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Pedestrian Safety


Pedestrian fatalities per year steadily decreased from the late 1970s to 2009 when the United States reached a low of 4,109 deaths (Reish, 2021; Schneider, 2020). However, the number of pedestrian fatalities has increased since 2009, leading to a 5-year average of 6,502 pedestrian deaths during the 5 most recent years (2017 to 2021). During this period, pedestrians accounted for 16 or 17% of total traffic fatalities (NCSA, 2023c). 

Pedestrian Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2002 to 2021

A combination figure with 2 axes showing pedestrian fatalities by year from 2002 through 2021. The first y axis shows the total number of pedestrian fatalities. The second y axis shows pedestrian fatalities as a proportion of total fatalities.. The proportion has been gradually increasing from a low of 11% in the early 2000s to around 17% in the most recent years.

Sources: NCSA (2022, 2023c)

Fatality rate trends—or fatalities adjusted per number of walking trips or miles traveled by walking—are unavailable because there is no systematically collected and consistent measure of walking (exposure) to estimate and compare fatality rates each year. In the United States, the National Household Travel Survey is the most comprehensive snapshot of travel trends, including walking. The 2017 NHTS estimates that walking trips represent approximately 10.5% of all transportation mode trips reported (McGuckin & Fucci, 2018), which means that pedestrian fatalities make up a disproportionate share of all traffic fatalities.

In 2021 some 7,388 pedestrians died and approximately 60,577 were injured in traffic crashes in the United States (NCSA, 2023c).

 Characteristics of fatal crashes involving pedestrians include:

  • Light conditions: 76% of pedestrians were killed in collisions that occurred when it was dark, with another 4% occurring during dusk or dawn (Schneider, 2020). Retting (2021) notes that during the years 2010-2019 —a time when pedestrian fatalities have been increasing—the number of pedestrian fatalities that occurred in the dark increased by 58%, while daylight fatalities increased by 16%.
  • Roadway location: 73% of pedestrian fatalities occurred at non-intersection locations (Schneider, 2020). A study linking FARS data with roadway data and aerial imagery to identify pedestrian fatality “hot spots” found that common characteristics of these locations included five or more lanes to cross (70%), speed limits of 30 mph or higher (75%), and traffic volumes exceeding 25,000 vehicles per day (62%) (Schneider et al., 2021).
  • Time: 25% of all pedestrian fatalities occurred from 6 p.m. to 8:59 p.m. and 26% from 9 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. (NCSA, 2023c)
  • Hit-and-run: 23% of pedestrian fatalities in 2021 involved hit-and-run drivers (NCSA, 2023c), a proportion that has remained consistent for decades (Schneider, 2020). Investigators and researchers may never know about the characteristics of the driver, or the vehicle involved. As with other crash problems, there can be significant regional variation; an analysis of FARS data from 1998 to 2007 found that hit-and-run crashes accounted for 6.6.% of pedestrian fatalities in Mississippi and 29.8% in the District of Columbia (MacLeod et al., 2012). Common environmental and temporal factors surrounding hit-and-run crashes include poor lighting conditions, early morning time frame, and occurrence on the weekend.

Characteristics of pedestrians fatally injured in crashes include:

