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In spite of 2020 being the year of COVID-19 with its associated lockdowns and reduction in human interaction, the rate of pedestrian deaths actually went up. How could this be? Data from the Governors Highway Safety Association for 2020 from its Fatality Analysis Reporting System bears it out. 

NHTSA saw the “largest-ever annual increase in the pedestrian deaths”

Pedestrians reflected in window
Pedestrians are mirrored in a shopping window | Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began analyzing fatality rates in 1975. Since then it saw the “largest-ever annual increase in the pedestrian death rate.” In all, there were 6,721 pedestrian deaths in 2020. That represents an almost five percent increase over 2019 according to the Detroit Free Press

Factored into the stats were vehicle miles traveled. These were 2.3 billion miles which represents a 21 percent increase. That number was low due to the COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns. This is considered preliminary data until the NHTSA finalizes the numbers. 

“We cannot allow ourselves to become numb to these unacceptable numbers”

pedestrians in shadows
Pedestrians cross the street at a busy intersection on the West Side of Manhattan | Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“The increase in pedestrian fatalities, especially against the backdrop of large, pandemic-related declines in motor vehicle travel, is especially concerning,” Richard Retting of Sam Schwartz Consulting, who conducted the data analysis, said in an announcement. “We cannot allow ourselves to become numb to these unacceptable numbers of pedestrian deaths.”

The increase is also a bit surprising because of the extra safety requirements mandated by the feds for vehicle front ends. One theory for why this is happening is because of is the proliferation of trucks and SUVs. It follows that pedestrian fatalities have increased as the size of vehicles has also increased. Speeding, impaired driving, and distraction are also factors increasing fatalities. 

Pedestrian deaths are a “public health emergency”

Pedestrians in San Francisco
Tourists and shoppers cross a busy intersection in Union Square, San Francisco, California | Robert Alexander/Getty Images

COVID-19 Surprisingly Just Made Some Cars Stay More Dangerous

“Last year was filled with so much death and loss as COVID swept across the country,” Jonathan Adkins, the association’s executive director, said in a news release. “As America gets vaccinated and returns to normal, we need to treat pedestrian safety like the public health emergency that it is. We must strengthen our efforts to protect those on foot from traffic violence. We can do this by implementing equitable and proven countermeasures that protect people walking and address those driving behaviors that pose the greatest risk.”

As bad as these numbers are, there was some good news. There were 19 states that saw decreases in pedestrian deaths. The states that saw the most reduction include Maine, Hawaii, Delaware, West Virginia, and Massachusetts. 

The states with the highest increases in pedestrian deaths included Kansas, Vermont, Rhode Island, Alaska, and South Dakota.