Distraction: A leading cause of pedestrian deaths and injuries

Local (Utah/State News)

May 14th began as a normal day for Kendall Riley. She and a friend were walking back to their school in Lehi after coming home for lunch.

Seeing only one car at a safe distance from them, they entered the crosswalk. However, the car was going faster than the speed limit, and Kendall never made it across.

“I just heard my friend call my name and then blacked out as I got hit,” she said. “I just remember sliding on the ground, and I remember just lying there…”

During the crash, Kendall’s chin, hands, and knees were scraped on the asphalt. She sustained some bruises and still has several scars from the incident. She gets rides to school from a friend because the memory of being hit in the crosswalk is still too fresh.

The driver who hit Kendall was distracted when he received a call on his Bluetooth. By the time he looked back at the road, it was too late to avoid her.

In addition to physical repercussions, Kendall also experienced psychological effects from the crash. According to her parents, she did not want to drive at all immediately following the crash. Though she is driving again, the experience is different.

“…when I’m driving, I have PTSD, so small things freak me out really easily,” she said. “I’m super cautious now when I drive.”

Kendall’s mother, Tiffany Riley, said that Kendall has been keeping a journal which documents the pain she has felt following the accident.

“…she’ll say, “My hip has been hurting today or my knees are really hurting, and my back is starting to hurt.” So, we’re still not sure what the long-term effects are yet,” Tiffany said.

Knowing firsthand the dangers of distracted driving, Kendall said she now puts down her phone and will not check it at all while driving.

“Everyone always says ‘don’t text and drive’, and I think that’s really important,” she said. “No one really takes that seriously, but it is a very serious problem that some people have. You think nothing will happen and you’re not going to hit anyone, but he (the driver) probably didn’t think he was going to hit anyone, but he did.”

Rob Riley, Kendall’s father, says that the first five minutes after hearing that his daughter had been hit by a car, were the worst of his life.

I remember thinking the worst,” he said. “You don’t know how bad it is. At least for me, my mind tends to go to the darkest place. I’m thinking, have I just lost my girl?… It was horrible.”

According to Rob, if factors were slightly different, Kendall may not be alive today.

“The difference in her being here or her having been critically injured or killed could be nominal, could be another mile an hour,” he said. “Kendall could have been a little bit taller or shorter and it could have been a drastically different result, so the difference in her getting hurt or killed could be razor-thin… you can’t take it lightly. You just don’t know. Driving wise, people have to be more careful.”

According to the Utah Department of Transportation, auto-pedestrian accidents crashes involving a vehicle and people, have killed 22 pedestrians on Utah roads in 2019. Distraction often plays a large role in these crashes.

Many of these fatalities could have been prevented, says Tiffany Riley.

“It’s definitely made us more aware,” she said. “I notice people now on their phones all the time. Their heads are down, going right through the school zone, going through intersections… If they did kill somebody, that would devastate them just as much as the family who lost a loved one. That would change their life forever.”

According to Tiffany, at least three other people have been hit at the same crosswalk. She believes placing large flashing lights might make pedestrians more visible to drivers, especially considering the accessibility and prevalence of technology.

“We live in a time now where all this technology at your fingertips…it’s so accessible now that I think it also presents a challenge.”

Statistics

The number of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities on Utah streets over the last six years, according to the Zero Fatalities website, are presented in the following table.

Though the number of pedestrians killed in auto-pedestrian crashes has fluctuated over the past six years, there is a clear time of day when pedestrians are more likely to be involved in a crash.

Most Dangerous Time for Pedestrians

From 2014 through August 22, 2019 (when we received this data), there have been 599 auto-pedestrian crashes in Salt Lake City. More than one-third of these crashes occurred between 6 p.m. and midnight, according to data collected by UDOT. In addition, more fatalities occurred from auto-pedestrian accidents from 6 p.m. to midnight than in any other 6-hour span throughout the day.

According to Zero Fatalities, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. marks the most dangerous time for pedestrians. National data also reflects a similar trend, except to a higher extent. According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, about 75 percent of pedestrian fatalities in the United States in 2017 occurred after dark, with 21 percent occurring during daylight hours and 4 percent at dawn or dusk.

The report also shows that the percentage of pedestrian fatalities to occur after dark is on the rise.

Intersections with the highest number of auto-pedestrian crashes

Though it is difficult to pinpoint the most dangerous intersections for pedestrians, Salt Lake City Transportation’s website has an interactive map which shows the location of every auto-pedestrian accident in the city from 2008 to 2018. The map includes not only the location of each crash but the date and level of severity of each crash.

The map shows a high concentration of crashes on 200 South between 400 and 500 West. 400 South also appears to have a high amount of auto-pedestrian crashes, with 21 crashes since 2008, two of which resulted in fatalities.

UDOT determined 700 East to be the route with the most severe auto-pedestrian crashes in Salt Lake City, with 2.6 severe crashes per mile. This rate is well above that of any other street in Salt Lake City.

Auto-Bicyclist Crashes

Every time Robert Cooper combs his hair, he can feel the large dent in the side of his skull, a constant reminder of the accident he hoped ultimately would not play a large role in his life.

“My skull’s kind of like a shattered pot that’s been put back together,” he said.

Cooper was biking home one night with a friend when a car hit him from behind. He was thrown over the hood and roof of the car before falling off the back into the road.

Beyond that, Cooper says all he can remember is waking up in the hospital three weeks later from an induced coma. Upon waking, he needed to attend rehab and relearn how to swallow.

However, Cooper said he was determined to return to normal life fairly quickly. He pushed himself and was able to leave rehab within a week rather than the expected three. Still, the experience changed his life in ways that he has only begun to really realize within the past few years.

“The whole experience itself will always sit in my mind; it’s never going to go away,” Cooper said. “I don’t really want to say it will haunt you, but in a sense it kind of does.”

Before the accident, Cooper says he was very active and loved adrenaline, a sensation he often got from biking. He now has to be careful, as any head trauma could be life-threatening.

“I try not to let the accident affect my desires to still do things, especially biking, because I don’t want to be riding down the street and constantly thinking: is a car coming behind me? But at the same time, I have to. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder…”

The accident was also traumatic for Cooper’s friend, who witnessed him being hit by the car.

“He’s told me that he can’t even do things on the street or on the sidewalk or even going through crosswalks where cars are crossing the street,” Cooper said. “It’s always just kind of nerve-wracking because it brings back those images of me tumbling over a car in front of him…”

When Cooper enters a crosswalk, he is extra careful to watch for cars that are turning right as well as the cars that are turning left into the intersection. He offered the same message to both drivers and pedestrians.

“The biggest thing really is just awareness. Period… You really just have to be aware because you don’t know what the driver is going to do- a lot of the time drivers just aren’t paying attention.”

Kraden Allen was riding his bike to school when a truck hit the bike’s back wheel. Allen’s bike was totaled and though he initially didn’t believe he was injured, realized that he had broken a bone in his wrist.

This crash forced Allen to wear a cast twice and left him with expensive doctor bills. He also had to spend three hundred dollars on a new bike.

However, Allen said he is very lucky that he wasn’t badly injured. He said that the experience made him more wary of vehicles and offered the following advice to drivers:

“I would keep my eyes on bikes and motorcycles, especially because of how vulnerable they can be. Keep an eye on them,” he said. “If you forget them or miss them, it could be potentially life-ending.”

School Zone Crosswalk law

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Within the past year, Utah passed a law which requires that drivers yield to pedestrians who are in any part of a crosswalk in school zones. This differs from the past when drivers just had to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk on their half of the road.

Detective Greg Wilking, Public Information Officer at the Salt Lake City Police Department said he isn’t sure if people are generally aware of this law.

“If it’s in a school zone, everybody has to stop,” he said. “That’s one thing that’s going to be helpful.”

Avoiding Auto-Pedestrian Accidents

According to the Zero Fatalities website, pedestrians should do the following to stay safe:

  • Do not get out of your vehicle on the interstate. Instead, call 911 and for the non-emergency line for vehicle assistance.
  • Avoid wearing headphones or distracting headgear
  • Use lights, reflective gear or bright clothing
  • Make eye contact with drivers when turning
  • Obey traffic signs and signals
  • Cross in a marked crosswalk
  • Look both ways before crossing a street or driveway
  • Walk facing the direction of traffic

Detective Greg Wilking, Public Information Officer at the Salt Lake City Police Department, says there are many things that can be done to avoid these accidents.

“You’re driving an automobile that’s several thousand pounds; if it hits somebody, it can kill them.”

However, pedestrians need to be aware of their surroundings too, Wilking said. He said vehicles will always win in situations where there is impact. If pedestrians are in places where they are not expected to be or ignoring traffic signals, they are putting themselves at greater risk, he said.

“Unfortunately, people nowadays take the stance “Oh, it’s not going to happen to me” or “these laws don’t apply to me.”

But that’s exactly when these accidents happen, Wilking said. He stressed that auto-pedestrian accidents are avoidable.

“These accidents don’t have to happen. If everybody is acting responsibly and doing what they’re supposed to do, meaning that driver is operating the vehicle at a safe speed and a manner that is acceptable for our roads and they’re paying attention… and then the pedestrian paying attention and being where they’re supposed to be… there will be less of these tragedies.”

Wilking believes a possible solution to reducing auto-pedestrian accidents in Utah would be stricter laws around cell phone use while driving. According to Wilking, the current laws in place are difficult to enforce.

“If we actually enforced a zero-tolerance for phone usage in the car, that would make a huge difference,” Wilking said.

Robert Miles, Director of Traffic and Safety for the Utah Department of Transportation, said that auto-pedestrian accidents can happen under a variety of circumstances. However, he said if he had to characterize one thing, it would be a distraction.

“Really, it’s all sorts of distractions that happen out there,” he said. “It’s whether or not people are texting and driving or they’re eating a hamburger and driving or their thoughts are somewhere else. They’re not focused on operating that vehicle. All of those types of distractions feed into these concerns.”

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