  • Sex: 70% of pedestrians killed were males. Walking rates are similar for men and women (Buehler et al., 2020), but men are more than twice as likely to be killed in a traffic crash as a pedestrian (NCSA, 2023c).
  • Age: The age groups 60 to 64 and 65to 70 had the largest percentage of pedestrian fatalities (23%) with age group 60 to 64 having the highest fatality rate (3.18 per 100,000 population). The average age of pedestrians killed has remained similar over the past 10 years (ranging from 45 to 48). Adults over 65 walk less than other age groups (Buehler et al., 2020), yet in 2021 some 18% of all pedestrian fatalities with known age were 65 and older. Adults 65 and older make up 15% of the population (NCSA, 2023c). Older pedestrians are more likely to die from their injuries when struck due to the inherent fragility associated with the aging process. Factors that may increase vulnerability to being struck for some older pedestrians include age-related physical changes that lead to walking more slowly; difficulty crossing the curb; difficulty judging walking speeds and oncoming vehicle speeds; difficulty in interactions with turning vehicles at intersections; and possible confusion about pedestrian signal phases (Dommes et al., 2012; Holland & Hill, 2010; Coffin & Morrall, 1995). Over the past 4 decades, there has been a steady decline in the proportion of pedestrian fatalities among children 14 and younger (Schneider, 2020). In the late 1970s children younger than 15 represented 18% of all pedestrian fatality victims. By 20211 they represented just 2.4% of all pedestrian fatalities (NCSA, 2023c; Schneider, 2020). These decreases correspond with declining rates of walking by children as measured by national surveys of household travel (Buehler et al., 2020; Kontou et al., 2020).
  • Race/ethnicity/national origin: Several studies have documented the overrepresentation of Black and American Indian or Alaska Natives in pedestrian-motorist crashes as well as immigrants and areas with low-incomes (Anderson et al., 2010; CDC, 2013; Chakravarthy et al., 2012; Chen et al., 2012; Schneider, 2020; Zaccaro, 2019). These disparities by race, aggregated at the national level, remain when controlling for population as measured by the Census and for pedestrian activity as measured by walking trips or distances by the NHTS (Schneider, 2020; Zaccaro, 2019). Some studies attribute the inequities to how pedestrian facilities are distributed within communities (Kravetz & Noland, 2012). Other studies have found that areas with lower income and minority populations have higher transit use and walking rates (or exposure) that may partially explain elevated crash figures (Cottrill & Thakuriah, 2010). In trying to understand higher pedestrian crash rates for recent immigrants in New York City, researchers postulated that social-behavioral mechanisms and differing “safety cultures” play a role in pedestrian crashes. These characteristics, depending on from where someone has emigrated, may result in more acceptance for jaywalking or lower likelihood of yielding to pedestrians (Chen et al., 2012).

At the national level, walking trends and other travel trends are most commonly estimated using the NHTS, conducted by the FHWA. During the 2016-2017 survey period, an estimated 39 billion walking trips were made for all purposes (work or work-related commute, shopping and errands, school and church, social and recreational, and other trips), representing approximately 10.5% of trips by all transportation modes reported. When looking at all modes of transportation, walking accounted for about 4% of all trips to work. Of all walking trips, commuting to work makes up only a small percentage (6.5%) of walking trips (McGuckin & Fucci, 2018). The largest proportion of walking trips were made for recreational and social reasons (47.5%) followed by shopping and personal errands (29.5%). Buehler et al. (2020) provides a more thorough discussion of walking (and bicycling) trends observed during the most recent survey (2017) and in comparison, to the 2001 survey period.

Walking volume (sometimes generally referred to as mode share or exposure) has a complex and non-linear relationship with crashes. Because of this relationship, relying on the absolute number of crashes does not necessarily indicate danger for pedestrians. Strategies focused on increasing mode share and improving safety are then often considered in tandem (e.g., Safe Routes to School programs). The idea behind increasing mode share comes out of the concept of “safety in numbers,” the decrease in risk of serious injury related to an increase in walking volume. A non-linear relationship between traffic volumes (motorist, pedestrian, or bicyclist) and crashes has been well-documented in a body of evidence that spans geographic levels (i.e., intersection, area, municipality, county) (AASHTO, 2010; Bhatia & Wier, 2011; Elvik & Bjørnskau, 2017; Elvik & Goel, 2019; Jacobsen et al., 2015). However, these findings are difficult to interpret because they do not show increased volumes as a clear cause of reduced risk (Bhatia & Wier, 2011; Schneider et al., 2017). Many studies also have not measured or accounted for other potential safety factors such as motorist speed, congestion, or law enforcement activity.

A recent meta-analysis of motorist-pedestrian or motorist-bicyclist injury crashes estimated that there is safety in numbers for both pedestrians and bicyclists (Elvik & Bjørnskau, 2017). By their estimate, if the number of pedestrians or bicyclists doubles (100% increase), the increase in crashes is expected to be 41%. These estimates indicate that while an increase in volume of pedestrians and bicycles leads to increases in crashes, crashes do not increase as much as volume increases. A subsequent expanded meta-analysis determined that the safety in numbers effect may be stronger for pedestrians than bicyclists, and at the macro level (cities) than the micro-level, such as an individual junction (Elvik & Goel, 2019). A literature review on safety in numbers found agreement throughout the research on the existence of a safety in numbers effect. However, the underlying causes of the effect were still not fully understood (Kehoe et al., 2022).