By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
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The nation saw a slight uptick in pedestrian fatalities in the first half of last year, a puzzling trend for researchers and safety officials because it came as overall traffic deaths were falling.
The increase was small — just 0.4% — but it follows four straight years of steady declines in pedestrian deaths, according to a new report by a national highway-safety group. The rise occurred as overall traffic deaths fell by about 8%, says the Governors Highway Safety Association, citing preliminary estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
James Hedlund, a former NHTSA associate administrator for traffic-safety programs and author of the report, says no single factor explains the slight increase.
"It may be the canary in the mine," he says. "It may be an indication that the drops we've been seeing (in fatalities) overall may have stopped."
Road deaths overall increased by 2.5% in the third quarter of 2010, the first quarterly rise after 17 consecutive quarters of declines when compared with the same period the previous year, NHTSA data show.
Among other possible factors driving the increase: more pedestrians talking and texting, or walking while intoxicated, and more exposure as people pursue active lifestyles that emphasize walk-able communities.
"Anyone who travels in a busy city has seen countless pedestrians engrossed in conversation or listening to music while crossing a busy street," says Vernon Betkey, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "Just as drivers need to focus on driving safety, pedestrians need to focus on walking safely."
In Oregon, where pedestrian fatalities rose by 18 in the first half of 2010 after a 60-year low the previous year, more than half the deaths involved people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, says Troy Costales with the transportation department.
"Just as we have aggressive drivers, we have aggressive pedestrians," he says. "People who are on cellphones, or texting, or on alcohol or some other type of intoxicant. In that situation, your ability to make wise choices and split-second decisions has become compromised."
A critical factor in many pedestrian fatalities is speed, says David Goldberg with Transportation for America, a group that studies pedestrian safety. "It's important not to lace neighborhoods with high-speed arterial roads," he says. "Unfortunately, that is the case in most of urban America. We found that 56% of fatalities happen on these arterials."
Pedestrian deaths from 1999 to 2009 fell most sharply for folks younger than 20 (down 42%), adults 30-45 (31%) and people 65 and older (29%); they were unchanged for people in their 20s and up 16% for those age 45-64.