WASHINGTON (AP) — Pedestrian deaths in the United States are climbing faster than motorist fatalities, reaching nearly 6,000 deaths last year — the highest total in more than two decades, according to an analysis of preliminary state data released Thursday.
Researchers think the biggest factor may be more drivers and walkers distracted by cellphones and other electronic devices, although that’s hard to confirm. “It’s the only factor that seems to indicate a dramatic change in how people behave,” said Richard Retting, safety director of Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants and the author of the report.
Nebraska and Iowa, where the pool of statistics is smaller, has seen fluctuations year-to-year since 2007, but the trend line is clear: Deaths are up.
In Nebraska, average annual pedestrian deaths over the past five years jumped 86 percent compared with the previous five years. In Iowa, deaths in the most recent five-year period were up 21 percent.
Pedestrian injuries are up too, averaging nearly one a day in Nebraska. Thursday was no exception. A 13-year-old boy was critically injured shortly before 9 p.m. in the Benson area.
Nationally, increased driving resulting from an improved economy and lower gas prices and more walking for exercise and environmental factors are possible reasons for the estimated 11 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities in 2016. The figures were prepared for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The report is based on data extrapolated from the first six months of 2016. Last year had the largest annual increase in the number and percentage of pedestrian deaths in more than 40 years. The second-largest increase was in 2015.
Nationwide, pedestrian deaths as a share of vehicular deaths increased to 15 percent in 2015 from 11 percent in 2006.
Nebraska fares much better in that comparison, according to Fred Zwonechek, head of the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety. Pedestrian deaths accounted for slightly more than 5 percent of the state’s total traffic fatalities, he said.
The majority of people killed in Nebraska, he said, are people walking in the road — not in crosswalks. In the past two years, he said, only four of the 30 pedestrian deaths occurred in marked pedestrian crosswalks.
More people are out walking and running, Zwonechek said, and about half the deaths in Nebraska occur at night.
Among the 12 people killed last year in Nebraska was a 72-year-old woman in Hastings who was following all the rules but was struck and killed as she crossed a street in the middle of the afternoon. That driver was ticketed.
No tickets were issued in a death in Omaha last year, when a 29-year-old woman and her dog were killed as they crossed West Center Road about 6 a.m.
Nationally, experts say the numbers point to a need to improve pedestrian safety.
“The U.S. isn’t meeting the mark on keeping pedestrians safe on our roadways,” said Jonathan Adkins, the safety association’s executive director. “Every one of these lives represents a loved one not coming home tonight, which is absolutely unacceptable.”
That’s the feeling of a Treynor, Iowa, family. Their son, a high school wrestler jogging with friends, was killed in 2015 by a speeding driver. The teen’s family has expressed frustration with Iowa law. The driver didn’t serve jail time because Iowa didn’t have the misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide penalty like Nebraska’s.
Pedestrian deaths are sharply outpacing U.S. road fatalities overall, climbing 25 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to Retting’s research. Total traffic deaths increased about 6 percent over the same period.
Kelly Nantel of the National Safety Council, said the responsibility doesn’t lie solely with drivers, saying pedestrians, too, are more distracted.
“Just as we need drivers to be alert, pedestrians have to be, too,” Nantel said.
The report recommended improvements such as islands on busy streets, pedestrian overpasses or tunnels, more traffic signals and street lights, more-visible crosswalks and flashing beacons at crosswalks.
World-Herald staff writers Jay Withrow, Alia Conley and Nancy Gaarder contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Washington Post.
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