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California pedestrian deaths decline — finally

Pedestrians crossing Hollywood Boulevard. (Photo: Sean Pavone)

Pedestrian deaths are on the rise throughout the nation, but California is bucking the trend.

Preliminary data by the Governors Highway Safety Organization shows an increase in pedestrian fatalities throughout the United States, rising 12 percent to 5,997 in 2016. Yet California, home to the highest number of pedestrian deaths for years, is finally seeing a drop.

Just four states — California, Florida, New York and Texas — account for 42 percent of all pedestrian deaths in the nation, despite being home to just 33 percent of the population.

Between January and June of 2016 the Golden State saw 349 pedestrian deaths, an 11.4 percent decrease from the same period in 2015.

“California’s been a leader on a lot of different traffic safety issues,” says Kara Macek of GHSO. “That could be part of the reason they’re seeing more progress than other parts of the country.”

The state’s numbers have not been good in recent years. Adjusted for population, California’s pedestrian fatality rate is consistently higher than the national average. Just four states — California, Florida, New York and Texas — account for 42 percent of all pedestrian deaths in the nation, despite being home to just 33 percent of the population.

But in a year where pedestrian fatalities may reach an unprecedented 6,000 nationally, California has seen progress.

Macek says California has been a leader on both pedestrian safety campaigns and on engineering strategies that don’t rank vehicles over pedestrians, which the U.S. has been doing for decades.

According to Wayne Ziese of the California Office of Traffic Safety, police and sheriff’s departments identifying high risk areas in their jurisdictions have also helped.

“Some 160 law enforcement agencies around the state with identified problems received funding (in 2016) to step up enforcement and awareness,” says Ziese.

There have also been more grassroots efforts.

Nationally, the estimated 5,997 deaths in 2016 marks a 22 percent increase from 2014’s 4,910 count.

Pedestrian advocacy groups such as Walk San Francisco have worked to get the state’s major cities to adopt Vision Zero plans designed to protect not just people in vehicles, but also pedestrians and cyclists.

The Vision Zero model aims to bring a city’s traffic deaths down to zero over the course of a decade using four E’s: engineering, education, enforcement and evaluation. Created in Sweden in the 1990’s, the plan has been effective throughout Europe. Now it’s taking hold in California.

San Francisco adopted the policy in 2014, and last January the city of Los Angeles released its Vision Zero action plan. That same month Sacramento resolved to use the plan to eliminate traffic deaths by 2027.

Pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. rose somewhat regularly since 2009, but experts find the most recent spike unsettling. The estimated 5,997 deaths in 2016 marks a 22 percent increase from 2014’s 4,910 count.

GHSA researchers believe that American commuters’ increased reliance on smart phones may be a contributing factor.

Rates of pedestrian deaths can oscillate from year to year based on weather, economic conditions, vehicle miles traveled and the time people spend walking. For instance, the Federal Highway Administration reports that vehicle miles traveled were up 3.3 percent in the first half of 2016, and the U.S. Census Bureau reports a four percent rise in pedestrians commuting to work between 2006 and 2015.

But a 22 percent rise in pedestrian deaths over two years?

“This is a real huge spike. It’s sort of unprecedented, actually,” says Macek. “That leads us to look at what’s different, what’s changed in our environment?”

GHSA researchers believe that American commuters’ increased reliance on smart phones may be a contributing factor.

Through the first six months of 2016, California was home to the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in the nation.

“It’s changed the way we work, the way we live and unfortunately the way we drive,” says Macek.

Last year California legislators passed AB 1785, which prohibits drivers from engaging in any cell phone use while behind the wheel. The law went into effect January 1, and both GHSO and the CA OTS are interested to see if it will impact pedestrian fatalities.

Despite its improvements, California still has work to do.

The state saw .91 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents in the first half of 2016, higher than the national average of .82 and ranking 39th out of all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Through the first six months of 2016, California was home to the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in the nation.

California’s strategy for lowering pedestrian deaths is moving forward, according to Ziese, will involve cities identifying areas with high rates of pedestrian-involved accidents and working to increase awareness and enforcement of traffic and pedestrian laws. City engineers throughout the state continue work to create commuting spaces amenable and safe for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

Substance abuse is also a factor. In 2015’s pedestrian fatalities, 34 percent of the walkers and 15 percent of the drivers had a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or higher.

Ziese cautions that the exact numbers for 2016 pedestrian deaths won’t be available for another few months and that California’s final tally could be higher than the GHSO survey’s projections. Macek says last year’s survey findings were within one percentage point of 2015’s final tally.

“Whenever folks are out on the highways and byways it’s important to really stay tuned to their safety and the safety of others,” says Ziese.


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