Pedestrian and Bicyclist Fatalities Reach Twenty-Year Highs in 2018

Pedestrian and Bicyclist Fatalities Reach Twenty-Year Highs in 2018

October 25, 2019  | Romic Aevaz

Earlier this week, NHTSA released updated statistics on traffic fatalities in 2018, along with an accompanying report highlighting key takeaways. Total fatalities decreased for the second year in a row, down 2.4% from 2017. Other positive news includes a decline in fatalities among children under 14 by 10.3%, alcohol-related fatalities by 3.6%, speeding-related fatalities by 5.7%, and motorcyclist fatalities by 4.7%. The overall fatality rate (measured by 100 million vehicle miles traveled) is at its lowest point since 2014, dropping 3.4% (1.17 to 1.13). However, while vehicle-related deaths have dropped, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have soared to their highest point in over two decades by 3.4% and 6.3%, respectively.

Table 1: Traffic Fatalities by Mode over Time
Mode 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Driver 24,254 21,835 21,072 20,815 21,490 20,943 20,788 22,350 23,715 23,757 22,925
Occupant 7,849 7,160 6,817 6,325 6,513 6,232 6,113 6,578 6,898 6,599 6,281
Pedestrian 4,414 4,109 4,302 4,457 4,818 4,779 4,910 5,494 6,080 6,075 6,283
Cyclist 718 628 623 682 734 749 729 829 853 806 857
Other 188 151 185 200 227 190 204 233 260 236 214
Total 37,423 33,883 32,999 32,479 33,782 32,893 32,744 35,484 37,806 37,473 36,560
Source: NHTSA highway crash fatality data, 2018

Data suggest larger vehicles are at least part of the increase in non-occupant fatalities

Table 2: Traffic Fatalities by Vehicle Type over Time
Vehicle Type 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 Difference Change
Passenger Car 17,895 19,810 21,077 21,273 20,333 -940 -4.40%
Pickup 7,924 8,776 8,715 8,707 8,652 -55 -0.60%
SUV 7,015 7,732 8,570 8,963 8,927 -36 -0.40%
Van 2,112 2,190 2,405 2,218 2,081 -137 -6.20%
Other Light Truck 109 171 230 127 115 -12 -9.40%
Large Truck 3,749 4,075 4,562 4,804 4,862 58 1.20%
Motorcycle 4,705 5,131 5,467 5,385 5,115 -270 -5.00%
Bus 236 263 234 234 234 0 0.00%
Other/Unknown 1,205 1,330 1,454 1,417 1,553 136 9.60%
Source: NHTSA highway crash fatality data, 2018

As automakers incorporate more safety features into new vehicles (and as more Americans opt for larger vehicles that better shield occupants in crashes, but are more likely to harm pedestrians and cyclists), the number of non-occupant fatalities have continued to surpass occupant fatalities by an increasingly large margin since 2015. In 2018, the number of pedestrian deaths alone surpassed vehicle occupant deaths for the first time in at least a decade. While traffic fatalities have decreased from 2017 to 2018 for nearly all vehicle types, the decrease has been the smallest for pickup trucks and SUVs (-0.6% and -0.4%, respectively) compared to passenger cars (-4.4%).

Table 3: Fatal Crashes Involving Pedestrians by Vehicle Type over Time
Vehicle Type 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 Difference Change
Passenger Car 2,367 2,696 2,912 2,970 3,119 149 5.00%
Light Truck – Pickup 950 1,002 1,055 1,121 1,117 -4 -0.40%
Light Truck – Utility 939 1,053 1,268 1,355 1,337 -18 -1.30%
Light Truck – Van 371 354 397 322 338 16 5.00%
Light Truck – Other 36 30 50 26 31 5 19.20%
Large Truck 321 370 416 409 471 62 15.20%
Motorcycle 37 45 58 46 55 9 19.60%
Bus 79 78 55 42 54 12 28.60%
Other 437 550 588 579 667 88 15.20%
Source: NHTSA highway crash fatality data, 2018
Table 4: Fatal Crashes Involving Cyclists by Vehicle Type over Time
Vehicle Type 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 Difference Change
Passenger Car 311 374 358 337 355 18 5.30%
Light Truck – Pickup 132 182 167 148 177 29 19.60%
Light Truck – Utility 132 142 142 155 169 14 9.00%
Light Truck – Van 64 52 48 51 49 -2 -3.90%
Light Truck – Other 2 5 5 1 5 4 400.00%
Large Truck 61 55 98 78 76 -2 -2.60%
Motorcycle 6 10 8 9 11 2 22.20%
Bus 14 9 12 11 7 -4 -36.40%
Other 48 46 69 60 75 15 25.00%
Source: NHTSA highway crash fatality data, 2018

