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Phones, Weed, and SUVs: What’s Behind a Recent Spike in Pedestrian Deaths

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As fellow New Yorkers, our team at Jacoby and Meyers knows firsthand how dangerous New York City streets can be. We hope this information will help keep you and others safe on the road. If you or a loved one were injured in a pedestrian accident, contact an experienced New York Pedestrian Accident Lawyer today.

Pedestrian deaths in the United States are as high as they’ve been in 30 years, and researchers have found that phones, the legalization of marijuana in some states, and an increase in SUVs on the road are to blame. Of these three causes, the most common is the use of smartphones, says a researcher from the Sam Schwartz Engineering Firm. “Drivers have gone way beyond just texting,” the researcher noted, “but have cellphones mounted on their windows and dashboards. They’re watching movies and baseball games.”

According to a recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Administration, pedestrian fatalities increased by 53 percent, rising from 12 percent of all traffic-related fatalities to and 17 percent in a recent 10-year period. The most recent year saw a 5 percent increase in the number of pedestrian deaths when compared to the year before, with approximately 6,590 pedestrian fatalities. Are phones, weed, and SUVs really the problem? Read on for more information.


Phones are a common distraction for drivers, resulting in more than a million car crashes each year. Driver distractions are anything that diverts the driver’s attention away from what is going on around them. Distractions can be manual, meaning they require the driver to take their hand off the wheel; visual, meaning they draw the driver’s eyes away from watching the road; or cognitive, meaning they draw the driver’s focus away from the task of driving.

The dangerous thing about smartphones, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explains, is that they create all three types of distraction at once. In fact, in the five seconds that it takes to read or reply to a text, a driver traveling at 55 miles per hour will have journeyed the length of a football field without looking at the road, paying attention to the traffic conditions around them, or holding the wheel with both hands.

Texting is not the only hazardous activity that drivers engage in using their cell phones. Talking on the phone can produce all three types of distractions as well, if the driver is not using a hands-free device such as a headset or a Bluetooth speaker. Drivers also commonly read email or browse social media on their phones while behind the wheel. The phone’s GPS program is another application that drivers frequently use.

Phones aren’t just a dangerous distraction for drivers. As noted by the National Safety Council, phones are distracting for pedestrians as well. Back in 1995, children ages five to nine were more likely to be the victims of pedestrian accidents than any other group under the age of 19. Now, however, teenagers are more likely to be hit by a car than younger children.

The reason? More teen pedestrians are walking while looking at their phones, making them at higher risk for walking into the street while traffic is coming or failing to see other hazards, such as bicyclists on the sidewalk or cars riding close to the edge of the road where they’re walking. Attentive walking is safe walking. A pedestrian can’t control drivers’ actions, but they can prevent many accidents simply by being alert and aware.


Does marijuana use increase the number of pedestrian deaths specifically, or traffic deaths in general? The studies are not completely clear. There are currently more than 30 states where medical marijuana is legal, and several states have now legalized marijuana for recreational use, as well.

A study in Colorado—which is one of the states where marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational uses—indicated that car accidents increased by 10 percent after the drug was legalized in the state. However, another study—involving Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, which are all marijuana-friendly states—found that while initial increases in traffic accidents were apparent, the accident rate fell back to normal levels within a short period of time.

One of the study’s co-authors, from the School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at Monash University in Australia, noted that the number of new and inexperienced users trying marijuana for the first time without understanding how it would affect their driving could have caused the temporary increase in the first six months after that state legalized recreational use.

A third study found a 6 percent increase in the number of crashes in states that legalized marijuana, although more research was needed to determine if marijuana caused the increased number of crashes.

Regardless of which side the studies fall on, as the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute said: “Impairment is impairment, whether it’s alcohol or marijuana or prescription drugs. Any of those can affect your ability to drive a motor vehicle. You shouldn’t be behind the wheel if you’re impaired by any substance.”

Research has provided a direct link between marijuana and impaired driving, finding that drivers with THC in their bloodstream were twice as likely than sober drivers to be culpable for a fatal crash. Analysis indicates that the risk of being involved in an accident was significantly increased after marijuana use, and in some cases it more than doubled.

Marijuana causes impairment to the following skills that are needed for safe driving:

  • Judgment;
  • Motor coordination; and
  • Reaction time.

Just as these skills are impaired in drivers who use marijuana, they are also impaired in pedestrians who use marijuana, increasing the risk that an impaired pedestrian will be struck by a motor vehicle.


In the U.S., 63 percent of passenger vehicle sales are Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), and the popularity of this vehicle type is shadowed by the risks that it poses to pedestrians. Crashes involving pedestrians and SUVs increased 81 percent between 2009 and 2016.

