Walking on America's streets is an increasingly deadly affair.
Cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles killed an estimated 10 percent more pedestrians last year compared to 2014, according to a Governor's Highway Safety Association report published this week.
More frighteningly, the number of pedestrian fatalities in the United States increased 19 percent between 2009 and 2014, from 4,109 to 4,884, respectively, the annual Spotlight on Highway Safety Report found. Walkers now count for the biggest share of traffic deaths in the past 25 years.
"We are projecting the largest year-to-year increase in pedestrian fatalities since national records have been kept, and therefore we are quite alarmed," said Richard Retting, a traffic engineer who co-wrote the report, in a press release. "Pedestrian safety is clearly a growing problem across the country."
In addition, pedestrian deaths as a percent of total motor vehicle crash deaths have increased steadily from 11 percent in 2005-2007 to 15 percent in 2014. It has been 25 years (1990) since pedestrians accounted for 15 percent of total traffic fatalities. Preliminary data indicate that pedestrians will represent about 15 percent of total fatalities again in 2015.
Ironically, the rise in pedestrian deaths comes as it's safer to drive on American streets. Total traffic fatalities actually decreased during the same period, from 33,883 in 2009 to 32,675 in 2014, due in part to more declining fatalities for vehicle occupants. Automakers have improved "vehicle crashworthiness and crash avoidance technology," the report said. "By contrast, pedestrians remain just as susceptible to injuries when hit by a motor vehicle."
The United State has yet to implement significant pedestrian protections on vehicles, unlike the European Union, which requires vehicles to also protect pedestrians in accidents. EU regulations require that vehicles' hoods and fenders absorb more of the impact of a collision with a pedestrian than US law.
The report cited distracted driving and walking — people texting or posting to Facebook in their cars, or obliviously crossing the street glued to their smartphones, in other words — as well as more people walking because of the health benefits and the steep cost of owning a car. (The report cites AAA data that said a lowly sedan costs a hefty $8,700 a year to operate.) Bolstering those claims, University of Michigan researchers in January revealed that Americans of all ages — not just millennials, as the researchers had previously found — were spurning driver's licenses.
Alcohol was also found to be a significant factor, with 34 percent of pedestrians killed in a collision with a vehicle having a blood alcohol content at or above most states' legally intoxicated threshold of .08. grams per deciliter, as opposed to Fifteen percent of drivers involved in fatal accidents involving pedestrians.
Experts said the association's report did not focus enough, however, on the systematic reasons pedestrians are perishing in the street.
"We have made the environment hostile to the pedestrian," said Kate Kraft, interim executive director of America Walks, a nonprofit that advocates for pedestrians, in an interview with VICE News. "It's not that it's just not unsafe. It's hostile in many cases."
Authorities are too quick to assume they can't re-engineer roads to benefit walkers, often because they can't envision improvements that might slow down cars —even though numerous studies show that drivers who observe slower speed limits save lives and often wind up reaching their destinations just as quickly, said Kraft.
New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, for example, touched off a minor firestorm among urbanists on Thursday when he effectively told an audience at the Transportation Alternatives conference in Manhattan that he was willing to tolerate a few dead pedestrians.
"You're not going to get to zero," Bratton reportedly said. "You can't do it, but it's still a great goal… As long as we have humans who are walking, riding bicycles, driving cars, you can't do it."
But Manhattan-based architect and urban designer John Massengale said governments can do achieve zero pedestrian deaths in cities.
"We can get to zero pedestrian deaths in New York City if we just stop prioritizing traffic flow," Massengale told VICE News. "We know the faster you drive, the less you see. That's why people get hit in crosswalks. The driver is going too fast and the pedestrian doesn't get their attention before it's too late."
Sweden, for example, has radically reduced pedestrian deaths under a partnership between the government and private sector called Vision Zero — as in envisioning no deaths. By reducing urban speed limits, expanding pedestrian zones, and aggressively separating people from cars, the Swedes have cut pedestrian traffic fatalities by half in the last five years, according to the Vision Zero website.
New York City has adopted many of the Vision Zero principles, which is one reason Bratton's remarks drew criticism.
Amanda Day, executive director of Bike/Walk Central Florida, an Orlando nonprofit, meanwhile, said drivers needed to change their attitudes.
"No one even thinks they are a pedestrian," Day told VICE News. "Orlando was built as urban sprawl. Walking is not normal. Our goal is to normalize walking. People laugh."
Day and her colleagues decided they need to force people to understand. So they partnered with the Orlando police to conduct stings against drivers who whizz past plainclothes police officers posing as pedestrians in the middle of crosswalks. Under Florida law, the drivers are supposed to stop. When they don't, cops pull them over and write them a ticket.
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Police have conducted almost 300 crosswalk-traffic stop operations and handed out almost 3,800 warnings and 1,800 citations between June 2012 and December 2014, the group claimed.
Between June 2013 and December 2014, around 45 percent of drivers yielded to pedestrians on crosswalks on roads where the speed limit was 35 mph or less, an increase from 12 percent compared to 2012, claimed Bike/Walk Central Florida. On roads where the speed limit was 40 mph, only 23 percent of drivers stopped, an increase from 1.2 percent in 2012.
Day acknowledged that plenty of people either don't know the law or willfully break it and speed through crosswalks, but the traffic stops appear to have made an impact, she said.
"If we are really going to move the needle here, we need to start measuring something other than death," said Day. "We need to measure something that we can make progress on that will result in fewer fatalities."
But she lamented that it would take a lot more than traffic tickets to dramatically and permanently reduce the amount of walkers struck and killed by cars in the US.
"It's going to take 30 to 40 years of a commitment," she said.
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr