Pedestrian deaths in the United States have risen sharply since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with authorities blaming a flare-up in reckless driving.
Traffic Deaths Set Records
At the start of the national pandemic lockdowns in 2020, some analysts believed that pedestrian deaths would decline because millions of motorists would be cutting their driving time and following social distancing measures. Their optimism proved misguided, however, as statistics revealed a significant increase in pedestrian fatalities over the past two years.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the pedestrian death rate per one billion vehicle miles traveled increased approximately 20 percent for the first half of 2020, compared with the first half of 2019. The Governors Highway Safety Association found that crashes ultimately killed more than 6,700 pedestrians in 2020, up approximately five percent from the previous year.
Seven states — Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Texas — have accounted for more than half of pedestrian deaths, while New Mexico has had the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities per capita.
Meanwhile, overall traffic deaths have continued climbing at a record pace, bringing with them an increase in lawsuits filed by car accident attorneys. The NHTSA reports that almost 32,000 people were killed in vehicle crashes in the first nine months of 2021, an increase of twelve percent from the same period in 2020. This marked the greatest number of traffic fatalities during the first nine months of any year since 2006, as well as the largest percentage increase during the first nine months of a year in the history of the NHTSA’s reporting system.
“Salience Saturation” and “Social Disengagement”
Authorities have attributed this flare-up in pedestrian deaths to a surge in reckless driving. Initiatives to reverse this trend have cited a number of factors, including increased drinking, elevated anxiety levels, and the fraying of social norms.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some police chiefs wary of face-to-face contact have eased enforcement of traffic violations, even as empty roads have allowed motorists to drive significantly faster. Additionally, drivers seem to have grown progressively angrier, possibly because they have been grappling with what Dr. David Spiegel, director of Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health, calls “salience saturation.”
“We’re so saturated with fears about the virus and what it’s going to do,” Dr. Spiegel told the New York Times. “People feel that they get a pass on other threats.”
Dr. Spiegel also noted a rise in “social disengagement,” depriving Americans of the human contact that is a major source of pleasure, comfort, and support. He argues that this loss of engagement coupled with excessive strains on the individual’s capacity to assess risks may have resulted in people paying less attention to driving safely.
“If they do, they don’t care about it that much,” said Dr. Spiegel. “There’s the feeling that the rules are suspended and all bets are off.”
Dr. Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees, and worries that the persistence of pandemic-related stresses reflects “two years of having to stop ourselves from doing things that we’d like to do.”
“We’re all a bit at the end of our rope on things,” explained Dr. Markman. “When you get angry in the car, it generates energy — and how do you dissipate that energy? Well, one way is to put your foot down a little bit more on the accelerator.”
Other Factors Cited in Pedestrian Deaths
While the pandemic seems to have significantly increased the number of pedestrian deaths, this phenomenon appears to have begun much earlier in the United States, even as other developed countries have made strides in reducing pedestrian fatalities. The Governors Highway Safety Association reports that traffic accidents killing pedestrians have climbed 46 percent over the last decade, compared with a five-percent increase for all other types of crashes.
Multiple elements may have influenced this unfortunate trend, including an aging population, which has added to the number of vulnerable pedestrians, and the growth of the Sun Belt region, where cities were designed to prioritize speed over safety. Drag racing and increased homelessness may also have played a role.
Perhaps the greatest contributing factor, however, has been the rapidly expanding sizes of SUVs and trucks, whose greater weight and higher front-ends could strike pedestrians with more force than before. Following decades of decline in the United States, traffic deaths began climbing in 2009, a year in which smaller sedans still accounted for most vehicles sold.
“Now, about three out of four new vehicles are pickup trucks, vans, or SUVs,” said Angie Schmitt, who has written a book about the “silent epidemic” of pedestrian deaths. “Cars are getting bigger, faster, and deadlier.”
Additionally, the fact that new vehicles have grown larger and safer for those inside them, with such features as rearview cameras and lane-departure warnings, may have emboldened drivers to ignore the risks to pedestrians and others – sometimes with tragic results.
Has Your Loved One Been Killed in a Crash?
These alarming statistics about pedestrian deaths are not simply numbers. Each “data point” represents an incomparable loss to those who have been left behind. While nothing will bring a deceased loved one back, the victim’s survivors may be eligible for financial compensation when somebody else’s negligence is to blame. If you find yourself reeling from the death of a close family member who was struck by a motor vehicle, reach out to the dedicated pedestrian accident attorneys at GWC Injury Lawyers LLC.
GWC is one of the leading Personal Injury and Workers’ Compensation law firms in Illinois, with more than $2 billion recovered in verdicts and settlements. No other plaintiff firm in the state is more respected – or more feared – by its adversaries, both inside and outside of the courtroom. GWC’s car accident attorneys have the experience, the determination, the resources, and the reputation necessary to help get justice for you and your family.