while cars are being built safer so more motorists survive collisions, pedestrians have stayed just as vulnerable and there are more of them on the road. In 2013, 4 million Americans walked to work, up 700,000 from 2005, according to one estimate.

This study underscores the need to “apply the right mix of engineering, education and enforcement to counteract this troubling trend,” the authors say. They identify possible solutions, such as more sidewalks, overpasses, traffic signals and speed bumps; “refuge islands” in the middle of busy roads; improved streetlights and crosswalks; and better education so pedestrians and drivers know the “rules of the road.”

The governors association is also calling on state officials to share successful strategies, such as spotting the most dangerous areas, then combining targeted traffic enforcement with public information campaigns.

Local and state officials in California have launched efforts in all those areas.

Keeping pedestrians safe is a key part of the Vision Zero program coming to Sacramento, bringing together government agencies, advocacy groups and others to reduce traffic deaths on city streets, including 48 pedestrians between 2010 and 2014. Also this week, the Citrus Heights Police Department announced it’s stepping up enforcement of bicyclist and pedestrian safety – such as jaywalking or drivers speeding, making illegal turns or failing to yield – after mapping where incidents have happened the past two years.

Caltrans is awarding millions of dollars to local pedestrian and bicyclist safety projects, and holding safety strategy meetings around the state. The state Office of Traffic Safety tested a public awareness campaign in the Sacramento area last fall, and it worked so well that it plans to take it statewide – or at least as far as its budget will allow. The timing is unclear because ad space is at a premium with the election, spokesman Chris Cochran says.

The numbers clearly show that the more that can be done, the better – and safer for everyone.

By the numbers

Number of pedestrian deaths in first half of 2015, percentage change from 2014 and rate per 100,000 people for selected states:

  • California: 347, up 7%, 0.89
  • Florida: 273, down 4%, 1.35
  • Texas: 235, up 1%, 0.86
  • New York: 129, up 22%, 0.65
  • Arizona: 87, up 12%, 1.27
  • Oregon: 42, up 100%, 1.04
  • Washington: 41, up 28%, 0.57
  • Nevada: 24, up 20%, 0.83

Source: Governors Highway Safety Association