ST. GEORGE — While pedestrian safety is a shared responsibility between the motorist and the person on foot, the number of walkers killed continues its upward trend — as evidenced by several recent incidents in St. George and Mesquite, Nevada.

File photo shows emergency personnel responding to a fatal crash involving a pedestrian who was struck and killed near the intersection of Bluff Street and 500 North in St. George, Utah, Nov. 1, 2023 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Siblings in St. George died within 48 hours of each other Nov. 1 and 3 at the same intersection on Bluff Street. A 69-year-old man was killed Nov. 15 by a driver in a roundabout in Mesquite. And in September, a young girl in St. George suffered head trauma when she was struck and dragged by a vehicle after a soccer ball bounced in front of a driver.

St. George News sat down with Tiffany Mitchell, public information officer for the St. George Police Department, to discuss the sequence of events and actions that can lead up to such incidents and to provide some effective solutions to address the problem.

Pedestrian deaths continue to rise 

The number of pedestrians killed by vehicles in the United States has surged over the last several years with fatalities increasing at a faster rate than any other traffic-related death, according to a report recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Stock image | Photo by Roibu/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News .

In 2021, nearly 7,390 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes nationwide, which is an average of 20 pedestrians a day or 142 pedestrians a week. On average, a pedestrian was killed every 71 minutes and injured every nine minutes in traffic crashes during that year alone. 

Moreover, the study found that the death rate for male pedestrians was more than double that of their female counterparts. Nearly half of all pedestrian deaths from vehicle incidents involved an impaired driver.

Additionally, nearly 80% of the deaths occurred at night, and nearly one out of every four pedestrians killed were struck by hit-and-run drivers. 

The two fatal auto-pedestrian crashes reported 48 hours apart at the beginning of November took place at night, and while the first incident did not involve an impaired driver, the second incident reported on Nov. 3 ended in a DUI arrest.

“The first driver in the pickup truck cooperated with officers and no impairment was found at the time of the incident,” Mitchell said. “But the second driver was impaired and she was arrested following the crash.”

There are also instances in which a driver can be caught off guard, even when they are being cautious, meaning there are situations where the motorist encounters the unexpected and is unable to avoid a collision with a pedestrian. Such was the case Sept. 25, when a bouncing ball caught the driver by surprise, and following close behind was a 7-year-old who was struck and seriously injured.

“There is also the emotional impact these types of incidents have on the motorist as well, even when they have done nothing wrong,” she added.

Pedestrians and logistics 

The losses associated with these incidents are not isolated to this region. In fact, the traffic safety report indicates that pedestrians are one of the most vulnerable roadway user groups, and Mitchell said even when they are using safe walking practices, “pedestrians are at the mercy of the drivers they share the roadways with.” 

This is largely due to logistics — a walker is at greater risk of injury or death because they are at their most vulnerable when crossing a roadway with traffic going by. The motorist is protected by numerous safety features as well as the body of the vehicle, while the pedestrian has no such safety mechanism, Mitchell said.

Distractions are a shared liability 

Distracted driving has become a dangerous epidemic on U.S. roadways, particularly for pedestrians. And while walking and exercise have a multitude of health benefits, sharing the roadway with motorists can be dangerous.

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Driving requires a significant amount of a person’s attention, but many drivers tend to “zone out” while driving as they become more and more comfortable behind the wheel. Mitchell said this can create a false sense of security that can lead motorists to believe they can multitask while driving.

This is simply not true, as it diverts more and more attention to things that take their minds and eyes off the road, which can have fatal consequences, she said.

Many researchers agree that distractions are largely to blame for the record number of pedestrian deaths. This might entail a manual distraction, which is anything that causes a driver to take one or both hands off of the wheel, such as eating, drinking or looking for objects in a purse or wallet.

There are also visual distractions that can take a driver’s eyes off the road, such as searching for spilled or dropped items on the floor of the car or reading the directions on a GPS screen.

Cognitive distractions such as anything that causes a driver to concentrate on a non-driving task. Cars have become increasingly more automated, with built-in features that make it more comfortable for drivers and passengers to reach their destinations. Some features may do more harm than good due to taking a driver’s attention off the road — particularly if they involve interfacing with a driver’s smartphone.

The same holds true for pedestrians, whose own smartphones are taking their attention away from road hazards, and anyone who engages in this practice is  “distracted walking.” This could cause them to step in front of a car without the right-of-way, trip or fall over potholes or fail to hear oncoming traffic while crossing mid-block.

So while cell phones are only one form of distraction, they are arguably the most dangerous hazard for both drivers and pedestrians — hands down, Mitchell said.

“Regardless of whether you are walking or driving, always practice safe cell phone use by putting your phone away until you get to your destination,” Mitchell said.

Crosswalks and being seen 

Mitchell said motorists always are required to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. At the same time, anyone crossing the street should be doing so using a crosswalk whenever possible, or cross at the street corner using traffic signals. If there is no sidewalk, then walking facing traffic as far to the left as possible will make it easier for the motorist to see a pedestrian.

U.S. Department of Transportation research supports this. The mortality rate is four times higher for pedestrians hit somewhere other than an intersection since cars typically travel at slower speeds when going through an intersection, which increases a pedestrian’s chances of survival.

Conversely, the number of auto versus pedestrian collisions is much higher in intersections, but the risk of death drops significantly.

Mitchell also said pedestrians should wear bright clothing, or if walking at night wear something with reflective strips to enhance visibility. Another way to ensure that both parties are on task is to make eye contact to indicate that you see them and ensure they see you.

Speed matters 

Speeding is a major contributor to vehicle crashes in general and is an important factor when examining pedestrian-vehicle crashes. While driving a few miles over the speed limit might not feel like a big deal, when it comes to a collision with a pedestrian, it can be the difference between life and death.

Stock image | Photo by Images Plus, St. George News

Speed influences these crashes in two distinct ways. The first is that speed increases the risk of a collision since faster vehicle speeds make it more difficult for drivers to see pedestrians. At the same time, the higher the speed reduces the amount of time the driver and pedestrian have to avoid a crash.

As the speed increases, so does the braking distance. At the same time the reaction time drops, which means the possibility of avoiding a collision is smaller. 

Second, the faster the vehicle speed the more severe the injury to the pedestrian.

For example, at a collision speed of 12 mph, nearly all pedestrians survive a crash with a passenger car, and about 90% survive at a speed of 24 mph. The survival rate drops to 50% at 49 mph, and at 60 mph, 90% of those struck will not survive, according to a report by the Institute of Road Safety Research.  

Since pedestrians don’t have an “iron cage’ around them that can absorb some of the energy released in a collision, their chance of survival drops enormously as the car’s speed increases. 

Both components and shared responsibility

Much of this is common sense, Mitchell said, and motorists need to be watchful for pedestrians and bicyclists, drive at slower speeds, avoid distraction and know the laws regarding when pedestrians have the right-of-way.

For pedestrians, it means keeping their heads up and their phones down and not just when crossing the street. Wearing bright clothing and obeying traffic laws will also reduce the risk of being struck by a car.

Mitchell also said that distractions come at a cost, and one is the loss of the ability to maintain situational awareness. Losing focus on one’s surroundings is putting everyone’s safety at risk.

“Keep your head on a swivel so you can see any hazards early, which will give you time to react,” Mitchell said. “Regardless of whether you are on foot or in a car.”

This report is based on statements from police, emergency personnel or other responders and may not contain the full scope of findings.

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