Pedestrian in a crosswalk.

Pedestrian deaths soared by 46 percent in 2016 from their lowest point in 2009, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, with an increasing share of deaths occurring on busy and dark city and suburban roads, and away from intersections.

The IIHS says it’s unclear how many variables are driving the overall increase, but a spokesman cites an uptick in miles driven, higher speed limits, the prevalence of SUVs, traffic light maintenance, and not enough sidewalks in some neighborhoods, among other potential reasons.

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“The improved economy may be one factor, with more driving, more traffic, and more road users out and about in general,” says the spokesman, Russ Rader. “More people may be walking because of the education efforts in recent years surrounding health and fitness. We can only speculate on this question.”

The IIHS says there are strategies for reducing deaths that focus on fixing streets and crossings, reducing speeds, and improving how drivers and cars detect pedestrians nearby.

“Understanding where, when, and how these additional pedestrian crashes are happening can point the way to solutions,” said David Harkey, the president of IIHS, in a statement. “This analysis tells us that improvements in road design, vehicle design, and lighting and speed-limit enforcement all have a role to play in addressing the issue.”

In 2016, 5,987 pedestrians were killed in vehicle-related crashes, accounting for 16 percent of all crash fatalities, according to federal fatality and crash data. That's up from 4,109 in 2009, or 46 percent.

The number of pedestrians killed each year has declined 20 percent since 1975, when 7,516 were reported killed. But the 2016 toll was the highest since 1990, when 6,482 pedestrians were reported killed.

In addition, the percentage of fatal car crashes that involve pedestrians has grown since 2005, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show.

In fact, pedestrians accounted for 52 percent of the increase in highway fatalities between 2009 and 2016, according to NHTSA data. 

The areas that are traditionally the most dangerous for pedestrians saw the biggest percentage increases in crash deaths from 2009 to 2016. Pedestrian deaths increased by:

  • 67 percent on arterials, or roads that typically direct motorists onto freeways 
  • 56 percent in the dark 
  • 54 percent in urban and suburban areas
  • 50 percent at nonintersections

Crashes have become more common and more deadly, and they have increasingly involved SUVs, the IIHS says. Fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs increased 81 percent, the study found. SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks represent a bigger danger to pedestrians, especially given the rise in SUV sales over the last decade.

“Previous studies have found that SUVs, pickups, and vans are associated with higher risks of pedestrian deaths or severe injuries to pedestrians. Such vehicles have higher and often more vertical front ends than cars and are more likely to strike a pedestrian in the head or chest,” the IIHS release says. “Changes in the front-end design of these vehicles could help lessen the severity of injuries when they strike pedestrians.”

Reducing speed limits could also help, the study found, especially because they have been creeping upward. IIHS research has shown that red-light cameras and other automated enforcement efforts have reduced speed-limit violations and crashes.

More sidewalks would reduce the number of people walking in the street, the study found, but that’s not the only answer.

“When people are forced to walk long distances to the nearest signalized intersection, they are more likely to choose the riskier option of sprinting across multiple lanes of traffic,” Harkey said. “Communities can improve safety by providing more options to safely cross.”

Improving how drivers—and cars—“see” pedestrians in the dark could make a big difference, the study suggests. That includes better, more powerful headlights and new pedestrian-detection systems, just now making their way into new cars.

“Vehicles have become larger and more powerful and, when combined with higher speed limits, that means that a driver’s ability to see pedestrians sooner is critical to being able to react and stop in time,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s Auto Test Center. “That’s true whether it’s improving the driver’s ability to see with better headlights or through the vehicle’s own safety-system’s cameras.”

A recent analysis by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found that Subarus equipped with a pedestrian-detection system had 35 percent lower claim rates for injuries than the same vehicles without the system. The institute does research on insurance-loss statistics involving U.S. and Canadian cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and motorcycles. The Subaru system is the only one that’s been evaluated by HLDI, although other automakers offer similar systems.

The bottom line is that roads are becoming more dangerous for pedestrians and drivers. People who must walk along or across a road at night should wear bright reflective clothing and carry a flashlight. When walking near traffic, they should pay attention to their surroundings and avoid distractions, such as smartphones. 

Pedestrians crossing street in city