Traffic accidents are killing pedestrians in record numbers. In 2016, pedestrian deaths reached their highest level since 1990. The 5,987 pedestrian accident fatalities in 2016 represented an 11% increase in deaths from 2015 and a 27% increase from 2007. Pedestrian accident attorneys have seen the devastating impact on families when cars kill or seriously injure pedestrians.
The 2017 pedestrian accident death rate maintained the 25-year-high of nearly 6,000 fatalities in a year. Researchers, law enforcement, and pedestrian accident attorneys are analyzing data to determine why walking has become so deadly.
What do data tell us about the spike in pedestrian accident deaths?
The data are inconclusive. Even so, the 2017 Governors Highway Safety Association’s (GHSA) report on pedestrian fatalities identified two likely contributing factors: increased cellphone use and decriminalization of recreational use of marijuana.
The 2017 GHSA report says that while there is no direct correlation or definitive link between pedestrian fatalities and cellphone use, the increase in cellphone usage could be contributing to the higher number of deaths. The same is true of the decriminalization of recreational marijuana use. Six of the eight states that legalized recreational marijuana saw more pedestrian fatalities in the first half of 2017 than in the first half of 2016.
Regarding the possible relationship between the spike in pedestrian accident deaths and cellphone usage, the report says, “the reported number of smartphones in active use in the U.S. increased by 236 percent from 2010 to 2016, and the annual number of multimedia messages over this period more than tripled.”
The report also says that ER visits related to cellphone use have increased at a rate comparable to the “prevalence of cellphone use in the US.” ER visits for injuries sustained while people are texting have increased more than ER visits for injuries sustained from other cellphone use.
The exponential increase in cellphones coupled with the unprecedented rise in pedestrian accidents have raised many questions.
Researchers have conducted multiple studies on cellphone use and pedestrian accident deaths and injuries. None have concluded that texting while walking has caused the rapid increase in pedestrian fatalities. Many, however, see “a positive correlation between distraction and unsafe walking behavior.” The conclusion? “Current pedestrian crash data provide insufficient information for researchers to examine the extent to which distracted walking causes and/or contributes to actual pedestrian safety problems.”
Lawmakers’ Responses to the Jump in Pedestrian Deaths
Lawmakers in some cities and states aren’t waiting for definitive data. They have examined studies that indicate a relationship between pedestrian cellphone use, pedestrian fatalities, and visits to emergency rooms for cellphone use. Mayors, city council members, and state legislators have also watched pedestrians. What they have seen is people looking at electronic devices while stepping off curbs and navigating dangerous intersections.
Their solution to the problem is legislation banning the use of cellphones while walking in certain places. Many proponents of this approach say their goal is not to ticket pedestrians. Instead, it is to save lives, change pedestrian behavior, and alter social norms around texting while walking.
Opponents of these bills call them “victim-blaming.” They say such laws inappropriately shift responsibility for traffic accidents from automobiles to pedestrians. They believe aggressive drivers will say pedestrian accidents are caused by pedestrians, even though it’s easier for drivers to avoid hitting pedestrians than for pedestrians to avoid the collision. Pedestrian accident attorneys see the difficulty of having to defend a pedestrian’s actions at the time of the crash.
Bans on Texting While Walking
Honolulu, Hawaii is the first major metropolitan city to ban texting while walking across a city street. The ordinance, effective October 25, 2017, states “No pedestrian shall cross a street or highway while viewing a mobile electronic device.” Emergency communication and emergency responders are exempt. “Mobile electronic device” includes a variety of items. “Viewing” is “looking in the direction of the screen of a mobile electronic device.” The fine for a first offense is between $15 and $35. The penalty for a third offense ranges from $75 to $99.
Rexburg, Ohio, a town of about 28,000 people, banned texting in crosswalks in 2011. Violators pay $100 to $250.
Montclair, California prohibits pedestrians from crossing streets or highways “while engaged in a phone call, viewing a mobile electronic device or with both ears covered or obstructed by personal audio equipment.” The ban became effective in January 2018, and fines range from $100 to $500.
San Mateo, California passed a resolution urging the California legislature to enact a law prohibiting pedestrians from using cellphones while crossing streets. The September 2017 resolution has not led to further legislative action.
In addition to the cities that have banned texting while walking, several localities and states have considered such legislation. The list includes:
- City of Beverly Hills, California
- City of Chicago
- Essex County Township, New Jersey
- New Jersey
- New York
- Samford, Connecticut
- Utah (Utah Transit Authority prohibits crossing light rail tracks while using cellphones or wearing headphones)
Pedestrian Safety Awareness Campaigns Try to Prevent Pedestrian Accidents
While some places are legislating pedestrian safety, many others are trying to raise awareness about the issue. Strategies include signs, stickers, and lights on sidewalks and curbs that catch pedestrians’ eyes as they look down at phones.
In summer 2017, the Los Angeles Police Department launched the pedestrian safety campaign, “Look Up, Phone Down.” Their goal was twofold: prevent pedestrian accidents and prevent crimes against pedestrians. In addition to being at greater risk of personal injury, distracted pedestrians are also at higher risk of being robbed or attacked.
New Jersey unsuccessfully tried to make September as “Distracted Walking Awareness Month.”
Safety advocates have implemented a variety of public awareness campaigns and stunts in New York City. They range from an improv group offering “Seeing Eye People” to help people text and walk to a youth poster contest. In spring 2018, the New York State PTA and The National Road Safety Foundation are hosting a “Defeet Distractions New York” poster contest for students.