- An estimated 3,441 pedestrians died in traffic accidents in the first six months of 2021, a 17% increase over that period in the previous year, according to a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. In all of 2020, 6,516 pedestrian deaths occurred.
- As drivers returned to the road following the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, the number of pedestrians killed per billion vehicle miles traveled in the first half of 2021 soared 28% above the relatively steady rates seen each year from 2017 to 2019.
- More risky driving behavior coupled with a decrease in traffic enforcement contributed to the rise in pedestrian deaths, said representatives of state highway safety offices and law enforcement, while GHSA also named larger vehicles and poor road design as factors.
California, Florida and Texas led the nation in the number of pedestrian traffic fatalities in the first half of last year, accounting for 1,289, or 37%, of all pedestrian deaths. Just 11 states saw declines in the number of pedestrians killed by drivers while fatalities increased in 39 states and the District of Columbia during the first half of 2021.
"It's a tremendous tragedy that this continues to occur," said Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations at GHSA. "These are people being struck and killed by drivers who may be engaged in dangerous driving behavior," he added. Speeding, impaired and distracted driving, are at "unacceptably high levels," the GHSA said in a press release.
While unsafe driving began to increase after March 2020, when the pandemic took hold, dangerous drivers saw fewer cops on the road. "What we saw was a decline in traffic enforcement almost nationwide," Martin said.
"You have to look at the pandemic as being a contributing cause" to the decline in enforcement, said John Bagnardi, executive director of the American Association of State Troopers and a 40-year veteran of the Florida Highway Patrol. In 2020 and 2021, 773 police officers across the country died as a result of medical issues, far more than in previous years, and far more than the number that died in traffic accidents or from gunfire.
But it wasn't the pandemic alone. "So many [police] agencies around the country were dealing with other issues," he said, citing budget cuts, a wave of officers retiring and difficulties hiring new recruits. "An agency's first thing they cut is traffic enforcement," Bagnardi added.
The GHSA advocates for the safe system approach to reduce pedestrian deaths, which the U.S. Department of Transportation adopted in January as a part of the National Roadway Safety Strategy. Much of the safe system approach depends on better driver behavior and safer roads, including the implementation of Complete Streets policies that consider pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders as well as drivers.
"Even though changes to the built environment often take a long time, there are things that can be considered low-cost that can be completed within the next year," said Martin. He cited crosswalks and "simple roadway adjustments" to better protect pedestrians.
"We've got to address all these different elements of the system at the same time," he said.