Pedestrian deaths spike in US as reckless driving surges
Two years into the pandemic, pedestrian fatalities across the US are soaring into record territory amid a nationwide flare-up in reckless driving, according to a report by the New York Times.
Authorities in one US state after another are citing factors from the rise in anxiety levels and drinking alcohol to the fraying of social norms.
Last year, New Mexico recorded 99 pedestrian deaths, up from 81 in 2020 and 83 in 2019 and the most since it began tracking such incidents in the 1990s. But while Sun Belt states have been hit particularly hard, the pedestrian death toll spiked last year in many parts of the country.
New Jersey had its highest number of pedestrian fatalities in more than 30 years. Last year was also the deadliest on Utah’s roads since the start of the century, as pedestrian deaths rose 22%. Washington state ended 2021 with a 15-year high in traffic fatalities. And pedestrian deaths in Texas climbed last year to a record high.
Empty roads allowed some to drive much faster than before. Some police chiefs eased enforcement, wary of face-to-face contact. For reasons that psychologists and transit safety experts are just beginning to explain, drivers also seemed to get angrier.
Dr. David Spiegel, director of Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health, said many drivers were grappling with what he calls “salience saturation.”
“We’re so saturated with fears about the virus and what it’s going to do,” Spiegel said. “People feel that they get a pass on other threats.”
Spiegel said another factor was “social disengagement,” which deprives people of social contact, a major source of pleasure, support and comfort. Combine that loss with overloading our capacity to gauge risks, Spiegel said, and people are not paying as much attention to driving safely.
“If they do, they don’t care about it that much,” Spiegel said. “There’s the feeling that the rules are suspended and all bets are off.”
Studies estimate that the pedestrian fatality rate spiked about 21% in 2020 as deaths climbed sharply even though people drove much less that year. And preliminary data from 2021 indicates yet another increase in the number of pedestrian deaths.
Angie Schmitt, who describes pedestrian deaths as a “silent epidemic” in a new book, said the reasons included an aging population, in which older pedestrians are more vulnerable, and the growth of the Sun Belt region, where cities were designed after World War II to prioritize speed over safety.
And ballooning sizes of SUVs and trucks, which have grown heavier with higher front ends, strike people on foot with greater force than before.
Across the country, overall traffic fatalities — not just crashes killing pedestrians — are also rising at a record pace. Nearly 32,000 people were killed in vehicle crashes in the first nine months of 2021, a 12% increase from the same period in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
It was the highest number of fatalities during the first nine months of any year since 2006 and the highest percentage increase during the first nine months in the reporting system’s history.