SUVs are dangerous to pedestrians because:

  • A front bumper is both high and flat, which increases the likelihood of severe torso, chest, and head injuries, depending on the height of the pedestrian in relation to the bumper.
  • Higher ground clearance than sedans or other more compact passenger vehicles increases the chances that a pedestrian, if struck, will slide beneath the vehicle.
  • SUV drivers have a false sense of security, which makes them feel like they’re safer inside a larger vehicle. This sense of security sometimes leads drivers to take bigger risks, including speeding.

British researchers noted that the size of a vehicle’s engine seems to correlate not with an increase in SUV-pedestrian accidents as much as with pedestrian deaths associated with SUV accidents. Researchers found that the car industry is slow to reveal crash data that might change drivers’ minds about wanting to own and drive a vehicle with a larger engine and bigger body. The hazards presented by this vehicle type to both pedestrians and the environment have led many in Europe and the United States to call on mayors to consider banning SUVs from urban streets.

Seven Other Reasons for Pedestrian Accidents

While the above listed three factors have received attention of late, there are many more reasons why pedestrian crashes occur, including:

  1. Nighttime driving: Even in the light of day, motorists often don’t think to look for pedestrians, instead focusing on other vehicles on the road. Visibility is an even greater issue for pedestrians at night, when a motorist might not see them even if they were looking for them.
  2. Speeding: Speeding is a major cause of all types of motor vehicle accidents. Higher speeds decrease the amount of time a driver has to detect a hazard in the roadway—such as a pedestrian—and respond by engaging the brakes. Speeding also increases the amount of distance a vehicle requires to come to a safe stop. The heavier the vehicle is, the more distance it requires to stop.
  3. Alcohol impairment: Like marijuana, alcohol impairs skills that a driver needs to operate their motor vehicle safely, and also impairs a pedestrian’s ability to follow traffic laws and safely walk along a roadway.
  4. Failure to yield the right-of-way: Motorists are required to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians when they are at or in a crosswalk. Additionally, they must yield the right-of-way when a school bus is stopped in front of them with its lights flashing and its stop arm deployed. Pedestrians who cross outside of a crosswalk are required to yield the right-of-way to oncoming traffic. Many pedestrian accidents occur when either a driver or the pedestrian fails to follow these traffic laws.
  5. Backing up: All vehicles have blind spots in front, in the rear, and along the sides of the vehicle. The larger the vehicle, the larger these blind spots are. While many newer model vehicles have backup cameras and warning systems that detect if the vehicle is about to strike an obstacle such as another vehicle or a pedestrian, older models do not. Many pedestrian accidents occur in a person’s own driveway as a driver backs up without ensuring that no one is behind them.
  6. Conditions on the roadway: Many urban areas lack safe intersections and marked crosswalks for pedestrians to use. When faced with walking many blocks to the nearest marked intersection, many pedestrians opt to make risky crossings through multiple traffic lanes.
  7. Traffic congestion: The increase seen in the purchase and ownership of SUVs—which are particularly dangerous to pedestrians by design—is not the only problem with traffic on city roadways. An overall increase in traffic also poses a problem, as it increases the risk of drivers not seeing pedestrians in the chaos and congestion. Traffic can block a driver’s view of a crosswalk, making them less likely to see a person crossing within it.

Avoiding Pedestrian Accidents

Can pedestrian accidents be avoided? Yes, and here are seven tips to keep pedestrians safer on your city streets:

  1. Avoid driving or walking if you are impaired by substances such as alcohol or marijuana, which can cloud your judgment and make the coordinated movements needed for safe driving or safe walking difficult.
  2. Avoid distractions such as cell phone use when driving or walking. Electronic devices cause drivers and walkers alike to be less aware of their surroundings and prime for an accident between a vehicle and a pedestrian.
  3. If you live in an area where there are a lot of pedestrians on the street, carefully consider the vehicle you choose. SUVs have higher bumpers that make it harder to see a pedestrian and increase the severity of the injuries a pedestrian will suffer in an accident.
  4. If you’re a pedestrian, wear bright clothing so that you are more readily seen by motorists. If you’re walking at night, wearing clothing that has reflective stripes can help increase your visibility.
  5. Before crossing a street, even in a crosswalk, pedestrians should attempt to make eye contact with approaching drivers. Eye contact, in many cases, ensures that the driver has seen you and is prepared to stop.
  6. Motorists must learn to look for pedestrians anywhere and be prepared to stop for them. Remember that in areas where small children are likely to be—such as near playgrounds and schools—the driver bears an additional responsibility to look out for pedestrians even outside of crosswalks.
  7. Motorists should not attempt to overtake a car that is stopped at a crosswalk or a bus that is stopped on the roadway. Passing in such places increases the risk of injury to pedestrians who may be crossing the road at these places.

If you or a loved one were injured in a pedestrian accident, you might have a case to pursue compensation and cover the expenses and life impacts associated with your injuries. Let an experienced pedestrian accident attorney help you understand the legal process of claiming this compensation and contact Jacoby & Meyers today.

Jacoby & Meyers, LLPPersonal Injury Law(877)-565-2993

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