New Projection: U.S. Pedestrian Fatalities Reach Highest Level in 40 Years

Growing death toll underscores the urgent need for a multi-layered approach to protect people on foot from dangerous driving

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Drivers struck and killed an estimated 7,485 people on foot in 2021 – the most pedestrian deaths in a single year in four decades and an average of 20 deaths every day, according to a new estimate released today by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). To provide additional context on pedestrian safety trends, the report also includes an analysis of 2020 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that reveals a shocking new statistic – the percentage of speeding-related pedestrian crashes involving children ages 15 and younger more than doubled in the previous three years.

Last month, GHSA offered a preview of state and national pedestrian traffic deaths for the first six months of 2021 based on preliminary data reported by the State Highway Safety Offices (SHSOs) in all 50 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.). The report warned that the number of pedestrian deaths increased significantly as speeding, impaired and distracted driving, and other dangerous driving behaviors proliferated. This new, comprehensive report, Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State: 2021 Preliminary Data, provides a detailed look at projected pedestrian fatalities for the full year using additional preliminary data provided by the SHSOs. The data analysis was conducted by Elizabeth Petraglia, Ph.D., of research firm Westat.

The new projection found that the 7,485 pedestrian deaths in 2021 was an increase of 12% from the previous year, resulting in 774 additional lives lost. Nationwide, there were 2.32 pedestrian deaths per billion vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2021, which is similar to 2020 but well above the pre-pandemic average of 1.9. The fatality rate per 100,000 people also increased, rising to 2.26 in 2021 from 2.02 the year before. Because 2020 was an unusual travel year with less driving, the analysis compares 2021 state-level data to both 2020 and 2019 to give a complete picture of the changes in each state.

“This is heartbreaking and unacceptable. The pandemic has caused so much death and damage, it’s frustrating to see even more lives needlessly taken due to dangerous driving,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “We must address the root causes of the pedestrian safety crisis – speeding and other dangerous driving behaviors, inadequate infrastructure, and roads designed for vehicle speed instead of safety – to reverse this trend and ensure people can walk safely.”

The GHSA report provides examples of successful state programs to keep people on foot safe and explains how the holistic Safe System approach can improve pedestrian safety. The report provides concrete ways that each of the five elements of a Safe System – safe people, safe roads, safe vehicles, safe speeds and post-crash care – can better protect people on foot and all road users. GHSA strongly supports the Safe System approach as a promising solution to the pedestrian safety crisis. Last December, the association published a report that discusses how SHSOs, their partners, and other traffic safety organizations and advocates can work together to implement the Safe System approach and help mitigate roadway deaths.

Pedestrian Safety Trends, 2010-2020

The GHSA report also examined recently released 2020 data from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System to provide insights on trends regarding when, where and how drivers strike and kill people on foot. Findings included:

  • In 2020, the percentage of pedestrian fatalities involving speeding rose to 8.6%, a notable increase from 7.2% the year before. Speed has a significant impact on pedestrian safety. The average risk of death for pedestrians increases exponentially the faster a vehicle is traveling, from 10% at 23 mph to 90% at 58 mph.

  • Since 2018, the percentage of pedestrian fatalities among children younger than 15 in which speeding was a factor has more than doubled, from 5.8% in 2018 to 11.9% in 2020. Most of these fatalities occurred on weekdays (64%) and during daylight hours (53%), which is when children would typically be transported to and from school and related activities. However, millions of children began remote learning in March 2020, raising a troubling question about the increase in speeding-related deaths: Were more children going outside during the day away from controlled environments like playgrounds and schools?

  • Pedestrians accounted for 17% of all traffic deaths in 2020, compared to 13% in 2010. While pedestrian deaths have risen by 54% over the past decade, all other traffic deaths have increased by 13%.

  • Pedestrian fatalities fell by 8% in America’s 10 largest cities in 2020 after years of increases. This is likely due to fewer people walking and driving in response to public health restrictions. For example, deaths in New York City fell dramatically in March, April, May and December of 2020, when such restrictions were in effect.

  • Drivers of passenger cars have consistently accounted for the greatest number of fatal pedestrian crashes. However, over the past decade the number of pedestrian deaths in crashes involving sport utility vehicles (SUVs) increased at a faster rate than deaths in crashes involving passenger cars – 36% versus 27%, respectively. Because of their greater body weight and larger profile, SUVs can cause more harm to a person on foot when a crash occurs.

  • Most pedestrian fatalities continue to occur at night, although nighttime deaths have accounted for an even larger share over the past few years. In 2020, more than 76% of deaths with a known lighting condition were at night. Since 2014, nighttime pedestrian deaths have risen by 41%, from 3,510 in 2014 to 4,951 in 2020.

  • The percentage of pedestrian fatalities where no sidewalk was noted on the crash report rose to 67% in 2020 from an average of 62% over the four preceding years. The presence of sidewalks can help protect people walking by separating them from vehicle traffic, but additional infrastructure design considerations, such as raised crosswalks and traffic calming that slows vehicle speeds, can provide even more protection.

  • Non-freeway arterial roads, which typically carry large volumes of traffic at high speeds, are the most dangerous for people on foot, accounting for 60% of all fatalities in 2020. Approximately 17% of pedestrian deaths were on freeways, suggesting the need for strong Move Over laws that require drivers to slow down and change lanes when approaching a stopped vehicle.

GHSA will bring together national and state leaders this September in Louisville, Kentucky, to discuss the increase in pedestrian and overall traffic deaths as well as how the Safe System approach can help protect people who are walking.

The complete report, including state-by-state pedestrian traffic fatality projections, is on the GHSA website.

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