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U.S. pedestrian deaths reach a 40-year high

In 2022, drivers struck and killed the highest number of pedestrians since 1981.
Bruce Bennett
Getty Images
In 2022, drivers struck and killed the highest number of pedestrians since 1981.

A new study paints a grim picture of American roads: every day, 20 people walk outside and end up killed by a moving vehicle.

"There are more pedestrians being killed today than in decades," Russ Martin, the senior director of policy and government relations at the Governors Highway Safety Association, told NPR.

The organization, which tracks pedestrian deaths in the U.S., estimates that more than 7,500 pedestrians were killed by drivers last year — the highest number since 1981. The final tally may be even greater given that Oklahoma was unable to provide data due to a technical issue.

Pedestrian deaths have been climbing since 2010 because of unsafe infrastructure and the prevalence of SUVs, which tend to be more deadly for pedestrians than smaller cars, according to Martin. When the pandemic arrived, there was an even greater surge as empty roads gave way to speeding and distracted driving.

The pandemic has waned, but cases of reckless driving — and subsequently the number of Americans killed while walking — has not. The new data, released on Friday, shows the U.S. continues to lag in its effort to improve road safety, even as experts say some solutions are within reach.

States below the Sun Belt ranked as having the highest rate of pedestrian deaths in 2022

For the seventh year in a row, New Mexico was ranked as the most dangerous state for pedestrians.

Arizona and Florida were also placed in the top spots for having high rates of pedestrian deaths in GHSA's estimates.

It is not a coincidence that all three states are situated below the country's Sun Belt. Martin said Southern states tend to see more traffic deaths but it is not exactly clear why.

There are multiple theories: in bigger states, communities are more spread out and as a result, people need to drive more to get around, he said. Another possibility is that Southern states have better weather and people spend more time outside.

"This is all just conjecture, but I think it's certainly worthwhile to take a closer look into what's going on in those states," he added.

Local lawmakers can implement traffic calming measures today

Traffic safety has been an uphill battle in the U.S. for years but there are strategies at lawmakers' disposal to address the crisis today, according to Peter Norton, a professor at the University of Virginia who has studied the history of driving in America.

"The best things we can do will take years, but there are some things we can do now, they don't cost much money and they make a big difference," he said.

For instance, implementing sharp corners instead of round curves at the end of roads forces drivers to slow down to turn and therefore prevents speeding. That technique, along with adding pedestrian islands and large sidewalk bulb-outs, is known as "traffic calming."

Norton said installing speeding and red light cameras can also be effective if they work properly. Adding bike lanes can also keep drivers more alert on the road.

Lowering speed limits is also an important step but only if it is enforced and used alongside other safety measures. Norton warned that roads with a mix of different vehicle speeds tend to be more dangerous.

There are also some local and regional measures the GHSA pointed to that could help prevent deaths.

In Hawaii, police officers are stationed in areas that have seen a higher volume of crashes or foot traffic to look out for reckless driving.

And in Idaho, the state's highway safety office gave outwalk audits for community members to identify safety concerns on the street. Local officials then use the results to improve the walkability of neighborhoods.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.