top of page

Pedestrian Safety: Illuminating a Simple Solution

The Wall Street Journal headline on February 28th, 2019 was certainly sobering: “Pedestrian Deaths Highest Since 1990”. For the first time in nearly two decades, pedestrian deaths are on the rise.

At more than 6200 in the U.S. in 2018, pedestrian deaths exceed those by drowning and motorcycle accidents; exceed deaths by food borne illness in the US; and exceed deaths by tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough combined. They even exceed the combined deaths in home fires, boating accidents, and commercial airline accidents each year. If pedestrian deaths were a disease, drug companies would be searching for a cure. If we looked at it like other accidental causes, we would require something similar to smoke detectors, helmets, or life jackets. But, so far, it’s just a problem without a policy for mitigation.

With pedestrian deaths up, non-fatal injuries have increased as well. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated non-fatal pedestrian injuries in 2015 at 70,000. Extrapolating from the 15% lower death totals for 2015 that would put the estimate for 2018’s nonfatal injuries at about 80,000. They are also trending up. And the cost of these deaths and injuries to society are even more astounding.

Various government agencies have established the average value of human life (including both tangible factors such as forgone wages and intangible factors such as losing a loved one). In 2011, those values ranged from the EPA’s $9 million per person to the Department of Transportation’s $6 million per person. So, according to those two agencies, the average value of of human life in 2011 was about $7.5 million. If we increase that by inflation (conservatively at 2% each year for seven years), we get a 2018 value of human life at $8.6 million.

The cost of injuries also has a range of estimates. In 2012, the National Safety Council estimated the cost of an incapacitating injury at $230,000 and a non-incapacitating injury at $58,700. Pedestrian accidents involving automobiles tend to cause serious injury. Brain trauma and traumatic bodily injury are common. There are no available statistics for exact percentage of incapacitating versus non-incapacitating, so we’ll venture a guess that 1/3 of such accidents are incapacitating. Averaging the two costs and applying the same 2% inflation rate for the past 6 yrs. we get an average cost per injury of about $130,400.

Applying these costs to the 2018 pedestrian accident estimates gives us a total cost of pedestrian accidents of $63.8 billion; over $60,000,000,000 (that’s billion) of losses to our families and societies. Surely there’s something we can do about losses of that magnitude.

The Wall Street Journal article of February 28 highlighted the likely causes of the recent increase. Distracted driving and an increased number of larger vehicles (such as SUV’s) were the two factors mentioned. Distracted driving is a problem that everyone is aware of, but despite regulation, it shows no sign of abating. Smartphones are ubiquitous among younger drivers and their tendency to use them while driving is well-documented. In a 2017 survey by the Center for Disease Control, 44% of high school students surveyed reported use of a cellphone while driving. This behavior is already illegal in 47 states, but the laws have had little impact to date; a recent AAA study shows distracted driving is on the rise.

Distracted driving is always a problem, but it is a particularly dangerous problem at night. The National Safety Council found that drivers are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash at night. Studies have also found that distracted drivers’ reaction time is double that of attentive drivers. The vast majority – 75% according to some studies – of pedestrian accidents occur at night. The bottom line is clear. With distracted driving on the rise, the recent increase in pedestrian deaths and accidents will almost certainly continue for the foreseeable future.

Since laws do not seem to be slowing this trend, pedestrians need to take more responsibility than ever for their own safely. The CDC has a list of safety precautions that pedestrians should use and at the top of that list is carrying a flashlight while walking. The efficacy of that advice is easy to see: a flashlight makes a pedestrian easy to see.

A driver who is distracted for even two seconds at 35 miles per hour will travel about 100 feet. A high-quality flash light with a visible range of, say, three hundred feet (about 100 meters) would allow a driver to see a pedestrian before the driver is distracted. A $34.99 Maglite Outdoor Pack for example has a beam that’s visible for 145 meters. That’s a small price to pay to get the attention of a potentially distracted driver at night.

If each of the pedestrian accident victims in 2018 had been carrying that Maglite and it saved just 1% of the cost of these accidents – turned a fatality into an injury or stopped an accident altogether – the flashlights could have saved $640 million. That’s an incredible return on a $34.99 per person investment.

bottom of page