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Are Smartphones to Blame for Pedestrian Death Toll?

CARS.COM — It’s a bad time to be bipedal. Pedestrian traffic deaths are spiking by percentages not seen in recorded history, and safety advocates are blaming, in part, the thing you’re quite likely reading this on right now: your smartphone.

Related: Video: The Dangers of Distracted Driving

Inattention by smartphone users while walking on the street and while driving is, of course, just one of the contributing factors to an alarming 11 percent increase in pedestrian deaths calculated to have occurred in 2016 compared with 2015. Last year’s figures haven’t been finalized, but the Governors Highway Safety Association today projected the double-digit increase, which it called the steepest year-over-year upswing since record keeping began.

“As economic conditions improve and gas prices remain low, the U.S. has seen an increase in motor vehicle miles traveled,” GHSA said in a statement. “At the same time, a growing number of Americans are choosing to travel by foot for health, transportation, economic or environmental reasons.

“Another potential factor is a sharp rise in the use of smartphones to send and receive multimedia messages, a frequent source of mental and visual distraction for driver.”

So there really is a sort of perfect storm of situations — economic conditions, lifestyle and behavioral trends, technology — all converging, at the peril of pedestrians. But lest you write it off as a temporary blip, bear in mind not only the unprecedented size of the death-toll spike in both number and percentage, but also the trajectory.

Here are some of the scary stats:

  • States reported nearly 2,700 pedestrian fatalities in the first six months of 2016 compared with fewer than 2,500 in the same period a year earlier, for an 11 percent increase.
  • Compared with 2014, last year represented an increase of a whopping 22 percent.
  • More than twice as many states (34) reported an uptick in pedestrian deaths in the first half of 2016 than those reporting decreases (15 plus the District of Columbia), while just one saw no change: Maine.
  • Pedestrians now account for 15 percent of all car-related fatalities.

GHSA’s dire forecast comes amid a succession of setbacks in traffic safety. Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that through the first nine months of 2016, nearly 28,000 people were killed in traffic incidents overall, an 8 percent spike over the previous year and following a more than 7 percent increase the year before that.

In hopes of curbing the problem, GHSA is urging government bodies across the U.S. to adopt strategies, including:

  • High-visibility enforcement and public information campaigns targeting both pedestrians and motorists
  • Identifying high-risk zones and conducting educational outreach in these areas
  • Enacting policies that ensure streets are safe for all users, irrespective of mode of transportation
  • Undertaking safety-minded infrastructure improvements