The data for pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities paints a mixed picture. From 2017 to 2018, there has been a slight dip in fatal crashes involving pedestrians caused by pickup trucks and SUVs, and a large increase in crashes (149) caused by other passenger vehicles, a 5% increase. Other fatality increases involve large commercial trucks, vans, and buses.

On the other hand, there is a more notable increase in fatal crashes involving cyclists that were caused by pickup trucks (nearly 19.6% increase), SUVs (9% increase), and passenger cars (5.3% increase). While these data indicate that at least some of the increase in bicyclist fatalities can be attributed to a rise in fatal accidents involving larger vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks, more data and analysis of individual crashes are needed to get a better understanding of the relationship between vehicle size and fatality rates.

 Better data and crash reporting processes needed to identify exact causes of crashes

In addition to vehicle size, accident reporting is another area ripe for future analysis and better data collection. The fatal accident database relies upon police reports of fatal crashes to determine accident causes. While the data collected can be fairly straightforward in describing the cause, fault, and manner of vehicular crashes (whether the crash was head-on, rear-end, at an angle, or a sideswipe), it can be harder to identify exact causes of ped-bike fatalities.

Table 5: Top 5 Accident Causes – Pedestrian Fatalities
Accident Cause Share Of Fatalities
Crossing roadway – vehicle not turning 38.60%
Walking/running along roadway 12.90%
Other – insufficient detail 11.20%
Unusual circumstances 10.60%
Dash/dart out 6.70%
Source: NHTSA highway crash fatality data, 2018
Table 6: Top 5 Accident Causes – Bicyclist Fatalities
Accident Cause Share Of Fatalities
Motorist overtaking bicyclist 30.00%
Bicyclist failed to yield – midblock 8.20%
Crossing paths – other circumstances 7.70%
Bicyclist failed to yield – signal intersection 7.50%
Other – insufficient detail 7.00%
Source: NHTSA highway crash fatality data, 2018

Pedestrian and bicyclist crashes are grouped into one of several broad groups of accident types. The most common cause of pedestrian fatalities are instances where a pedestrian is struck by a non-turning vehicle while crossing the road (38.6% of fatalities), while the second most common cause involves pedestrians running or walking along a roadway (12.9% of fatalities). On the other hand, the cause of nearly 23% of fatalities are deemed an unusual circumstance or unclassified due to insufficient information. Even among accidents with identified causes, it can be difficult to identify specific factors – like a distracted driver, poor road design – that contributed to a crash without analyzing individual police reports.

The data collected for bicyclist fatalities offer some more clarity on accident causes, with nearly 30% of fatal crashes causes classified as motorists overtaking a cyclist, and 15.7% of cases classified as bicyclists failing to yield. While there is a much smaller share of bicycle fatalities where a cause cannot be determined, better data collection during accident reporting and further analysis of these crashes would help policymakers more accurately identify the role of driver behavior, vehicle size, and street design in ped-bike fatalities and target the most appropriate solutions.

 Pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities are up in half of the top 15 cities, and down in the other half.

