Distracted Driving And Smartphones Contribute To Highest Pedestrian Death Rate In 20 Years

A new report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) found that pedestrian fatalities in 2016 were the highest they've ever been in the past two decades. States reported 2,660 pedestrian deaths in the first six months of 2016, up from 2,486 in the same time period the previous year. While the numbers are still being tallied, GHSA estimates the full year total to be around 6,000 pedestrian fatalities, and it believes smartphones may be playing a role.

"Potential factors contributing to this spike include a better economy, an increase in walking as a primary mode of transportation, and distraction due to growing use of smartphone technology," GHSA said.

Phone Walking
Image Source: Flickr (Daria Nepriakhina)

If the estimated number is correct, it means pedestrian fatalities rose by more than 1,000 since 2014. They're also up 25 percent in the U.S. from 2010. In addition, pedestrian deaths as a percent of total automobile crash deaths has risen somewhat over the years, going from 11 percent in 2006 to 15 percent in 2015.

GHSA isn't pinning the blame entirely on smartphone usage, though it certainly believes it's a big factor. The number of miles people walked and drove in 2016 rose only a few percentage points, which indicates that something else is contributing to the rise in pedestrian deaths. It's probably no coincidence that this is occurring when texting and smartphone usage in general are so widespread.

"It's the only factor that seems to indicate a dramatic change in how people behave," Richard Retting, safety director for Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants and the author of the report, told the Associated Press.

Interestingly, most pedestrian fatalities don't occur at intersections, but in travel lanes away from intersections, or in locations outside of travel lanes, such as shoulders and driveways. What is not clear is how many of these deaths are the fault of a distracted driving who might be texting or otherwise looking at their mobile device, or a distracted pedestrian looking down at his or her smartphone.

Due to the sharp rise in fatalities, the National Transportation Safety Board held a forum on pedestrian safety last year and is currently investigating causes and potential solutions.

You can read the full report here.