Philbrick: Distracted driving puts pedestrians at risk
A lone pedestrian crosses the intersection at Market and San Carlos streets in March 2021. File photo.

Reflective vests, painted crossing lines, bright orange flags and flashing signs—all aimed at protecting the safety of pedestrians across the nation. Speed limits—and speeding tickets—also help protect our most vulnerable commuters. Despite these critical safety protocols, the number of motor vehicle-related deaths remains staggering.

Such a tragedy struck recently in Lafayette, California when a crossing guard was hit and killed. Ashley Dias died saving students from an oncoming SUV near Stanley Middle School, the same school he used to attend as a child. This incident, and others like it, can help us understand the rippling impact of collisions and remind us of the need to be vigilant at all times behind the wheel.

Just recently, millions of children—armed with masks and some with vaccines—have returned to in-person schooling for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Many adults, too, are returning to more regular road use after a long hiatus. In light of these significant changes and a recent increase in pedestrian-vehicle incidents, a refresher in driver awareness could save lives.

The California Office of Traffic Safety offers some startling pedestrian safety data. Pedestrian deaths rose 26% between 2014 and 2018, and California’s pedestrian fatality rate is nearly 25% higher than the national average. Data shows that no state has more pedestrian deaths than California.

While pedestrian safety tips, such as wearing bright colors and walking only on the sidewalk, are helpful, individuals walking on the road can only do so much to protect themselves from an oncoming vehicle weighing multiple tons. The underlying deciding factor in many cases is driver awareness.

Now that cellphones also boast social media, music and countless other distractions, the percentage of drivers manipulating these handheld electronic devices has increased in recent years. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration explains that at any given time during the day, 5.3% of drivers on the road are using their phones. And data shows that texting drastically increases the likelihood of being in an accident. Despite many thinking a glance at a text is relatively harmless, the data shows otherwise. The administration counts 3,142 lives lost to distracted driving in 2019 alone.

Speeding is another pivotal factor in motor vehicle-related deaths. Speeding reduces the time a driver has to react to a dangerous situation and increases stopping distance. In 2019, speeding contributed to 26% of all traffic fatalities, killing an average of more than 25 people per day, according to the National Safety Council.

With these numbers in mind, it is essential for drivers to consider that each choice they make on the road—whether going even a little over the speed limit or taking just a glance at their phone—is putting lives at risk. With students back in school and Halloween fast approaching, children and their families will be out and about increasingly at all hours, and not just in school zones. Drivers need to be cautious to ensure that these kids, and everyone, can enjoy the holidays safely.

Thankfully, pedestrian fatalities are generally on the decline, and significant steps are being taken to eliminate roadway injuries and deaths. The Road to Zero Coalition, managed by the National Safety Council, released comprehensive guidance in 2018 to end roadway deaths by 2050. The guidance includes equitable implementation of roadway safety laws, policies and infrastructure improvements since communities of color are disproportionately impacted by motor vehicle crashes. Other points include lowering speed limits, upgrading seatbelt laws and adopting detailed pedestrian safety programs.

Still, with the winter holidays inching closer, drivers must reflect on the risks they are taking when it comes to human lives. The National Safety Council estimates that 485 people are likely to die on U.S. roads during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend alone and another 340 more on Christmas. It is critical to remember each of these statistics is a human life cut short. Hundreds of lives ended by often-avoidable tragedies on our roads and highways.

Ultimately, being an alert driver—without distraction or impairment—is the best way to reduce risk and keep pedestrians, passengers and other drivers safe.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

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