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Marijuana, Smartphones Cited in Pedestrian Death Spike

CARS.COM — The widespread availability of advanced safety features may mean driving and riding in a car is getting safer, but for those relying on their feet or a bike, the picture isn't as rosy. The Governors Highway Safety Association announced that nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed in vehicle crashes in the U.S. last year — unchanged from the previous year but the second year in a row the death toll has exceeded figures not seen in a quarter-century.

What's driving the trend? The agency is taking a closer look at two culprits: marijuana and smartphones.

Related: 2016 Traffic Fatalities: Here's What's Killing U.S. Motorists

According to GHSA, pedestrians account for approximately 16 percent of all motor vehicle deaths in 2016, up from 11 percent in 2007. The agency's annual "Spotlight on Highway Safety" report uses preliminary data provided by all 50 states and the District of Columbia to determine the fatality numbers, which totaled 2,636 pedestrians during the first six months of 2017. GHSA adjusted the raw data and, based on past trends,  estimates that there were 5,984 pedestrian fatalities in 2017, similar to the 5,987 pedestrians killed in 2016.

The report found that 23 states and D.C. had increases in pedestrian fatalities in 2017, 20 states had decreases and seven stayed the same. Five states (California, Florida, Texas, New York and Arizona) accounted for 43 percent of all pedestrian deaths; Arizona had the highest rate of pedestrian deaths per resident population, while Hawaii had the lowest.

Causation or Just Correlation?

GHSA cites two recent trends for the growth: an increase in smartphone use and the legalization of recreational marijuana in several states. It cautions, however, that the report did not find a definitive link between these factors and pedestrian deaths — but it does state that it is widely known that both impair attention and judgment behind the wheel and on foot.

GHSA says that the number of smartphones used in the U.S. increased 236 percent from 2010 to 2016, and along with it, related emergency room visits, according to National Electronic Injury Surveillance data. Equally alarming is the increased rate of pedestrian fatalities in states that legalized marijuana: According to the report, the seven states (Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington) and D.C. that legalized recreational marijuana use between 2012 and 2016 saw a collective 16.4 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities for the first half of 2017; all other states saw a combined 5.8 percent decrease.

"This preliminary 2017 data is the first opportunity to look at marijuana impairment as a possible contributing factor in pedestrian deaths, given the recent law changes. It's critical to use this early data to look for potential warning signs," report co-author Richard Retting said in a statement.

Addressing the Problem

How can states reverse the trend? The report suggests a combination of engineering, education and enforcement efforts, as well as policy changes that prioritize safety for all road users. It also recommends paying closer attention to two populations: children and older adults. The agency says these groups are especially vulnerable for various reasons, including a lack of perceptual judgment, inadequate risk perception, and limited pedestrian experience (for children) and limited mobility, reduced vision and frailty (for older adults).

"Two consecutive years of 6,000 pedestrian deaths is a red flag for all of us in the traffic safety community" GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins said in a statement. "These high levels are no longer a blip but unfortunately a sustained trend. We can't afford to let this be the new normal."

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