Almost everyone will be a pedestrian at some point in their lives. And while it's not the most risky activity to engage in, pedestrian deaths have steadily increased across the country in recent years.
With six pedestrian fatalities just this year in Chattanooga, that is more than the total for almost each of the past five years. With the exception of 2015, which saw eight pedestrian deaths, 2013-2017 saw an average of three deaths.
The number of nonfatal crashes involving pedestrians has stayed relatively steady during the same amount of time.
Those numbers are in line with the national trend, which shows pedestrians now account for approximately 16 percent of all motor vehicle deaths, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. That's a 5 percent increase over the past few years.
Pedestrian involved crashes and fatalities
Tennessee saw a gradual increase from 67 fatalities in 2013 to 97 in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Georgia also saw an increase from 167 in 2013 to 232 in 2016, and the same happened in Alabama, jumping from 77 to 111 over the same five years.
In fact, a person was more likely to die as a pedestrian than by drowning in 2016, according to the National Safety Council.
In Chattanooga, three pedestrians have been killed just in the past two weeks in separate incidents, two of which happened over a two-day period.
On July 7, a woman was killed while crossing Shallowford Road near Hamilton Place mall. Police have not yet identified her, but said she was crossing the road in low light at 6:44 a.m. when she was hit by a driver who was going through an intersection on a green light.
The week before on July 30, Donald Rackley, 62, was found on the side of the road by a passing motorist who alerted police. Rackley was pronounced dead by Hamilton County Emergency Services at the scene.
And the day before that, Jeffery Randall Harris, 51, was found out of view in a grassy median in the 300 block of Highway 153 southbound.
There are a variety of factors that could lead to a pedestrian being hit, said Chattanooga police traffic unit Sgt. Justin Kilgore, including drunken and distracted driving.
"We also have had our occasions where the pedestrians themselves have been intoxicated," Kilgore said.
But it's difficult to pinpoint a reason for the gradual uptick in fatalities, said Chris Cherry, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He teaches design for biking and pedestrian lanes and researches effective safety investments.
"There's a lot of people trying to crack this puzzle, and unfortunately, there's not enough data to definitively identify a smoking gun," he said.
A lot of fingers are pointing to distracted driving, he said. Smartphone usage has increased 236 percent in the U.S. from 2010 to 2016, according to the GHSA.
But it's difficult to prove someone was distracted, Cherry said.
"It's easier to give them a breathalyzer test and say they were drunk than to figure out if they were engaged [with] their phone, whether it's texting or navigation or reading the news," he said.
Regardless, distraction isn't the fundamental factor, he said.
"We just have an inherently unsafe transportation infrastructure, and distracted driving kind of exacerbates that," he said, as he watched a person dash across Southerland Avenue in Knoxville.
"Why are they dashing through traffic? Because they don't have crosswalks, and if they wanted to cross at a signalized crosswalk, they'd have to walk half a mile," he said.
Historically, roadway design has been centered around car mobility, Cherry said. It wasn't until 1990s that a design book for pedestrian walkways was created.
"Just think of all that infrastructure that Chattanooga has that's been built before the '90s, and all of that was built without any guidance [for safe pedestrian walkways]," he said. "And all of those highways were built before we really knew the relationship between speed and fatalities."
The surest way to ensure safety of all people on the roadway is to have good design, reducing speed limits and determining how to enforce the penalty for texting while driving, Cherry said.
In the meantime, police are working to raise awareness on how to be a safe pedestrian and a better driver by spreading the word on social media and local news, as well as visiting children in schools.
"I myself have talked to little kids in class and [asked], 'Do mommy and daddy text and drive?' 'Yeah!' 'Well, you've got to step up and say, 'Mom or dad, that's not safe. That's my life that's in this car, too. Can you help protect us?'" Kilgore said.
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