Updated: Dec 24, 2019
A Fatal Pedestrian Crash in Vermont
One dark night last December, a driver struck a man out walking his dog in Burlington. The dog recovered, but his owner died at the scene.
Most of us assume that this was a case of drunk or distracted driving. But the driver, a 27-year old man from Winooski, was neither. The police report confirmed that he was sober and driving below the speed limit.
So what was the cause of the accident?
It turns out that the answer is complicated: The man was crossing at night, wearing dark clothing, and crossing without a crosswalk. Perhaps he was distracted by his dog. At any rate, visibility was poor. So, do we blame the pedestrian? The determination is not that clear cut. The curious case of rising pedestrian injuries is a larger issue that plagues the state of Vermont and the country as a whole.
Pedestrian Deaths at Highest Levels in Decades
A recent report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) found that the number of pedestrian deaths occurring in the United States has reached a nearly thirty-year high.
Over 6,200 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicle accidents last year alone - never mind all the serious injuries caused by non-fatal crashes. As a country, we must find ways to reverse this trend. But to do so, we must first understand the causes of vehicle-pedestrian crashes.
Are cellphones to blame?
An obvious possibility is the rise in cellphone use over the same time period, particularly smartphones and texting while driving. While the GHSA report does not claim a direct cause-and-effect relationship, it does conclude that the increased use of smartphones by both drivers and pedestrians causes both to be distracted. This theory is supported by another study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, which found that states with bans on texting while driving saw reductions in crash-related emergency room visits.
Factors Leading to Pedestrian Deaths in Car Accidents
Of course, other factors contribute to these alarming statistics: driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol and speeding. Drunk driving alone causes about one third of traffic fatalities in the United States each year. Pedestrians are the victims in many of these crashes, and Rutland has had some high-profile deaths from drunk-driving in recent years.
But other causes are not so obvious. The GHSA study found that larger cars cause more serious pedestrian incidents. As more and more SUVs have come on the road over the past decade, pedestrians that do get hit are in danger of more serious, or even fatal, injuries.
Sadly, while SUVs - and automobiles in general - are getting safer for drivers and passengers, the growing size of these vehicles makes impact with a human body that much more deadly. Add to this the facts that there are simply more cars on the road now than thirty years ago, as well as more pedestrians, and it's not hard to understand why pedestrian accidents have risen.
The Road to Safer Roads
There is no single factor that explains the recent rise of pedestrian accidents. But we do have enough data to take action on reversing this trend. Texting-while-driving bans have been effective in the states that have enacted them. Drunk driving related incidents could be reduced with harsher punishments in some states, and better enforcement in others.
Perhaps the most interesting (and oft overlooked) thing to look at is how to deal with and plan for the safety of both drivers and walkers. Many suburban areas simply aren’t designed to accommodate pedestrians. Improving the "walkability" of these areas, as well as the neglected areas of some cities, is paramount to keeping roads safe.
Throughout the country - but why not start with Vermont - we should make it a priority to to clearly distinguish pedestrian space from vehicle space, while making it obvious to each whose space belongs to who, and when. It can’t be proven for certain, but had such measures been in place, the Burlington incident might never have occurred. In fact, in the aftermath of that event, many criticized the city for delaying their planned installation of crosswalks along North Avenue. One such crosswalk was proposed to be located within steps of the crash scene. If present, that crosswalk could very well have been all that was needed to save the victim’s life.
Some Ways to Stay Safe While Driving
Be alert while driving at night. Notice how difficult it is to see pedestrians in the dark!
Wear bright or reflective colors while walking at night.
Don’t look at your phone while driving. Just don’t!
Be very careful looking at your phone while walking, too. It’s easy to miss signals or a curb while distracted.
Don’t assume drivers can see you while walking.
Crosswalks are there for a reason. They’ve been located in the safest places to cross streets. Use them!
Why This Matters In Rutland, Vermont
As illustrated by the Burlington case, even our state’s most urban areas may not be fully accommodating to pedestrians. While Vermont had only 0.37 pedestrian deaths per hundred thousand people in 2018, well below the U.S. average of 0.88, the state had one of the highest rates in the nation just two years ago. Here in Rutland County, we were one of just four counties in the state to have a pedestrian fatality that year according to National Highway Traffic Safety Association data. While there are many factors at play, and roadway upgrades are certainly important in Vermont, it is ultimately our responsibility as both pedestrians and drivers, to make safe, responsible decisions on the road.
What Should I Do If I Am Involved In a Pedestrian Incident?
The law holds us responsible for acting reasonably. “Reasonably” means taking precautions to keep ourselves and other people safe. If a driver doesn’t take precautions, or isn’t paying attention, and injures or kills another person, that driver needs to do whatever can be done to fix the harm.
If you find yourself on either end of a pedestrian incident, we can offer our expertise as a Rutland law firm that has handled many pedestrian cases in the past. We are committed to helping anyone in the Vermont community affected by a pedestrian incident find justice and compensation.