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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 24, 2017

Iowa pedestrian deaths plummet to all-time low

By Erin Murphy, Lee Des Moines Bureau | Jun 26, 2017

DES MOINES — After spiking to a 20-year high in 2015, Iowa pedestrian deaths in 2016 fell to what likely is the lowest number on record, dating back more than half a century.

In Iowa, pedestrian deaths as a result of vehicle accidents have been trending downward since the late 1980s, according to data from the state Department of Transportatioin.

But that trend reversed in 2015, when there were 28 pedestrian deaths in the state, the most since 1995.

Then, while state officials worked to determine why pedestrian deaths rose in 2015 after years of decline, the number fell dramatically in 2016.

Nine pedestrian fatalities were recorded in 2016, according to the transportation department’s preliminary data. A department spokeswoman said the number is not expected to rise when the data is confirmed.

If that figure holds up, it will be the fewest pedestrian fatalities in Iowa in any year since the figure was first tracked in 1961.

The fluctuations in 2015 and 2016 have puzzled state traffic officials.

“We are really trying to get a grasp on 2016,” said Patrick Hoye, chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau. “I think we’re hoping 2015 was just a blip.”

Hoye said the 2016 data is particularly perplexing because it appears pedestrian deaths fell that year while every other form of traffic fatality — vehicle, bicycle and motorcycle — increased. There were more than 400 total traffic deaths in 2016, Hoye said.

“2016 was one of the worst (traffic) fatality years that Iowa had seen in a long time,” Hoye said. “So (the low number of pedestrian deaths) really is a contradictory stat because we saw everything else go up. ... I was surprised when I looked at the chart.”

Nationally, pedestrian fatalities have been on the rise in the past few years.

After many years of decline, pedestrian deaths increased 25 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to figures from the national Governors Highway Safety Association. And pedestrian deaths are becoming a larger percentage of overall traffic fatalities, from 11 percent in 2007 to 15 percent in 2015, according to the association.

If 2015 proves to be an exception and 2016 continues the overall trend in reduced pedestrian deaths, experts and officials said there are many reasons the number has fallen over time.

Officials said pedestrian safety can be enhanced by what they call the three Es: engineering, education and enforcement.

Engineering is perhaps the biggest contributor, Hoye said. He said flashing pedestrian lights at crosswalks and countdown clocks are among the innovations that have made crossing roadways safer, and such safeguards have improved and increased significantly in the past 20 years.

“Obviously, there’s been an increase in the technology,” Hoye said. “I think engineering has made better strides, and there’s been a little more public education on that.”

However, engineering also is partly responsible for the problem in the first place, said Kara Macek, with the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Macek said the nation’s roadways, especially in urban areas, were designed purely with vehicle traffic flow in mind and did not include enough pedestrian safety measures.

“We designed our way into a roadway system that prioritizes movement of cars over people,” Macek said. “We’ve inherently designed a dangerous roadway system. ...

“There have been steps taken to address this, but we need to look at how to design a system that will help to put it back into balance and make it safer for pedestrians.”

Because pedestrian fatalities still occur — and even though they appear to be falling in Iowa, they are increasing nationally — programs continue their work to reduce such deaths.

That starts with understanding the common causes of pedestrian deaths. Most fatalities occur when a pedestrian tries to cross the road away from an intersection, Hoye said. And officials said distraction — of both the pedestrian and vehicle driver — appears to be a common cause.

“We’re so tuned into our mobile devices that we fail to immediately recognize what’s going on around us,” Macek said. "And that’s a recipe for disaster on our roadways."

Macek and Hoye said education and enforcement can help reduce pedestrian fatalities. Macek said the association still encourages states to address pedestrian safety, and Hoye said the state public safety department, which houses the traffic safety bureau, plans to send a reminder to law enforcement agencies in urban areas where pedestrian deaths are more likely.

As an example, Hoye said his department partnered with Sioux City in 2015 to raise awareness about pedestrian deaths. In Sioux City, there were eight pedestrian deaths and 116 pedestrian injuries between 2009 and 2013, according to the department.

“If you’re not doing something, you probably should be doing at least something in the public awareness campaign,” Hoye said of urban areas.

Hoye and Macek said an increased focus on pedestrian safety from law enforcement also would help. They said a mere presence at dangerous intersections could help or ticketing drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians and pedestrians who cross busy roads outside crosswalks. But both conceded law enforcement agencies, for various reasons, may not prioritize pedestrian safety.

Steve Gent, with the state transportation department, said vehicle technology continues to improve and should lead to fewer pedestrian fatalities.

“The cars today, some of the new autonomous features will actually detect pedestrians and start to apply the brakes,” Gent said. “Longer term, safety is going to be on a good trend, we think, because of all these changes. But it takes a long time for the vehicle fleet to change. But I think we’re all excited about those things happening.”

Officials hope with better roadway design, more safety features and more attention paid to pedestrian safety, the spike in 2015 deaths will prove an outlier and the record low in 2016 will continue the downward trend.

“Last year was a good year, but not good for those people or those families,” Gent said.

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