OP-ED – Pedestrian and Cycling Fatalities: Our Next Epidemic?

Trinity College student Jillian Hegarty, 20, was struck and killed as she crossed New Britain Avenue at Henry Street in Hartford late Thursday night. Two fellow students were also struck and injured by the gray Volkswagen Touareg whose driver fled the scene. Police found the car the next day in New Haven and were trying to locate the driver.

This tragic accident follows the incident involving Jaylene Gonzalez, 14, of Enfield, who was struck last month by a car while walking along North Rd. in East Windsor. She later died at an area hospital.

The Numbers Tell the Tale

Last week’s fatality in Hartford was the fourth pedestrian death in that city this year, according to Hartford Police. The Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center, meanwhile, has recorded 16 pedestrian deaths on state roads in 2022 so far, a pace that could make this among the deadliest of years for pedestrians. Over the past decade, pedestrian fatalities statewide have more than doubled from 26 in 2011 to 65 in 2020.

As for the causes, alcohol continues to play a major factor. The number of all alcohol-related traffic fatalities in Connecticut in 2019 – not just those involving pedestrians – was 94, representing 38% of all traffic deaths. Even so, the state saw a 21% decrease in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities per 100,000 population between 2010 and 2019.

The latest culprit in traffic fatalities is distracted driving. The Department of Transportation reported the total number of traffic fatalities in the state due to distracted driving rose 15% from 10 in 2018 to 15 in 2019. In fact, the DOT estimates that as many as 5,000 overall accidents in 2020 were caused by distracted driving.

The driver who struck Jaylene Gonzalez, for example, “admitted he was texting while driving and didn’t see [her] walking on the side of the road,” according to Fox 61. Jesse Pincince, 37, of Ellington was subsequently charged with negligent homicide with a motor vehicle and second-degree manslaughter.

In a sad coincidence, the Connecticut Department of Transportation Highway Safety Office launched its “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” campaign last week as part of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The program is a partnership between statewide law enforcement officials and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration aimed at increasing the enforcement of distracted-driving laws.

The Next Epidemic

Pedestrian fatalities, in plain terms, could be our next epidemic. Last year, I penned my support for what would become Public Act No. 21-28, a law that, as of October, granted the right-of-way to pedestrians who “affirmatively indicate their intention to cross the road in a crosswalk.” In addition, the bill increased the fines for driving while distracted:

  • For first violation, the fine = $200 (previously $150)
  • For a second violation, the fine = $375 (previously $300)
  • For a third or subsequent violation, the fine = $625 (previously $500)

Based on the still-increasing pedestrian fatalities, one could question the law’s effectiveness. But the problem is not unique to Connecticut.

“Crashes killed more than 6,700 pedestrians in 2020, up about 5 percent from the estimated 6,412 the year before, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association,” reported The New York Times. “Based on another commonly used road safety metric – vehicle miles traveled – the group projected that the pedestrian fatality rate spiked about 21 percent in 2020 as deaths climbed sharply even though people drove much less that year, the largest ever year-over-year increase. And preliminary data from 2021 indicates yet another increase in the number of pedestrian deaths.”

The COVID Effect

As any statistician, scientist, or high school English teacher would tell you, “Correlation is not causation.” Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the increase in pedestrian fatalities coincides with the onset of COVID-19. A recent Atlantic article, “Why People Are Acting So Weird,” explores this phenomenon.

“The pandemic has created a lot of ‘high-stress, low-reward situations,” said Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford, “and now everyone is teetering slightly closer to their breaking point.”

“The data we have shows that drinking is definitely up since the start of the pandemic – around a 14% increase in the number of drinking days per month,” adds Dr. Sarah Wakeman of Massachusetts General Hospital.

If nothing else, the pandemic has been a major distraction in everyone’s lives, perhaps making the already distracted drivers all the more distracted.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Certainly, the public needs to learn more about the pressing issue of pedestrian and bicycle safety, a major goal of Watch for Me CT, a collaborative effort of the Connecticut Department of Transportation and Connecticut Children’s Injury Prevention Center. The initiatives include public service messages and community engagement initiatives.

In addition, organizations at the community level such as the Safe Streets Coalition of New Haven are joining national campaigns to effect policy changes. Safe Streets has joined the Vision Zero Network, a program that “brings together local leaders in health, traffic engineering, police enforcement, policy and advocacy to develop and share strategies, policies and practices.”

Likewise, the Durham Complete Streets Action Group is working with the DOT to add new signage and update pavement markings in that town – actions that help, but hardly solve, the problem.

“Our roads really have been designed for cars and trucks, not designed for pedestrians and cyclists,” said Leslie Boulion, who chairs the Durham group. “There [are] a lot of distracted drivers. We see that increasing and increasing.”

What’s needed, then, is a more intensive focus on distracted driving, including the collection of data on the effects of texting as well as alcohol. That data, in fact, is already being collected across the country, including research that has found cell-phone use while driving can be just as dangerous as drinking.

“One statistical analysis of the new and previous Utah studies showed cell phone users were 5.36 times more likely to get in an accident than undistracted drivers,” reported the University of Utah. “Other studies have shown the risk is about the same as for drivers with a 0.08 blood-alcohol level.”

Policymakers should take serious stock of such research and use it to fashion proactive strategies such as identifying high-risk intersections, building a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly infrastructure, and intensifying public education for distracted driving, to name but a few ideas.

In the meantime, the most effective measure is individual vigilance. In short, every  pedestrian and every cyclist must approach every roadway as if their life depends on it because, as we know all too well, it does.

Go Back