For the second year in a row, pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. have reached numbers not seen in 25 years, and experts suspect smartphone and marijuana use could be to blame for the deadly trend, according to a new report.
San Diego County was ranked as having the seventh-highest number of pedestrian deaths in 2016 when compared to the rest of the country, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) report released Wednesday.
The report uses preliminary data provided by the highway safety offices in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and estimates 5,984 pedestrians were killed in the U.S. in 2017 — a figure unchanged from 2016.
That figure represents a 27 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities from 2007 to 2016. Pedestrians now account for approximately 16 percent of all motor vehicle deaths, compared to 11 percent a decade ago, the GHSA reported.
"Two consecutive years of 6,000 pedestrian deaths is a red flag for all of us in the traffic safety community. These high levels are no longer a blip but unfortunately a sustained trend,” GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins said in a press release. "We can’t afford to let this be the new normal."
In the city of San Diego alone, there were 29 pedestrian deaths in 2015 and 42 deaths in 2016, a nearly 45 percent increase, according to federal data.
The San Diego Police Department (SDPD) said pedestrian fatalities each year for 2014, 2015, and 2016 remained consistent at 25. Fatalities declined to 17 in 2017. But in just the first two months of 2018, nine pedestrians have been killed on city streets, according to SDPD.
That number is more than one-half the total fatalities in 2017.
Though many factors can cause traffic deaths to rise, safety experts note two potential factors that may have contributed to the increase in fatalities: growth in smartphone use and state legalization of recreational marijuana.
Recreational marijuana use was not legal in the state of California until Jan. 1, 2018.
The report emphasized that while there is no confirmed or scientific link between the two recent trends and the spike in pedestrian deaths, “it is widely accepted both smartphones and marijuana can impair the attention and judgment necessary to navigate roadways safely behind the wheel and on foot.”
In the seven states, as well as the District of Columbia, that legalized marijuana for recreational use between 2012 and 2016, pedestrian deaths spiked 16.4 percent in the first half of 2017, according to the GHSA study. At the same time, all other states saw a combined decrease in deaths of 5.8 percent.
Smartphone usage, a significant source of distraction, regardless of travel mode, also increased by 236 percent between 2010 to 2016. Analysis of data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance database shows the number of cell-phone related emergency room visits in the U.S. has been increasing in parallel with the prevalence of cell phone use.
Another factor is populations rising in urban areas, where most pedestrian fatalities occur. The nation’s 10 most congested cities saw large increases in pedestrian fatalities compared to smaller ones.
According to the study, one-third of pedestrian fatalities occurred on city streets, with the second highest number of fatalities taking place on state highways.
Federal data found that about 75 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur at night, making improvements in street lighting critical, the study proposes.
In response, several cities have adopted “Vision Zero" strategies, pedestrian safety initiatives aimed at eliminating traffic deaths.