What’s behind Virginia’s increasing pedestrian death toll and how to reverse the trend

What’s behind Virginia’s increasing pedestrian death toll and how to reverse the trend
A pedestrian crosses Broad Street in Richmond. (Source: Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

On Thursday evening, friends and family were at the intersection of Jahnke and German School roads on Richmond’s Southside to mourn the loss of 16-year-old Aajah Rosemond, who was killed by a driver while walking to the store.

According to police, a collision with a GMC Yukon sent a roughly 6,000 pound Nissan Titan spiraling up and onto the sidewalk, fatally striking the teenager. The evening news tells such tales with disturbing regularity, a product of Virginia’s rapidly rising pedestrian death rate. However, what’s behind the spike and how to fix it are questions without simple answers.

A terrible trend

Over the past half-century, Virginia and the rest of the country have generally enjoyed a steady decline in traffic deaths. While fatalities have reached record lows for drivers, starting 10 years ago, however, that trend began to reverse for people outside of a vehicle. “During the 10-year period from 2009 to 2018, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 53 percent (from 4,109 deaths in 2009 to 6,283 deaths in 2018),” stated a recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. “By comparison, the combined number of all other traffic deaths increased by 2 percent.”

According to Mark Cole, a highway safety engineer with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, pedestrian deaths truly began to shoot up in the state four years ago. “Prior to 2016 Virginia was seeing about 80-100 pedestrian deaths per year. Then in 2016, we saw a big jump to over 120,” he said. In 2018, there were 123 pedestrian fatalities, an increase of nearly 8 percent from the year before, according to the DMV.

Last year, 126 pedestrians and 13 bicyclists were killed on Virginia’s roads, the nonprofit Drive Smart Virginia reported. Nationwide, the number of people killed while walking hit a  30-year high and roads have only gotten more dangerous as some driving during the pandemic took empty streets as a chance to speed. Although some initially blamed the proliferation of smartphones, the past decade of data has shown the roots of the rising fatalities run far deeper.

Bigger, deadlier vehicles

One of the most obvious answers behind the jump in pedestrian deaths is the types of vehicles hitting people. “It is hard to overemphasize just how suddenly and completely [SUV] crossovers have come to dominate the auto market in recent years,” wrote Angie Schmitt, a planning consultant with 3MPH, in her recent book: Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. “When the economy was still recovering from a recession, in 2012, 83 percent of vehicles sold in the United States were sedans.”

As wages rose and gas prices dropped, however, Americans increasingly began purchasing SUVs and heavy-duty trucks. “Now almost no sedans are being sold, and the whole market is trucks and SUVs,” she said in an interview. “That means cars are getting bigger, taller and deadlier.”

From his work mapping and analyzing crash data with VDOT, Cole agrees with the diagnosis: “The vehicle fleet has been changing over time with SUVs and trucks becoming the greater proportion of the fleet that’s on the road. We’ve seen an increased number of those types of vehicles involved in crashes too. SUVs and pickups which have a higher center of gravity and higher weight result in more serious crashes.”

When drivers in a sedan run into someone, that person is more likely to fly up onto the hood, an occurrence with a far higher survival rate than when someone is run over. With many SUV and truck grills now reaching as high as five feet, it’s nearly impossible for pedestrians not to be pushed under the vehicle. The data bear this out: “One hundred percent of pedestrians in SUV collisions at speeds of 40 mph or greater died, versus 54 percent who were struck by cars.”

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