Avoiding the Crash: New research on fatality rates for cyclists and pedestrians in distracted driving crashes

By Jacqueline Jefferson, BS (’14), Temple University Department of Public Health

Today it seems impossible for drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road, with all the technology that is available to us, temptation is at its best. Somewhere along the road our eyes look down at a text message or our hands wander to program the GPS — both distract us from the task at hand: driving. There are laws being enacted all over the country to curb distracted driving (such as the one just recently passed in Maryland) but, there are other factors in this issue. The question also becomes about whether our roads and communities are protecting pedestrians and bicyclists — in other words, how are we protecting the people who do not have four sides of steel protecting them from injury?

Let’s take a closer look at the problem. A study published this week in Public Health Reports by PHLR grantee Fernando Wilson, PhD, examines victims of fatal distracted driving crashes and shows that fatality rates of motorist victims of distracted driving crashes are falling while fatalities of pedestrian and bicyclist distracted driving crashes substantially increased from 2005 to 2010.

The rates of pedestrian fatalities have significantly risen from 347 deaths in 2005 to 500 deaths in 2010, and from 56 deaths in 2005 to 73 deaths in 2010 for bicyclists. There could be a number of contributing factors, but one that is clear is the boom of smartphones. The statistical data is only represented until 2010; this unfortunately leaves us asking, “What has happened since then?” We know that since 2010 technology has only become more popular and more advanced, and social media has become available to us in the palm of our hand.

The Wilson study concludes that pedestrian victims of distractive driving crashes were frequently white females, older than 65 years and were physically disabled. They were struck during the day, on a road shoulder or marked crosswalk in non- metropolitan areas. Bicyclist victims were most likely struck in the morning, on a road shoulder and in a rural area as well. The author explains, “mixing motorized vehicles with pedestrian and bicycle traffic can be lethal, particularly if the community design does not fit with existing evidence-based standards.”

The solution to this problem could be relatively simple: build an environment that includes traffic and roadway features that can protect pedestrians.  The engineering does not have to be extremely methodical, even the simplest of ideas could work. Take Salt Lake City’s Pedestrian Safety Committee, which has been committed to increasing pedestrian safety, since August 2000, when the city incorporated an idea first seen in Ketchum, Idaho. A container of orange flags is placed at each end of the crosswalk and pedestrians are instructed to carry one with them while crossing. The flag is bright and very noticeable, making the pedestrian more visible when attempting to cross in front of traffic.

The Salt Lake City government shares on its website that many drivers have commented that the flags make the crosswalks more visible and easier to notice while approaching.  The crosswalk flags have also created an opportunity for public safety education. The demand for these crosswalk flags increased and so did the demand for maintaining them. In reaction to this problem, Adopt-A-Crosswalk Program was implemented in January 2001 in Salt Lake City. Sponsors maintain and monitor the flags to ensure they are available at both ends of the crosswalk and provide replacement flags as needed.  When flags are damaged or lost, the city will replace flags through sponsors at $.50 each. The crosswalk flags and the Adopt-A-Crosswalk Program are adaptive, low-cost solutions that seem to be fairly effective at improving safety.

According to an article from Desert News by Jasen Lee, a study from the University of Utah found that “81 percent of vehicles stopped to allow pedestrians to cross when they were holding the orange flags, compared to 20 percent of vehicles that stopped when orange flags were not used,” said Colin Quinn-Hurst, pedestrian and bicycle transportation planner for Salt Lake City.

Washington, D.C. has also applied the flag program to their crosswalks. The flag program made a significant impact on the number of people who stopped for pedestrians with flags while trying to cross: “Thirty percent of pedestrians used the flags in crossing, and the observed compliance rate was 92.5 percent for pedestrians with flags,” said Quinn-Hurst. Pedestrians without a flag were less likely to be as noticeable to a driver, resulting in “73 percent of drivers not yielding to pedestrians.” This idea is a Critical Opportunity — it is an opportunity for community government to get involved and solve a problem.

Wilson’s findings give way to increased awareness of the need for a safe environment for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as the continued need for more recent research.

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One thought on “Avoiding the Crash: New research on fatality rates for cyclists and pedestrians in distracted driving crashes

  1. Excellent article. This problem really does have to be addressed. Even though it is against the law, I see teenagers and adults texting while driving everyday, especially at intersections. Perhaps flags would work here too.

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