SALT LAKE CITY — As the national rates for auto-pedestrian deaths continue to climb, Utah has seen a decrease in the last year, according to a new report issued by the Governor's Highway Safety Association.
However, Utah's pedestrian deaths still account for 15 percent of all Utah road fatalities, even though they only make up about 1.5 percent of total traffic crashes, according to Utah Department of Public Safety.
That disparity is a problem, said Marques Varela, vulnerable roadway users program manager with the department.
In 2019 alone there have already been five pedestrian deaths, which represents 23 percent of this year's road fatalities.
According to Varela, the highest number of pedestrian deaths in the state was in 2015 at 49. Since then it is has decreased, down to 39 in 2016, followed by a minor spike to 43 in 2017, and back down to 39 in 2018.
The study projects there was a total of 6,227 pedestrian deaths nationwide in 2018, an estimated 4 percent increase from 2017. That would be the largest annual number of pedestrian fatalities since 1990.
The report is intended to provide an estimate based on preliminary numbers, since getting the finalized totals can take up to 10 months after the year ends, according to Richard Retting, author of the report. In past reports, the accuracy of the numbers was within 1 percent of the final numbers, he noted.
It also found that pedestrian fatalities increased by 35 percent from 2008 to 2017. Meanwhile, the combined number of all other traffic deaths declined by 6 percent.
Retting said he finds the upward trend startling.
"As a nation we've experienced a total reversal in what was a very positive trend. For over 30 years pedestrian fatalities were dropping starting around 1979," he said. "We don't have exact answers to the why, but we have some good guesses of some of the underlying factors."
A few of those underlying factors, he noted, include distracted and intoxicated driving, higher speed limits and busier schedules.
"One of the No. 1 things drivers can do is pay attention," Retting said. "So that's something drivers can start doing today, right this minute."
Cellphones can also contribute to the problem, for both drivers and pedestrians.
"It's undeniable that distraction is very dangerous," Retting said. "Just looking away for two or three seconds can mean life or death."
Another potential factor could be the fact that driving fast is common, Retting said.
"Drivers are accustomed to going faster now," he explained. "Even when you raise the speed limit on the interstate, when people get off the interstate there's evidence showing that they continue to go faster on secondary roads. We're building a culture where speed is a becoming more problematic for drivers, and that translates into pedestrians being more susceptible."
Increasing speed by 5 or 10 mph won't get anyone to their destination any faster and could kill someone, Retting said.
The market for SUVs has increased in recent years, Retting said, and the report found that pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs increased at a faster rate than smaller cars.
"Although passenger cars are the largest category of vehicles involved in fatal pedestrian crashes, the number of pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs increased at a faster rate — 50 percent – from 2013 to 2017 compared to passenger cars, which increased by 30 percent," the report found.
Due to its large build, SUVs can be more dangerous and have a higher likelihood of killing pedestrians, even when someone is hit at a low speed, Retting said.
Varela said Utah is putting a lot of effort into making roads safer for pedestrians and drivers.
"We're hitting it from an educational standpoint, an enforcement standpoint, and an engineering standpoint," Varela said.
One thing Utah has set the standard for, Retting said, is lowering the legal blood alcohol limit to .05, the lowest in the nation.
"Utah in some ways is a model for the rest of the country when it comes to ways to be proactive on traffic safety," he said. "The problem is, it's like pushing a boulder up a hill that no matter what you do, it's not enough. But Utah has done a lot right."
Some of those things Utah has done right, Varela pointed out, is creating a campaign to teach people about pedestrian myths.
Launched in December, the campaign is aimed at dispelling common myths about traffic laws, one of the most popular — that pedestrians always have the right of way.
On crosswalks, pedestrians have the right of way, but Varela explained that when walking on unmarked crosswalks or outside of one, they must yield to drivers.
Utah Department of Transportation has issued multiple studies about pedestrians and crosswalks, according to Robert Miles, director of traffic and safety.
For one study in the works, the department partnered with BYU to look at pedestrian walking speeds to see if times on crosswalks need to be extended. Data will be compared to national guidelines for crossing times and, if it's inadequate, UDOT will update systems.
Another study examines delaying traffic cycles by a few seconds to give pedestrians more time to cross, meaning all the stop lights would stay red for longer before the next cycle begins.
"So basically it's giving the pedestrians a three- to five-second head start," Varela explained. "To kind of establish themselves out in the crosswalk before the traffic is allowed to go."
UDOT and DPS have also created a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan, designed to identify key issues facing pedestrians and address those problems.
"Our transportation system is more than just vehicles on the road, it's all the roadway users," Miles said. "It's the pedestrians … it's bikes, it's cars, it's cargo trucks, it's everybody. And we're trying to make sure that the system is as efficient … and safe for all modes of transportation as it can be."
One focus of the plan is enacting legislation, something that was accomplished in 2018.
A new law, which took effect in May 2018, removed the warning lights stipulation for school crosswalks, meaning if a person is on a crosswalk, the driver has to stop regardless of whether the person is on the driver's side of the road or not.
Varela said there are many locations where warning lights are not installed, previously meaning drivers only needed to stop for kids on their half of the road on narrow residential crosswalks.
As for pedestrians, staying alert is key.
"Crossing the street is a risky activity," Retting said. "The fact that 6,000 people a year go out for a walk and never return home is very troubling and dire."
While it is the driver's responsibility to pay attention, pedestrians need to look out for themselves as well.
"This is not about blaming the victim, but being mindful, particularly when it's dark, where drivers may not be able to see pedestrians as well," Retting said. "We don't want to make this the pedestrians responsiblity … but take actions that can save your lives."
Those actions are the things Retting said are age-old adages like wearing reflective clothing and looking both ways before crossing.
Another important thing to note is wearing bright-colored clothing does not make people more visible, according to Varela.
Pedestrians can also overestimate when a driver will see them by up to 50 percent, he said. Just because someone walking can see the driver doesn't mean the driver can necessarily see them, he emphasized. This problem is amplified at night, when more than 90 percent of pedestrian deaths occur, according to the report.
In April, when the weather is warmer, DPS will partner with several law enforcement agencies statewide to actively enforce crosswalk laws.1 comment on this story
A plainclothes officer will walk across crosswalks, and if drivers violate the law, police officers will be waiting a few blocks ahead to pull the offender over and discuss the violation, then decide if a citation or a warning is necessary.
Varela said this technique has been used in the past at areas where complaints have been reported. He emphasized the operation is not intended to set people up, but rather to focus a concerted effort to stop crosswalk violations.
"Make sure you understand the laws," he advised.