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A Distrubing Trend


For 30 years, from 1980–2010, pedestrian fatalities declined. Experts debated the causes of the lower mortality rate: Americans were buying smaller cars which had less deadly impact; suburban sprawl meant more access to sidewalks and trails; fewer pedestrians overall. But beginning in 2010, pedestrian deaths began to increase, and have been steadily rising ever since, resulting in approximately 40,000 pedestrian fatalities in the last 8 years. In 2018, it is estimated that 6,227 pedestrian were killed, a 41% increase from 2017 and the highest level since 1990.

This stunning increase comes at a time when overall traffic deaths are decreasing. Furthermore, the rise in pedestrian fatalities is an American phenomenon; the U.S. pedestrian death rate is higher than that of other developed nations. What accounts for the reversal in the pedestrian death rate, and why is the United States a more dangerous place to go for a walk?


To determine what is behind the increase in pedestrian fatalities, it is helpful to look at when that increase started: 2010. Several important economic and societal milestones can be linked to that time period. First, the Great Recession was ongoing, which meant that more people were taking public transit and walking than before. Second, smart phone use was in full swing, and distracted driving and walking was causing more accidents and fatalities. As the economy began to recover from the recession and the United States became a producer of oil and gas (rather than relying on foreign imports), the price of gasoline decreased, more Americans bought larger vehicles such as SUVs and trucks. These vehicles cause more serious injury and death on impact with pedestrians. Impaired driving, due to alcohol and marijuana, was also a factor in the increase in pedestrian deaths.

What is often overlooked as a cause of pedestrian deaths, however, is the role that increased urbanization and poorly planned infrastructure plays in the rising toll. The pedestrian death rate is disproportionately high in low-income communities, and those communities are most likely to be in highly dense urban areas. These areas often lack sidewalks and adequate space in road lanes for people to access buses or to simply walk to and from areas in their communities. Some areas are experiencing increased vehicle traffic due to people using navigation apps which re-route them through arterial roads when highways are congested. These arterial roads are often in disrepair, with potholes, traffic lights out, or stop signs hidden by overgrown bushes or trees. People taking public transit in these neighborhoods might not have sidewalks to walk on, and might not be used to the increased traffic flow, or the speed at which these vehicles go through their streets.


In 2009, the United Nations released recommendations for auto safety standards designed to reduce pedestrian fatalities and injuries. The European Union introduced these new standards in 2010. Since their adoption by auto manufacturers in the EU and Japan, pedestrian fatalities have decreased in EU countries. These standards include designs like higher hoods, softer fenders, and external airbags—all measures to reduce the severity of impact. American manufacturers selling vehicles in the EU and Japan comply with these standards, meaning that American companies currently have the design capability to comply with these U.N. safety standards.

However, the U.S. has not adopted the safety standards, so vehicles made for the domestic market do not have these safety features . This explains part of the discrepancy between the pedestrian death rate of the U.S. and other developed nations. Many experts argue that not only would adoption of the U.N. safety standards save lives, but it would increase the marketability of U.S. vehicles abroad.


In 2018, the year with the highest number of pedestrian deaths since 1990, 5 states accounted for half of those deaths in the first half of the year: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas. If looked at closely, those states all have at least one major congested urban area: Phoenix; Los Angeles (or San Francisco); Miami, Atlanta, and Houston (or Dallas). Since the pedestrian death rate affects low-income communities disproportionately, and increased urbanization is a known cause of the increasing rate, it is not a big leap to assume that these cities are experiencing greater pedestrian accidents and fatalities.

Vision Zero is a project that started in Sweden in 1997, and sought to redefine the way that money is spent on public projects, in this case infrastructure. Instead of a cost-benefit analysis, Vision Zero’s guiding principle is that “life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society.” In its implementation in city settings, Vision Zero has tried to lower speed limits, separate pedestrians from traffic, add lighting and install medians. New York City and San Francisco adopted Vision Zero plans in 2014 that implemented speed reductions and traffic engineering projects. In New York City, pedestrian deaths decreased by 45% and in San Francisco by 41%. However, when Los Angeles implemented its Vision Zero plan beginning in 2015, overall traffic fatalities increased. Despite having one of the country’s highest pedestrian death rates, Phoenix has not adopted a Vision Zero plan and has in fact voted against implementation of any kind of Vision Zero project.

Atlanta does not have an official Vision Zero plan, but it does have a Safer Streets plan. Various advocacy groups have proposed adopting a formal Vision Zero plan, notably the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. Also notable is the fact that the job posting for Atlanta’s first Transportation Commissioner asks for experience implementing Vision Zero. Atlanta has long been a city friendly to pedestrians, joggers and bicyclists, and now they are all sharing the increasingly crowded roads and BeltLine with electric scooters. As fatalities mount, people are less willing to prioritize a fast commute over saving lives, and are demanding that money be allocated to traffic re-design and new infrastructure that envisions zero lives lost on public roads.


If you or someone you know has been injured in an accident with a motor vehicle, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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Thomas Law Firm
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