Killed while walking: Pedestrian death rate surged during pandemic

Despite cars driving less due to the pandemic, the number of people hit and killed by vehicles jumped dramatically in 2020 — the largest single-year increase in the pedestrian death rate, according the Governors Highway Safety Association.

“There was a 21% increase in the number of pedestrians killed per vehicle miles traveled,” said Adam Snider, GHSA communications director. “And that’s the largest increase since the government’s crash tracking system was established in 1975.”

The GHSA report — Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State — was released Thursday.

Nationally, the overall number of pedestrians killed is projected to increase to 6,721 in 2020 — up 4.8% from the year before, with cars and trucks being driven less during the pandemic.

“We saw during the pandemic a number of travel patterns changing,” Snider said.

With lockdowns to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many people took to walking, as a way to safely get exercise outdoors.

While federal numbers don’t quantify what appeared to be a sizable increase in the number of people walking, data does show cars and trucks were driving less during the pandemic.

“The Federal Highway Administration tracks Vehicle Miles Traveled — VMT. That dropped more than 13% in 2020 from 2019, at the same time fatality rates for pedestrians increased by 21%.”

Locally, pedestrian deaths increased in D.C. and Maryland in 2020, while they decreased in Virginia.

“The District of Columbia had four additional pedestrian fatalities — that’s a 44% increase. Maryland had 22 additional fatalities, an 18% increase. And Virginia had 10 fewer fatalities — an 8% decrease,” said Snider.

Snider said the GHSA, a nonprofit representing state highway safety offices that implement federal grant programs, believes the pandemic may have exacerbated unsafe driving behaviors, including speeding, distraction and impairment.

“Three out of four pedestrian fatalities happen at night,” said Snider. “Visibility is an important issue.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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