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What is causing pedestrian fatalities to reach a 25-year high?

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According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), nearly 6,000 pedestrians died in traffic accidents last year. It was the second year in a row with a death toll that high. Even more tragically, that represents a 25-year high, with pedestrian fatalities growing by 27 percent between 2007 and 2016.

What factors contribute to the growing trend of pedestrian fatalities?

When last year's GHSA report indicated an 11-percent increase in pedestrian deaths over the previous year, National Public Radio considered the possible contributing factors. It concluded there was "a perfect storm" of factors. For one thing, a stronger economy and lower gas prices both tend to increase miles driven, and more miles driven correlates with more accidents of all kinds.

However, the increase in pedestrian deaths comes at a time when other types of traffic fatalities are down by about 14 percent. That might be explained by recent safety improvements in vehicles. Those improvements improve the chances vehicle occupants will survive a crash -- but they don't affect pedestrians or bikers.

Another factor in the "perfect storm" is distraction. A GHSA spokesperson described it this way:

"One possibility can be seen during rush hour in downtown Chicago just by looking at both the drivers of the dozens of vehicles inching through traffic and the scores of pedestrians crossing the busy intersections. One thing many have in common is that their eyes are down, staring at their phones."

We all know that cellphone distraction among drivers is a major and growing cause of car crashes, and it is increasingly a problem among pedestrians, as well.

Alcohol use is another factor, whether by drivers or pedestrians. According to the report, in a third of fatal pedestrian accidents, the pedestrian's blood alcohol content was above the legal limit for driving. That may be perfectly legal, but it can be dangerous because an intoxicated pedestrian may behave unpredictably.

Marijuana use, either behind the wheel or while walking, may play an increasingly large role. The GHSA report found that the growth in pedestrian fatalities was faster in jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.

Finally, while these aren't technically explanatory factors, we do know that 75 percent of fatal pedestrian accidents occur at night, and that 72 percent involve someone walking in the road while not at an intersection.

We all need to make an effort to bring down these tragic numbers. As a driver, be vigilant and protective about pedestrians -- you could save a life.

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