Our attorneys take a closer look at the risk factors
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic took many cars off the road and pedestrians off the streets beginning in Spring 2020, it led to an increase in fatal car accidents – and in particular, a spike in pedestrian deaths. This disturbing trend highlights the need for a renewed emphasis on road safety, accountability for dangerous drivers, and justice for victims.
While vehicle miles traveled dropped in 2020, drivers became more dangerous
Data compiled by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) paints a bleak picture of pedestrian safety in 2020. There was a 4.8% increase in pedestrian deaths from 2019 to 2020, and even that unacceptably high number understates the problem. Taking into account the decrease in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) due to the pandemic restrictions and economic downturn, the pedestrian fatality rate increased by 21%. And while final data for 2021 is not yet available, preliminary estimates indicate that fatalities have continued to rise.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, while most drivers stayed off the road, those who remained were disproportionately young and male – a statistically riskier group, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. A small but significant percentage of motorists increased the amount of driving they did in 2020, and those drivers were highly likely to engage in risky behaviors such as speeding, texting while driving, and running red lights. In short, while there were fewer drivers on the road overall, the average driver became much more dangerous.
With fewer cars on the road, people started driving faster, increasing the risk of deadly injuries because of the greater force involved in a high-speed crash. Cognitive and behavioral scientists have also theorized that the stress of the pandemic may have made some motorists more aggressive behind the wheel as a means of release.
The pandemic is not fully to blame
Although pedestrian deaths rose sharply in 2020, it’s important to note that they were already on the rise before the pandemic. According to the GHSA data, pedestrians represented just 13% of U.S. traffic deaths in 2010, but that number increased to 17% in 2019. Over that same period, pedestrian deaths increased by 46% while all other traffic deaths increased only 5%.
Much of that increase is attributed to the rising popularity of sport utility vehicles (SUVs). According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), SUV-on-pedestrian crashes are especially deadly because of the greater weight of SUVs compared to passenger cars and the way the SUV’s taller front profile hits a pedestrian’s body. Another key factor: the height of an SUV or pickup truck gives the vehicle a larger blind spot in the front.
“We see a lot of pedestrian accidents caused by drivers who aren’t paying attention,” says attorney Kyle Stelmack. “Now add in the bigger blind spot and reduced visibility from the cab of an SUV. It’s a dangerous combination.”
Motorists need to slow down, and pedestrians need to protect themselves
Ultimately, it’s on motorists to reverse this trend. Drivers need to yield to pedestrians, exercise caution when backing up, and refrain from passing vehicles stopped at crosswalks. That responsibility is only compounded at night or in inclement weather. “If you’re driving in an area with pedestrian traffic, slow down, pay attention, and stay focused on safely operating your vehicle,” says attorney Mary Anne Lucas. “You have a legal responsibility to put safety first.”
Pedestrians can likewise take steps to prevent accidents by paying attention, remaining visible, and using sidewalks and crosswalks appropriately. They also need to make sure they’re financially protected in the event of a collision. “If you or anyone in your household owns a car, we strongly recommend carrying as much uninsured and underinsured motorist protection on your car insurance as possible,” says O'Malley & Langan Founder and Senior Partner Todd J. O'Malley. “It protects you from some of the worst drivers on the road, not only when you’re in your car, but also if you’re hit as a pedestrian.”
Much needs to be done to make our roads safer for pedestrians, and a key part of that work is accountability and justice for victims. If you or someone you know was hit by a car, give us a call or contact us today to speak with an experienced pedestrian accident attorney about your legal options.