Table 6: Pedestrian Fatality Rates – Top 15 MSAs
Name 2017 Fatalities 2018 Fatalities Fatality Difference Fatality Rate 2017* Fatality Rate 2018* Rate Difference
Atlanta 180 160 -20 0.44 0.39 -0.05
Boston 46 64 18 0.08 0.11 0.03
Chicago 131 147 16 0.14 0.16 0.02
Dallas-Fort Worth 172 159 -13 0.4 0.37 -0.03
Detroit 87 79 -8 0.31 0.28 -0.03
Houston 159 144 -15 0.45 0.41 -0.04
Los Angeles 348 307 -41 0.28 0.25 -0.03
Miami-Fort Lauderdale 184 266 82 0.72 1.05 0.32
New York City 319 335 16 0.08 0.08 0
Philadelphia 129 136 7 0.24 0.25 0.01
Phoenix 170 150 -20 0.39 0.35 -0.05
San Diego 80 98 18 0.26 0.32 0.06
San Francisco 87 60 -27 0.11 0.08 -0.04
Seattle 53 54 1 0.23 0.23 0
Washington, DC 87 104 17 0.12 0.15 0.02
*Fatalities per 100 million Miles Traveled by Walking (2017 National Household Travel Survey)
Source: NHTSA highway crash fatality data, 2018
Table 7: Bicyclist Fatality Rates – Top 15 MSAs
Name 2017 Fatalities 2018 Fatalities Fatality Difference Fatality Rate 2017* Fatality Rate 2018* Rate Difference
Atlanta 6 12 6 0.14 0.27 0.14
Boston 5 2 -3 0.03 0.01 -0.02
Chicago 16 19 3 0.08 0.09 0.01
Dallas-Fort Worth 8 16 8 0.11 0.22 0.11
Detroit 4 7 3 0.08 0.15 0.06
Houston 22 20 -2 0.18 0.16 -0.02
Los Angeles 51 47 -4 0.23 0.21 -0.02
Miami-Fort Lauderdale 30 55 25 0.13 0.24 0.11
New York City 53 29 -24 0.06 0.03 -0.03
Philadelphia 7 12 5 0.08 0.14 0.06
Phoenix 23 10 -13 0.11 0.05 -0.06
San Diego 3 7 4 0.03 0.08 0.04
San Francisco 7 14 7 0.03 0.05 0.03
Seattle 7 10 3 0.05 0.07 0.02
Washington, DC 6 6 0 0.04 0.04 0
*Fatalities per 100 million Miles Traveled by Biking (2017 National Household Travel Survey)
Source: NHTSA highway crash fatality data, 2018

Changes in pedestrian and bicycle fatality rates vary significantly by city. Among the top 15 metro areas by population, 7 experienced decreases in pedestrian fatalities and 6 had decreases in bicyclist fatalities, while 8 saw increases pedestrian fatalities and 9 saw increases bicyclist fatalities. The most pronounced increases in pedestrian fatalities were in Miami, Boston, San Diego, DC, Chicago, and New York City while the most noticeable decreases were in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta, and Houston. In cities like Miami, San Diego, and Boston, the increase in pedestrian deaths corresponded to a similarly noticeable increase in the fatality rate, while the fatality rate in cities like New York City remained unchanged despite a large increase in fatalities.

The most noticeable increases in bicyclist fatalities occurred in Miami (+25), Dallas (+8), and San Francisco (+7) while New York and Phoenix saw the most noticeable drops (-24 and -13, respectively). Despite having a smaller increase in fatalities than Miami, Atlanta (+6) experienced the highest increase in bicyclist fatality rates, followed closely by Dallas and Miami, where fatality rates similarly doubled in the past year.

Going Forward

The continued increase in pedestrian and bicyclist deaths despite safer vehicular travel remains deeply troubling. While a handful of cities have made progress in reducing their ped-bike fatality rates, just as many are experiencing the opposite. The growing popularity of larger vehicles like SUVs may be playing a role in these fatality trends, though other factors like poor roadway design and driver behavior are also a large part of the discussion. The lack of more precise data on ped-bike crashes makes it difficult to identify the exact role of driver behavior, vehicle size, and road design in the rising pedestrian and bicyclist death toll.

National organizations like the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and Smart Growth America have published design guidelines and other policy resources to encourage local officials to adopt street design elements that make roads safer for all users, including pedestrians and bicyclists. These elements include protected bike lanes, better sidewalks and crosswalks, and traffic signal prioritization for pedestrians and bicyclists that some cities, like New York, are currently adopting.

At the local level, a growing number of major cities are beginning to incorporate some of these guidelines by adopting Vision Zero plans that lay out a range of policy targets to move toward a goal of zero traffic fatalities. However, despite the ambitious fatality reduction goals set by many major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, D.C., pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have ticked up in many of these cities despite going down in others. In both instances, researchers and policymakers need better data to monitor the progress of various traffic safety initiatives, identify why some cities are succeeding in reducing fatalities while others are not, and better understand the root cause of these crashes to tailor policy to the solutions that have the most promise.

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