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Study: Speed, darkness, crosswalk misuse cause spike in pedestrian deaths

| Tuesday, May 8, 2018, 10:33 a.m.
Police block off an area of McKnight Road in Ross where a truck struck and fatally injured pedestrian Thomas M. Sullivan the morning of April 4, 2018.
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Police block off an area of McKnight Road in Ross where a truck struck and fatally injured pedestrian Thomas M. Sullivan the morning of April 4, 2018.

The last few years have become increasingly deadly for American pedestrians, mainly as a result of crashes along urban or suburban roads, outside of crosswalks and after dark, according to a study released Tuesday by an auto-safety group.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study analyzed data about crash conditions for pedestrian deaths nationwide, and found there had been a 29 percent increase in fatalities per 100 pedestrian-involved crashes during the period of 2009-2016. The fatality rate had dipped between 2009 to a low of 5.8 per 100 crashes in 2010, but had since risen to 7.5 deaths per 100 in 2015.

More than two-thirds of the fatal crashes happened in urban or suburban areas, away from intersections or in the dark, the study found, blaming faster travel along arterial roads, poor lighting and an increasing prevalence of high-riding SUVs and trucks whose design makes them deadlier for pedestrians in a crash.

"Pedestrians need to make safe decisions when crossing roads, but the study shows we can also make changes to roads, traffic safety policies and vehicles to lessen the risk when pedestrians make the wrong choices," said Russ Rader, IIHS's senior vice president for communications.

Fatal crashes along busy arterial roads increased 67 percent over the study period, and crashes after dark went up 56 percent, according to the study.

Thomas M. Sullivan, a former professional wrestler in the WWE under the name "Luscious Johnny Valiant," was trying to cross seven lanes of McKnight Road in Ross Township around 5:30 a.m. April 4 when he was struck by a pickup truck and killed. Police called his death "a terrible accident."

There was a 50 percent increase in fatal crashes outside of intersections during the study period; one recent local example would be the death of Jason C. Martin , who was struck and killed while walking in the northbound lane of Sandy Creek Road in Penn Hills in the early-morning hours of April 10. Police noted there were no sidewalks and poor lighting in the area.

Rader said transportation design policies that make roads safer and friendlier for pedestrians can encourage safer behavior on their part: adding sidewalks and decreasing space between crosswalks would make it less likely for pedestrians to try crossing in the middle of the block. Lower speed limits and better speed enforcement could lower the risk of crashes becoming fatal, the study said.

IIHS found that SUVs, pickups and vans were a growing portion of registered vehicles in the U.S. and also created a higher risk of death in crashes with pedestrians. Such vehicles typically have higher, more vertical front ends than smaller cars and sedans, making it more likely to injure a pedestrian in the chest or head if they're struck, Rader said.

IIHS also used the study to encourage more adoption of brighter headlights and crash-avoidance systems that can detect pedestrians or other obstacles and apply brakes automatically, lowering the risk of a fatality.

There was no state-level data to determine whether the national trends applied to crashes in Pennsylvania, and crash data for 2017 was still being compiled and would likely come out later this year, Rader said.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or on Twitter @msantoni.

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