Our Door County community and the wider Wisconsin state have experienced a sobering surge in pedestrian fatalities, with a distressing 50% increase from 2021 to 2022, according to fresh data shared in a new report last week.
This report, issued by the Governors Highway Safety Association, paints a grim national picture with 7,508 pedestrian lives lost to traffic accidents in 2022 – the highest figure since 1981. Here in Wisconsin, we’re mourning the loss of 75 of our own neighbors and community members in just the past year, a shocking increase of 25 from the previous year.
The report lays the blame on several factors, including dangerous driving habits, inadequate road infrastructure, and the trend towards larger, heavier vehicles, which contribute to an appalling average of 20 pedestrian deaths every day across the country.
Wisconsin’s own David Pabst, the head of transportation safety at our state Department of Transportation, has sounded the alarm on this disturbing trend. He urges us to reflect on the sheer human toll, saying, “Just imagine if one of your loved ones was taken away, just because they were trying to cross the street.”
According to Pabst, the surge in deaths can be attributed to reckless and aggressive driving, speeding, and inattention. “When folks are hurrying or not paying attention … they’re not able to react in time and it’s our pedestrians who suffer the consequences,” he pointed out.
Pabst also noted a troubling uptick in reckless driving since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, based on studies showing more drivers engaging in risky behavior. He warns that this isn’t just an issue in our larger cities, but it’s a statewide and nationwide problem.
He advocates for a cultural shift in Wisconsin to emphasize pedestrian safety. “If we can instill in people the understanding that pedestrians have the right of way at intersections and that drivers must yield, it could make a significant difference in saving lives,” Pabst added.
Our very own Professor Robert Schneider from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an expert in urban planning and traffic safety, has expressed his concerns about these alarming statistics.
“Even as we grapple with the national trend, a 50 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities here at home is a grave issue,” Schneider said. He believes major roadways are particularly perilous for pedestrians due to higher speeds and increased lanes to cross.
As many Wisconsinites adjust their living and working locations, Schneider theorized, “Pedestrian volumes may have actually increased on these corridors.”
Schneider also points to the rise in cell phone use and the prevalence of video dashboards in cars as contributing factors to accidents, making the roads more dangerous for pedestrians.
The Governors Highway Safety Association report also revealed a worrying trend: over the past decade, pedestrian deaths involving SUVs have soared by 120%, and those involving passenger cars have increased by 26%. “The larger and heavier the vehicle, the lower the chances a person on foot will survive a crash,” the report warned.
Even Milwaukee, our state’s largest city, isn’t immune, with an increase in pedestrian fatalities from an average of 11 per year between 2008 to 2012 to 17 per year from 2018 to 2022, marking a 56% rise. A 2022 study from Milwaukee law firm Mingo and Yankala highlighted that five of the state’s nine deadliest roads are in Milwaukee.
Schneider suggests roadway design improvements, such as making roads more narrow and reducing pedestrian crossing distances, as possible solutions. He also recommends reducing speed limits. “Speed plays a critical role in traffic safety risk, so managing speed through our system design is crucial,” Schneider emphasized.
Pabst concurred, urging drivers to ease off the accelerator and to be more aware. “Speeding is a serious issue. The faster you go, the less time you have to react. We all need to take it down a notch,” he implored.
But Pabst also emphasized that pedestrians have a role to play in their own safety. He advised crossing the street at well-lit areas and using marked intersections. He also urged anyone involved in an accident to stay in their vehicle until help arrives.
“If you’re ever stranded or broken-down, it’s safer to remain in your vehicle and call for help, especially on the interstate,” he advised.
In the face of these troubling statistics, let’s remember that we all have a role to play in keeping our Door County streets and our wider Wisconsin community safe. Whether we’re behind the wheel or on foot, let’s stay aware, stay safe, and look out for each other.