Pedestrian deaths keep rising in North Carolina — with no easy explanation

The number of people killed in traffic crashes in North Carolina increased again last year, but one group who had it especially hard was not riding in a car or truck: pedestrians.

Last year, 228 pedestrians were killed in the state, up 13.4 percent from the previous year, according to a report released this month by the state Division of Motor Vehicles. Since bottoming out at 148 in 2009, the number of pedestrians killed each year in North Carolina has risen 54 percent, more than five times the rate of population growth during that time.

The numbers mirror a national trend. Pedestrian deaths nationwide topped 8,000 in 1980, then declined until they reached a little more than half that number, 4,109, in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s annual census of motor vehicle deaths.

Since then, the number of pedestrians killed on the nation’s streets and highways has risen again, to 5,977 in 2017, the most recent year available. This spring, the Governors Highway Safety Association estimated the 2018 total based on data from the first half of the year and came up with 6,227, which would be the highest in 28 years.

“The alarm bells continue to sound on this issue,” the group’s executive director, Jonathan Adkins, said in a statement. “It’s clear we need to fortify our collective efforts to protect pedestrians and reverse the trend.”

The increases defy a simple explanation. The Governors Highway Safety Association report cited several possible factors, including the increasing distractions caused by use of cellphones, by both pedestrians and drivers, and the growing prevalence of larger vehicles, such as SUVs, that make it more likely that a collision with a pedestrian will be fatal.

Another possible factor, says Mark Ezzell, director of the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program, is that as the message not to drink and drive has taken hold, more people are drinking and walking.

“People who are in fact impaired believe it is safer to walk than get behind the wheel of a car,” Ezzell said. “They want to do the right thing.”

Alcohol use by the pedestrian is suspected in about 30 percent of fatal pedestrian crashes, according to Christopher Oliver, a traffic safety specialist for the N.C. Department of Transportation. Oliver also noted that crash reports have increasingly cited other actions by pedestrians killed on the road that contributed to the collisions, including wearing dark clothing, lying or illegally being in the roadway and failing to yield the right of way to oncoming traffic.

Of the 228 pedestrians killed in crashes last year, 78 percent died at night, primarily between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m., Oliver said.

Drivers are ultimately responsible for crashes involving pedestrians, says Terry Lansdell, executive director of BikeWalk NC, an statewide advocacy group. Lansdell said drivers are increasingly distracted by cellphones, GPS systems and the flat-screen displays that now come standard in so many cars and trucks.

“The way they’re designed, it makes you take your eyes off the road,” he said.

Lansdell also said too many roads in urban and suburban areas are designed solely for cars and not for the people who walk or take public transit.

“It comes back to speed and understanding how we design our roads,” he said.

Not surprisingly, most pedestrian deaths occurred in urban counties, where more people are likely to be out on foot. But one county, Mecklenburg, had by far the highest number, with 37, more than twice as many as in Wake County, with 16.

Among the other findings from the DMV report:

Including pedestrians, 1,442 people died in motor vehicle collisions in 2018, up 3.3 percent over the year before, but almost the same number as in 2016.

The number of motorcyclists killed in crashes spiked nearly 21 percent in 2018, to 169 statewide. That number fluctuates from year to year, with a less defined pattern than with pedestrians. The same number of motorcyclists died in 2015 and in 2010.

Eighteen bicyclists were killed on the road last year. That’s down from 30 the year before but about average for the last decade or so.

About 28.5 percent of fatalities were the result of crashes that involved alcohol, which matches the five-year average. In cases where use of seat belts was recorded, 41 percent of drivers and passengers who died in crashes last year were not wearing one.

The history of crash deaths in North Carolina and nationwide has been one of dramatic improvement since the 1960s. The number of people killed in the state per 100 million miles driven has dropped from nearly 7 in the mid-1960s to 1.19 last year, according to DMV. Increased use of seat belts, graduated licensing programs for teen drivers and improvements in cars and trucks themselves, such as airbags, anti-lock brakes and better protection of occupants in a crash, have all helped make driving safer.

Other factors have helped drive down the number of pedestrian deaths, including construction of more sidewalks and crosswalks and perhaps a decline in people having to walk in unsafe areas. Some of those trends may have reversed with changes in demographics and the growing preference for walking, even in areas without “appropriate facilities,” Oliver said.

There are a number of efforts aimed at improving pedestrian safety, at the local and state level. They include Watch for Me NC, a statewide campaign that marries public safety messages and community engagement with targeted law enforcement efforts in dangerous areas.

A broader effort called Vision Zero aims to reduce traffic crashes of all kinds, through research and advocacy. One of the focus areas for Vision Zero is Robeson County, where 48 people died in crashes last year, including nine pedestrians, giving it the second highest rate of fatal crashes per registered vehicles in the state, after sparsely populated Graham County.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739,